America today exists in a state of anxiety over the threat of immigration raids

Art Cullen
Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

The shoe drops, and everything falls quiet. Seven hundred workers were rounded up at poultry packinghouses in Mississippi last week, and fear shuddered through immigrants across America. Nobody is talking. Not Ice. Not the meatpackers or their trade groups. Not the people in Storm Lake, Iowa, where 3,000 people work at Tyson pork and turkey slaughter plants – most of them from Latin America.

Legally in the US or not, everyone waits for the other shoe to drop.

That’s America today, from Mississippi to Iowa in rural communities living off food processing wages. We exist in a state of anxiety.

The raids reminded us, in this north-west Iowa town of about 15,000, of when the federales raided the pork plant in 1996, then run by IBP. Asians and Mexicans alike were penned up in the afternoon sun like hogs awaiting slaughter, their hands in plastic cuffs. The next morning, Julio Barrosso, the teacher’s pet, was gone from the second-grade classroom. Nobody heard a word of where he went or why. He was just gone, until my reporter son, Tom, caught up with him just about a year ago, 31 years old and feeding his family by working in a chicken slaughterhouse in Guadalajara, Mexico. He wanted to be somebody in the United States, a cop or a teacher. He dreams of returning to Storm Lake.

A school superintendent in Mississippi replayed the scene for the television interview: trying to find out where those boys and girls were after the surprising arrival of troops in search of the undocumented, to let them know that school was a safe harbor, that they had nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, they have everything to fear.

Related: Crying children and broken families: huge raids break immigrant communities

Fear of returning to the violence of Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador – or Jalisco, where the New Generation Cartel in Guadalajara is vying with the government for control. Fear of leaving the security of Storm Lake, a pretty little place where the police do not arrest brown people just for being here. Even those with papers are nervous. They heard about the citizen hung up in Texas detention trying to prove he was legitimate. When the presidential candidates show up, only the boldest Latinos come out over concern they might be seen or hassled. Julian Castro said he heard about that all the time.

The police say that the eyes and ears of immigrants at their service have faded into the shadows since Donald Trump took office. The constant threats of raids have their cumulative effect. If the object is fear, it is working, actually making communities less secure, which in turn builds more fear.

After the raid in 1996, the meatpacking industry went on the E-Verify system that checks identity numbers against a federal database. Tyson is on the E-Verify system, so we would assume their employees to be safe. Yet the companies in Mississippi were using E-Verify and got raided. Dairy operators think they are using E-Verify until they find out the hard way that their help is illegal. So if you are in a meatpacking town, it makes you wonder. The meat industry hasn’t been targeted lately. Ice says this raid was in the works for a year. You hear about the vegetable grower in Nebraska or the cement company in Iowa, but not JBS or Tyson or Smithfield, the big packers. Tyson insists that its workforce is entirely documented. Without them, the hogs do not get slaughtered. Good help is almost impossible to get in rural places these days – that’s all you hear from the construction contractors. Tyson offers a $2,000 signing bonus and still goes wanting for help.

Life goes on. You go to work and register for school until that day arrives, as it did last week in Mississippi. And then everyone just disappears as if they never were here, like Julio.

And a few who can afford to do so have started to stand up. They approach the candidates – especially the Dreamers do – pressing for relief. Mothers sob in the arms of candidates. A Dreamer from the tiny town of Belmond, Iowa, long home to Latinos who work in egg processing, sought solace on Friday from Kamala Harris during a campaign stop at La Juanita’s, a Mexican restaurant in Storm Lake. They all promise relief, which cannot come soon enough, just so they can go to college and work to support their families in Storm Lake.

A few weeks ago a crowd of about 75, mainly Latino, showed up at a city park to hold a vigil over immigrant detention. They vowed to get organized and vote. “Trump gives us a rare opportunity,” said the former city councilwoman Sarah Huddleston, a Mexican immigrant who became a citizen. “It’ll be interesting to see whether this translates into more Latino voters, more Latinos running for local office. A president like Trump only prompts the rest of us to rise up.”

A few, anyhow. The others wait.

  • Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. He is author of the book: Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper (Viking, 2018).