A town divided talks about the immigration raid that tore it apart

Catalina Rodriguez Perez
Catalina Rodriguez Perez is a Swift worker held in jail for almost six days before being reunited with her year-old son.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Rows of tables filled with toys lined one wall of an elementary school gym in Worthington as the crowd arrived. The toys were handed out to the children attending the meeting. The gesture was meant to cheer those whose lives have been forever changed by the federal raid.

"They have taken my husband away and I am left alone with my two children," said Hilda Mazariegos. "Just like a lot of families have been left behind the same way. What I ask the most, is that there would be avenues of how we can resolve this problem so my children can be with their father again and have a family reunited."

One bright spot, she says
Priscilla Garcia, 23, a student, says it's easier now to rent an apartment in Worthington post-raid than pre-raid.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Some 230 workers were hauled away in buses from the Worthington plant in last month's raid. About 20 face criminal charges related to identity theft. The rest were hit with civil charges of being in the country illegally.

Most of the people in that group choose voluntary deportation, the rest are being held at a federal prison in Atlanta awaiting immigration court hearings.

Catalina Rodriguez Perez was jailed for nearly six days. During that time a friend cared for her year-old son. She cried as she told the crowd to remember those still being held.

"Right now I feel like I am in a glassful of water with nowhere else to go," said Rodriguez Perez. "I feel that I have no place to turn and I have no avenues of getting ahead with my life."

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Her husband's in jail
Hilda Mazariegos' husband was arrested and is still being held. They have two children.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Many in the crowd clapped or nodded approval as she spoke. One audience member said the immigration raids made him feel like a criminal. Others asked why federal officials targeted people who work hard at a difficult job to earn money to raise a family. Others spoke of a town divided.

Not everyone in Worthington shared the sentiments of the crowd gathered in the elementary school gym.

Ronnie Noerenberg wrote a letter to the local newspaper. He's worked at the Swift plant for more than 20 years. He says it's true the raid hurt families, but he says anyone who crosses into the U.S. illegally is taking a huge risk.

Supports the raid
Ronnie Noerenberg, who works at Swift, says the immigration raid was needed. He says anyone illegally in the U.S. is knowingly putting their family in jeopardy. He also blames Swift, saying the company has exploited illegal immigrants for years.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"They blatantly and they knowingly put their families in jeopardy by doing what they're doing," said Noerenberg. "And now we're supposed to feel sorry for them. In a way I feel sorry for the kids, but for the parents I can't feel sorry for them. They know what they're doing."

Noerenberg also blames Swift management for the immigration raid. He says the company has exploited illegal immigrants for years. Noerenberg says hundreds of new workers have been hired at the plant since the raid. He says he believes the Worthington plant is almost back to full production.

Swift officials last week said production is still below normal. They said the company will lose almost $30 million in the federal raid, but they expect to fully recover by the end of May.

The city of Worthington is also recovering.

Full house in Worthington
About 300 people turned out at the Prairie High School gymnasium, to talk about the immigration raids at the local Swift plant.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

One of those at Sunday's event was a 23-year-old student, Priscilla Garcia. She says she's observed one small economic indicator she traces to the post-raid fallout.

"This summer I, myself, was looking for an apartment. I could not find anything, anywhere," says Garcia. "Now, I got plenty to choose from. I can be picky."

The organizers of the Worthington event plan to hold another meeting in February. One issue they want to push is immigration reform. Most of the audience raised their hand when asked if they would return for the scheduled meeting next month.