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Communities Divided after Meat Plant Immigration Raids

December 18, 2006 at 6:25 PM EST
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: On Friday night, several hundred people turned out for a special mass at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in Greeley, Colorado.

REV. BERNIE SCHMITZ, Our Lady of Peace Church: I never expected the 12th of December to change my life and the life of our parish and our community in the way that it has.

TOM BEARDEN: They gathered for mutual support in the wake of last Tuesday’s raid on the Swift and Company meatpacking plant in Greeley, a town of 90,000, about an hour’s drive north of Denver.

Federal agents from ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, arrested 261 people; 28 are being investigated for alleged identity theft. It was one of six such raids in six states, which netted a total of more than 1,200 people.

Many of the people arrested in Greeley were quickly taken to undisclosed detention centers. Some were flown out of the state, and some were immediately deported.

Father Bernie Schmidtz told the congregation he was deeply disturbed by the raid, which took place on the same day as the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day particularly significant to Hispanic Catholics.

REV. BERNIE SCHMITZ: I was crying for Greeley, for the community here, not just here, but the community of Greeley that I’ve come to love.

TOM BEARDEN: Father Schmidtz said this is a trying time for the families of those arrested, because many don’t know where their relatives are.

REV. BERNIE SCHMITZ: There are families that are hurting, in some cases, because they can’t get information. They don’t know where people are at. They’re unsure what they’re going to do, and fear, and, “What am I going to do next, and how am I going to pay my bills?”

The immigrant community reacts

An undocumented worker
The last thing I've known of him -- and I haven't been able to talk to him -- is that they transferred him from Denver to Houston, because, in reality, I haven't been able to speak with him. I don't know anything about him, since he hasn't called.

TOM BEARDEN: This woman from Guatemala is one of the parishioners. She asked us not to use her name. She and her husband have lived in Greeley illegally for seven years and have a 5-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen by birth. Her husband was detained in the raid.

Do you know where your husband is?

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT (through translator): The last thing I've known of him -- and I haven't been able to talk to him -- is that they transferred him from Denver to Houston, because, in reality, I haven't been able to speak with him. I don't know anything about him, since he hasn't called.

TOM BEARDEN: What does your son think about all of this?

UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT (through translator): These days, he's been crying and asking about his father, because he always got home around 4:30, 5:00 in the evening. Whenever he would come home, my son would always be with him.

TOM BEARDEN: On 1310 KFKA talk radio, "Mary" wasn't very sympathetic.

RADIO HOST: Are you angry at those people who came in illegally?

"MARY," Radio Caller: I am, because they're taking our rights as old Chicanos. We have rights here, because our past people went to the Army, and we pay taxes. They don't.

RADIO HOST: So you support what ICE is doing right now?

"MARY": Yes, I do. I honestly do, because it's just right. It's just right that we shouldn't be paying all these taxes, and everything going up because of them.

I mean, it's like they don't care. They get everything free. They're given everything free. They have better cars than we do. They have better housing. They have all the schools. They're over at the schools. They're taking over.

TOM BEARDEN: "Carlos" disagreed.

"CARLOS," Radio Caller: I've been here for a long time. I'm legal. I'm from Mexico. And I'm feeling offended because of what ICE is doing at the packing plant. I don't think that's right; there should be another way to do that.

Mayor says community reaction mixed

Mayor Tom Selders
Greeley, Colo.
You know, there's a lot of people saying, "Oh, it's wonderful that the ICE was in here and did this, and we've got to get these illegal people out of here."

TOM BEARDEN: The raid put a public face on a fact that has long been well-known locally: There are a lot of illegal immigrants in Greeley who live mostly on the east side of town. A Denver think-tank estimated that there are nearly 12,000 such people in the county, about 5 percent of the total workforce.

That influx is changing the culture of the town. This once decidedly Caucasian agricultural community has seen a lot of new Hispanic businesses spring up, a lot of new signs in Spanish. That includes the downtown city hall, where the mayor's office is also the alcalde's office.

MAYOR TOM SELDERS, Greeley, Colorado: I would say this is not different from my father-in-law, who grew up in north Denver in a Russian community, and there were signs in Russian where he grew up as a child.

TOM BEARDEN: Mayor Tom Selders says general reaction to the raid was pretty evenly divided, although supporters of the raid were more vocal.

MAYOR TOM SELDERS: You know, there's a lot of people saying, "Oh, it's wonderful that the ICE was in here and did this, and we've got to get these illegal people out of here." I hear a lot of that, and that's probably the strongest voice I'm hearing right now is the people that say, "Boy, it's about time. Let's get them out of here."

But, on the other side of the spectrum are the folks that are saying, "Gee, are we treating everybody humanely? Did this need to occur just before Christmas? Did it need to happen on a day that happens to be a religious holiday with the Catholic folks and the people of a lot of this culture?"

Councilman supports raid

Ken Crumb
Former City Councilman
I think the message needs to go out to corporate America and to ma-and-pop employers that the public is not supportive of -- and perhaps is going to take action through the political process to stop illegal immigration.

KEN CRUMB, Former City Councilman: I do think the raid was a good idea.

TOM BEARDEN: Ken Crumb is a former city councilman.

KEN CRUMB: I think the message needs to go out to corporate America and to ma-and-pop employers that the public is not supportive of -- and perhaps is going to take action through the political process to stop illegal immigration. And I think, as these high-profile raids take place, that that starts sending the message to corporate America.

TOM BEARDEN: Crumb says illegal immigrants have nearly overwhelmed the city's emergency rooms, which he says they resort to because they lack health insurance. He says school test scores have declined because of an influx of poorly educated Spanish-speaking students. And Crumb says real estate values have declined because of white flight to more prosperous nearby towns.

KEN CRUMB: Our crime rate is significantly higher than it should be for a community of our size. It just shouldn't be. And a lot of it's gang-related, and a lot of it's related to the illegal population.

Mayor calls for compromise

Mayor Tom Selders
Greeley, Colo.
I wish that we could come together in a better way -- and we're working on that -- and making folks on both sides of the issue realize that, you know, the other folks may have a point and saying, "Why don't you put yourself in their shoes?"

TOM BEARDEN: Crumb acknowledges the role that the undocumented workers play in the local economy and says he supports legal immigration to fill jobs.

Mayor Selders also wants to see new federal policies that would allow people to come here and work legally. In the meantime, he's calling for understanding.

MAYOR TOM SELDERS: So I wish that we could come together in a better way -- and we're working on that -- and making folks on both sides of the issue realize that, you know, the other folks may have a point and saying, "Why don't you put yourself in their shoes?"

Those who were calling for, "Let's put them all on a bus and send them back," put yourself in their shoes. On the other side of the coin, the folks who are here illegally, if they've broken laws, if they've stolen someone's identity, that's breaking our law, and we need to deal with it.

TOM BEARDEN: The Swift and Company plant is back in operation and is seeking to fill the jobs left vacant by the arrested workers, offering $1,500 signing bonuses.

Members of the undocumented community say immigration agents are still knocking on doors, questioning those left behind, people still trying to find out where their relatives have been taken.