In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest workplace raid in the nation’s history, sweeping meat packing plants across six states—including one in Grand Island. Nearly 1,300 people were arrested in all.
After a nearly year-long investigation into social security fraud at Swift & Company, federal immigration agents raided six of the company’s meat processing plants in the same day. In Grand Island, they arrested more than 250 people, bussing them to Iowa where they were detained and in some cases, deported. In a press conference the following day, then-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary Julie Myers said the nation has a long history of illegal employment, made more problematic by the use of fraudulent documents by illegal aliens.
Seven years later, Yolanda Nuncio described a cloud cast over the city that December day.
“I don’t think you’ll ever get over that feeling in this community that day because you could see the helicopters, you were hearing stories, you saw the law enforcement, and by then people know what was going on and people were fearful,” Nuncio said.
A former educator, Nuncio now works with the immigration program at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Grand Island and is chair of the Nebraska Latino American Commission. Nuncio said in the days after the raid, parts of the city looked completely deserted—houses with the doors closed, curtains drawn, no children playing outside. People worried about immigration officials—“la migra”—going door to door.
“Businesses were suffering because they had no one coming in to buy things. People were afraid. And then the rumors were flying around—the migra’s here, they’re coming, they’re going to go to your houses and the restaurants. So people stayed home, where they felt they were a little safer,” Nuncio said.
Carlos Bárcenas came to Grand Island from Mexico in 1994 to work as a pastor. He’s worked with many families affected by the raid, and recalled one in particular who remain separated now after the father was deported years ago.
“I remember a kid who told me, ‘It’s not my fault. Why did they take my father?’ It’s hard for them. Until now they can’t recuperate. The husband is there, the family is broken,” Bárcenas said.
Swift & Company, now owned by JBS, didn’t return a call for this story. Thanks to a coordinated effort from the Grand Island school district, family and community groups, immigrant children—most of whom were U.S. citizens—were taken care of during the raid’s turbulent aftermath. But according to a report by the National Council of La Raza and the Urban Institute, some immigrants left the country without getting to contact a lawyer or even their families.
Darcy Tromanhauser, director of the Immigrants and Communities Program for Nebraska Appleseed, called it an “Alice in Wonderland” situation, “where you have someone who is part of the community and a family and an employee, but people have to live with the uncertainty that one day they might disappear, so you lose your husband or wife or mom or dad,” Tromanhauser said.
In the past couple years, a little more than one percent of the total removals per year have come from Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota and Minnesota. According to ICE, nearly 80 percent of the individuals deported from that area so far this year have had prior criminal convictions.
According to 2011 estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center, there are some 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. About two-thirds of them comprise about 5 percent of the total U.S. work force—even though it’s illegal for an employer to knowingly hire an unauthorized resident.
After the creation of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in 2003, the number of worksite arrests increased more than tenfold during the next five years. But in 2009, policy changed, along with the administration, Tromanhauser said.
“Deportations happen in a different way now, so it’s not the single day, large worksite enforcement. But deportations are at an all-time high under this administration,” Tromanhauser said.
According to ICE's removal statistics, in 2012, the agency removed 409,849 individuals. 96 percent of these removals fell into one of ICE's enforcement priorities, a record high.
Overall deportations have risen steadily in the past decade, up to more than 400,000 last year. According to ICE, the agency changed their worksite immigration enforcement strategy in 2009, moving away from large-scale arrests of employees and instead focusing on the employers. Those methods include increasing audits of employers’ records, fines, and immigration verification programs like E-Verify. A new nationwide program called Secure Communities checks the fingerprints of those arrested against national immigration and criminal databases.
ICE declined to do a recorded interview, but in an email said it’s focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes serious criminal aliens, immigration fugitives or those who have been deported previously, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately.
Steve Lamken has been Grand Island Police Chief since 2005. NET News sat down with him to talk about 2006 ICE raid in Grand Island.
On the role of the Grand Island Police Department in the ICE raid of the Swift plant in 2006:
STEVE LAMKEN: ICE contacted us and said they were going to do an immigration sweep at Swift. But they didn’t ask us to participate inside the plant. We did communicate with the community about what was going on, and we had some people stationed in the immediate area in case there were other problems. But the police department role was not that significant. I’m sure it had a greater impact on our public schools and social service agencies. We have to police the entire community, and whether you’re legal or illegal, if you’re living in our community you’re a citizen of Grand Island. We have enough problems with crime and fear of crime in our community--as a police department, we don’t need people being fearful of the police as well. It’s not state law and it’s not local criminal law, and we don’t enforce federal laws.
On the Grand Island Police Department role in immigration enforcement since 2006:
LAMKEN: If we receive a request from ICE, or Department of Homeland Security for one of their criminal warrants, we assist. If we arrest someone on serious criminal charges and find out they’re not in the country legally, we contact Homeland Security, because we don’t want criminals in our community. Police do not check immigration status (that's handled by the Corrections Departments) but we do require people to have identification. Our policy has never wavered from that long before I was police chief. If we cannot identify who the operator of the vehicle is, we will lodge them in jail. Then they’re identified, photographed, fingerprinted.
On demographic changes, and interactions between different groups in Grand Island since 2006:
LAMKEN: I’m sure we still have a population of people who are not documented. We have seen other groups of immigrants, refugees or those who are here legally, come to our community for employment at Swift. Those groups again change the cultural diversity of our community. So does it make an impact, and there’s always cultural clashes between groups. But does it create additional or specific crimes? It’s hard to say. I think in any immigration group, a large number just want to make a living and better themselves, but there are always people who come who create problems, also.
Immigration remains a contentious issue in Nebraska. In June, the Eight Circuit court upheld an ordinance passed in Fremont that prohibits hiring or renting to undocumented immigrants. The ordinance states the presence of “illegal aliens” costs the city money and services, displaces U.S. workers and adversely affects their wages, and crimes they commit harm legal U.S. citizens.
Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken said the influx of new groups into the community can lead to cultural clashes. “But does it specifically create additional crimes or specific crimes? It’s hard to say,” Lamken said. “I think in any immigration group a large number of them just want to make a living and better themselves, but there are also people who come who create problems.”
Nebraska is only one of two states in the country that is blocking immigrant children granted temporary status under the Obama administration from getting their driver’s license—and is facing a related lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Tromanhauser pointed to the contributions immigrants make to Nebraska communities, particularly those that are rural and aging.
“There’s a need for the next generation of the plumber, the handyman, the teacher. We’ve had a long immigrant history in Nebraska and this is just the next chapter,” Tromanhauser said.
And since 2006, the meat packing industry has drawn increasing numbers of diverse groups, including refugees from many different parts of the world, to Grand Island to work.
Meanwhile, larger immigration policy shifts are being debated in Congress. Tromanhauser said this is the best opportunity in years to update an antiquated, dysfunctional system. The Senate passed an immigration reform bill in June—with Nebraska’s Senators Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer voting against it—and the House is now working on its own version.
Pastor Carlos Bárcenas said while the 2006 raid caused tremendous fear and isolation in the Latino community, ultimately it strengthened the larger Grand Island community as people of all backgrounds pulled together to help.
“In Mexico, they have a phrase, at a time of suffering, you know who is really your friends. And that time there was a lot of suffering... but now they are a strong community,” Bárcenas said.