Fear from Swift plant raid resonates in Greeley six years later
GREELEY'S IMMIGRATION STING | Six years later
By Nancy Lofholm - The Denver Post
Santos Gervacio Vicente-Vicente grows agitated and the words tumble out in increasingly rapid Spanish as he recalls the morning of Dec. 12, 2006.
"I still have fear," he says. "When I remember, it makes me very nervous. I was treated like an animal."
Vicente-Vicente is one of 273 workers arrested that Tuesday in Greeley in the largest immigration raid in U.S. history and one of those continuing to deal with the fallout six years later.
Entire towns and thousands of residents both citizens and undocumented immigrants were affected when federal agents went to the headquarters of Swift & Co. on the north end of Greeley and five other company meatpacking plants in Texas, Utah, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. The raid swept up 1,297 undocumented workers.
In Greeley, homes in Latino neighborhoods were seemingly abandoned as residents fled or hid in fear some not leaving basements or closets for weeks. As many as half the desks in nearby schools sat empty because of rumors that the government would round up children next.
More than 200 children came home that day to find one or more parents gone.
Vicente-Vicente's pregnant wife and four children wouldn't know where he was for two weeks, when he finally was able to call them from a federal detention center in Texas. He was held there for three months and then returned to the detention center in Aurora, where he posted bond.
He has returned to Greeley and is seeking asylum.
The simultaneous workplace raids by 1,000 federal agents called Operation Wagon Train followed a 10-month investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into the use of fraudulent Social Security numbers.
ICE did not comment for this story.
At the time of the raid, then- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the crackdown eight months after 1,187 illegal workers were arrested at pallet-making plants intended to protect citizens from identity theft but also to force companies into compliance with immigration law.
"When businesses are built upon systematic violation of the law or others go to systematically violate the law in order to either bring in illegal migrants or to allow them to find jobs, that is a problem that we have to attack," he said.
Some of the Greeley workers had allegedly purchased or stolen names and Social Security numbers to get jobs with Swift. The company denied knowledge.
Some residents in the conservative farming and college town applauded the raid as a necessary measure to help stop illegal immigration.
Others recall that day in terms akin to an epic storm or a catastrophic accident hitting the behemoth complex of the city's largest employer.
"It's hard to overexaggerate the impact it had," said Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I think immigrants came to feel like it is open season on them in Greeley."
The raid began behind locked doors and gates at the plant at 7 a.m. Swarms of black-uniformed ICE agents poured into the plant and rounded up workers who froze in fear on the killing and processing floors or tried to hide behind beef carcasses.
The agents were heavily armed going into a plant filled with meat-cutting knives, saws and other potential weapons.
Agents quickly handcuffed and shackled workers.
Vicente-Vicente said there was much yelling, pushing and kicking as agents herded the workers onto buses with whited-out windows. He said he didn't understand the commands they were shouting in English. The agents wouldn't tell the workers where they were taking them.
Word of the raid spread quickly through the heavily Latino neighborhoods near the plant, and the buses filled with arrested workers rolled past hundreds of crying and shouting family members. Some waved quickly scrawled signs.
Rev. Bernie Schmitz, then pastor of Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, had just finished early Mass and was beginning to set up for a busy daylong Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.
A phone call from a frantic parishioner sent him rushing to the plant instead.
There Schmitz knelt in the frozen strip of grass between the fence and the road and began to pray. Several dozen relatives of plant workers joined him as the family-splitting chaos swirled around them.
In the days and months that followed, his church became the center of disaster relief for Greeley. About $200,000 was raised to help the victims. At least $60,000 of that came from Swift.
Al Frente de Lucha, a Latino-focused community organization a few blocks from the church, became a makeshift warehouse where affected families could get diapers, infant formula and groceries.
Social workers and mental- health professionals stepped in to provide other help.
"These people came here. They were working hard in miserable conditions. They weren't dealing drugs. They weren't criminals," said then-Mayor Tom Selders, who was critical of the way the raid was handled.
Selders lost his bid for a second term in 2007, he said, because his stance was not popular in Greeley, where nearly half of residents responding to a survey that year said the raid had been a good thing.
Fear drove many immigrant families deep into the shadows, so there is no way to track or measure what the lasting impact has been on families of arrested workers if they were reunited, if deportees stayed in their home countries or sneaked back across the border, how many still hide.
Many of the arrested workers were deported within 48 hours of the raid. But more than half a dozen cases for workers, including Vicente-Vicente, who opted to fight deportation are still dragging through the courts.
Vicente-Vicente's family still suffers, he said.
Family of Christ minister Jenn Soule-Hill said she still sees trauma in the 10 raid-affected families her church continues to aid. They have not been able to recuperate because their lives have been hemmed in by fear or costly legal battles.
"They come here for food and support, and any time they hear a siren or see a flash of light they are in fear," she said. "They think their children are going to be taken away from them."
The impact of the Swift raid was exacerbated two years later, when officers raided a tax- preparation business and seized 4,900 confidential tax returns in an attempt to ferret out those using fraudulent Social Security numbers.
The Colorado Supreme Court eventually ruled that the October 2008 raid on Amalia's Translation and Tax Services led by Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck was unconstitutional.
More Spanish-speaking families packed up and left.
Swift was not criminally penalized in connection with the raid a fact that Buck still criticizes but agreed to change its hiring practices.
The company, sold in 2007 to South American meat-processing giant JBS, hired a consulting firm to help direct hiring and weed out potentially illegal employees after the raid. Somalis and Burmese and other political refugees from East African countries now slaughter and process beef there for wages that were bumped up immediately after the raid.
JBS did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Some attitudes change
Some of the problems that led to the raid also have not changed.
Comprehensive national immigration reform that conceivably could include a guest-worker program and would negate the need for such drastic enforcement raids is still not in sight. There is not yet a foolproof worker-verification system.
But some attitude shifts have taken place. Administrative changes have ICE agents focusing more on removing serious criminals from the country and placing a low priority on undocumented immigrants who aren't criminals. There is more emphasis on keeping families together when possible.
In Colorado, a compact spearheaded by Sen. Michael Bennet and backed by an impressive bipartisan list of who's whos in the state outlines tolerant and humane treatment of immigrants.
"With today's politics, I don't think this kind of raid could happen again," said Buck, who favored the raid as a way to cut down on identification theft but now acknowledges the social damage it did.
Part of that damage involves what some say is a deeper divide in a town where, until the mid-1960s, covenants restricted where Latinos could live. The predominantly Muslim workers from Somalia are more bothersome to some residents than were the Spanish-speaking workers driven out by the raid.
"The way people have dealt with this is to not talk about it," said Priscilla Falcσn, a professor of Latino studies at the University of Northern Colorado. "The issue is still pretty raw. It's still an open wound. We live in a divided community."
A dinner was held last week in honor of Earnesto Xocoy, a Guatemalan worker who was one of those snagged in the raid. He had been fighting deportation and seeking asylum based on his fear of the dangerous drug culture in his home country. But a judge ruled against him in December and ordered him out of the U.S. He boarded a plane Jan. 8.
His farewell dinner was held at Al Frente, where a colorful mural on the front of the building depicts brown-faced workers standing up against oppression. One figure in the painting holds a sign saying, "Defend the Rights Now of Undocumented Workers."
Jim Salvatore, a Lafayette immigration lawyer who had at least 30 clients arrested in the Swift raid, said he has at least four clients still trying to avoid deportation.
There are others who haven't given up trying to close divides between immigrants and native-born residents in Greeley...