Worthington still smarting one year after Swift raid

Swift workers to bus
Handcuffed Swift employees are lead to a federal bus on December 12, 2006
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

In the early morning hours of December 12, 2006, agents of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, launched the largest one day police action ever against a U.S. company. They arrested nearly 1,300 Swift employees in six states. On that chilly, overcast day one year ago, one Swift employee watched federal buses roll into the company's parking lot in Worthington. Even though he was a legal immigrant, he was unwilling to give his name.

Pedro Lira
Pedro Lira has worked at the Swift meatpacking plant in Worthington for 18 years.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"If they hear my name you know, somebody that works at Swift hears my name I don't know if they're going to use that against me. So I'd just rather not use my name, just for precaution," said the worker. That sort of fear may be the most significant legacy of the immigration raid. In the weeks following the raid some immigrants in Worthington were afraid to leave their homes, fearing arrest. The remnants of that sort of apprehension still circulate a year later. Pedro Lira of Worthington works at Swift, he's a union official. He says the immigration raid made people suspicious of each other. Legal or illegal, many still worry that someone they know might provide information about them to law enforcement.

"Right now we're still living in the past," says Lira. "We just try to rebuild this community because still not trust at all."

Lira was at a celebration this past Sunday at a Catholic Church in Worthington. The mostly Latino crowd held an early celebration of the Our Lady of Guadalupe feast-day. The important religious holiday is forever linked to the immigration raid since they both occurred on the same day, December 12. The gathering last Sunday in Worthington was part religious celebration, part painful memory. Some people cried when they talked about the immigration raid. To brighten the mood, the church brought in a mariachi band.

Despite the spirited music, the past looms. In the hours after the raid Pedro Lira remembers he helped find housing for children whose parents had been arrested. When he finally got home, he was grateful his family was still intact.

"We're still living in the past."

"I had a chance to give a hug to my wife and my kids, thinking of other families," says Lira. "I was sad."

The impact of the raid is still felt inside the Swift plant. Melina Martinez says although the company got new owners last summer, Swift managers still struggle to replace the lost employees. That means more work for veteran employees like herself. She says there are still many illegal immigrants working at the plant. She says she's even heard that some of the deported workers have returned, although not to Swift.

"Some of them come back, and they don't work there because they're not allowed to work there," says Martinez. "But they finding another place to work."

Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, say they continue to monitor the Swift plants. ICE conducted a second raid last summer, arresting 20 current or former Swift employees. Despite the raids, ICE's Tim Counts says he would not be surprised if illegal immigrants still work at Swift. He believes though it's more difficult for them to get hired by Swift managers.

"We do know from reports that they have made themselves and also from our investigation that they have radically overhauled their hiring process," says Counts.

Melina Martinez
Melina Martinez says some of her friends were deported following the 2006 immigration raid.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

He will not say exactly what Swift has done, and the company refused an interview request.

Latinos in Worthington are not the only ones unhappy with the ICE raid and its aftermath. Ruthie Hendrycks heads a group called Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform. The group advocates strict enforcement of immigration laws. Hendrycks says there should be more raids like the Swift action.

"We were hopeful that this process would continue. Now in retrospect, I'm not so sure if it was more for show," says Hendrycks.

Hendrycks says companies hiring illegal immigrants should be prosecuted.

Many Latinos in Worthington take the opposite position. They say the Swift raids are symbolic of a broken immigration system. They say instead of solutions, the system only generates bad feelings, on all sides of the issue.