Trump country farmers feel the heat as feds intensify immigration crackdown

Little Falls is a rural Minnesota city of approximately 8,600 people.
Little Falls is a rural Minnesota city of approximately 8,600 people about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities. The area is home to an agricultural community of dairy farms who rely on Hispanic immigrants for labor.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

The men were chopping silage on a farm field near Little Falls last fall when they noticed three vehicles, about 200 yards away, lurking and waiting.

The workers, about six of them, were supposed to drive on to their next task three miles away, but they worried the minute they got on the road they'd be stopped by the immigration enforcement officers they saw sitting in the cars.

"None of the guys wanted to leave the field, so they waited. They called me and I thought I better get out there," said their employer, a Morrison County farmer who asked to remain anonymous for fear his property would be further targeted. "Believe me, you've gotta work up some courage to jump in your pickup and drive toward three ICE vehicles."

The cars were gone by the time the farmer arrived, and none of the workers were arrested that day. But a message had been sent.

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Little Falls, Minn.
Little Falls, Minn.
William Lager | MPR News

Morrison County is Trump country, with the state's highest voter turnout for the president in 2016. It's also a place where local farmers rely on Hispanic immigrants for labor, and the president's national push to catch unauthorized workers is starting to bite. A rise in farm worker arrests and deportations the past few months has Little Falls on edge.

Concerns about the increased level of enforcement echo throughout this rural community of about 8,000 people, two hours north of the Twin Cities, where several residents, activists and farmers say Border Patrol trucks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been highly visible in the area since last fall.

It's not unusual for immigration authorities to raid larger operations and penalize employers for allegedly knowingly hiring unauthorized immigrants.

But longtime farmers in Morrison County say federal agents quietly arresting individual employees on their way to and from work, outside of the grocery store, and driving around town, is a new practice that's emerged in recent months.

At least seven from the Little Falls area have been picked up by immigration authorities, according to their employers.

'All God's people'

The arrests have created fear and anxiety throughout the community, prompted meetings with the sheriff and multiple "know your rights" presentations for Hispanic employees who may not be familiar with the constitutional protections they have in the United States.

Know your rights paperwork and cards were handed out by activists.
Know your rights paperwork: Activists handed paperwork and cards that explain residents' constitutional rights against speaking with immigration officers.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Two of the employees, brothers from Mexico, were stopped by immigration last fall while driving. One of them was deported, the other got away, another farmer in Morrison County said. The farmer said one man's paycheck was in the car, which he suspects helped authorities discover his farm. Since then, he said he's seen the unmistakable CBP vehicles driving around the farm a few times.

"These are valued employees. We get their IDs and everything. Do we know if they're legal or illegal? Well, we're going to say we're open on that," said the farmer, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. "We don't know that they are, we don't know that they aren't. But they are employees and they are the most hard working people that you can find."

According to a Morrison County incident report, another man was arrested in a similar manner by Morrison County deputies in March.

The 24-year-old Richmond, Minn., man was stopped for driving under the influence and taken to the county jail. The man gave deputies a Mexican identification card and told them it was fake but that his name was real, according to the report. The man had been stopped once before and cited for driving without a Minnesota driver's license or insurance last year, according to court records.

The Morrison County incident report sheds light on how the 24-year-old man ended up in immigration custody after the misdemeanor DUI offense.

Although sheriff's deputies stopped him, Little Falls police got involved and called U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agent Jeremy Poser to "ask if there's anything he would like us to do with this individual," according to the incident report. Poser spoke with the man "for a period of time" and asked whether deputies "had enough to detain" him until he picked him up the next morning.

The Morrison County Attorney's Office declined to file charges against the man because Border Patrol had begun deportation proceedings.

Some county residents have pressured Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen to stop cooperating with immigration authorities after they expressed concern that agent Poser is often called by local police as a Spanish translator. They've held meetings with him and plan to hold another in mid-July.

"I think there is room for everybody, whether you're documented or undocumented," said Greg Spofford of Little Falls, who's facilitated some of the meetings. "We're all God's people and I come from a faith perspective. We all deserve to have a part of the seven Catholic tenets is an opportunity work, have meaningful work. We're not taking any jobs away from anybody."

Dust fills the air on rural gravel road outside of Little Falls, Minn.
Dust fills the air on a rural gravel road outside of Little Falls, Minn.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Larsen said he understands the concerns, but that he's unwilling to create a policy that would require deputies to never call CBP or ICE.

"We don't seek out illegal immigrants but if there is an assault or a crime being committed, then I need to be aware of it," Larsen said. "We don't say we want this person deported."

Larsen said he would ask immigration to step in and help identify folks in violent crime situations, however, he said the only incidents that have led to immigration detaining people have stemmed from traffic stops.

MPR News has requested additional records on traffic stops and ICE detainer requests. Morrison County records personnel have not responded to the traffic stops request, and say they are unable to provide the total number of ICE detainers the county jail has received since last fall. They say the only way to gather detainers is by sorting through individual inmate files.

Meanwhile, Larsen acknowledges that this part of Minnesota had the highest voter turnout for Donald Trump in 2016 with nearly 74 percent of Morrison County residents, including farmers, voting for the president, indicating support for his strict immigration policies.

Kathy Festler has lived in Little Falls since 1973 and voted for Trump in 2016. "I think he wants to do the right thing for immigrants," she said.

"We just can't let everybody in," she said. "No country can do that."

Last week, a Little Falls man from Mexico said he noticed the white truck with the green stripe plastered with "Border Patrol" circling around the parking lot at his job. Other employees at a nearby business also said they've seen the truck in recent days and weeks.

The man, who spoke on the condition MPR News would protect his identity, said he was taking out the garbage when one immigration officer approached him to ask for documents. The man handed the officer a permanent resident card, also known as green card. Despite his likelihood of obtaining citizenship in the future, the man was still fearful that he'd be harassed again.

Border Patrol

The presence of Border Patrol vehicles in Little Falls has raised questions about the division's authority over the town that sits more than 200 miles from the U.S.-Canada border. But Little Falls falls within the CBP Grand Forks sector, which includes eight states and has 203 agents sprinkled throughout.

Maria Elena Gutierrez gives a "Know your Rights" presentation.
Maria Elena Gutierrez gives a "Know your Rights" presentation at a dairy farm after learning about concerns of deportation.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Poser is one of those agents, who previously worked in Arizona and is now stationed in International Falls. He declined to comment about concerns regarding CBP enforcement efforts in Little Falls and referred questions to the public affairs office.

A CBP spokesperson said for decades, the Border Patrol has had broad discretion to conduct enforcement actions away from the immediate border to prevent trafficking, smuggling and other criminal organizations.

"It is the policy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to prohibit the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances," CBP Public Affairs Officer Kris Grogan said in a statement. "Additionally a U.S. Border Patrol Agent may make an investigatory stop if they have reasonable suspicion of illegal presence based on specific, articulable facts unless the investigatory stop occurs at a U.S. port of entry or the U.S. border where reasonable suspicion is not required."

But the Immigration and Nationality Act states that agents are free to search suspected immigration violators without a warrant "within a reasonable distance" from the border. The law defines reasonable as 100 air miles from the border.

That's why some Morrison County residents are alarmed that CBP is cooperating with local law enforcement, more than 200 miles from Canada, to detain and deport unauthorized immigrants living in the heart of the community.

"It's like letting the fox guard the chicken coop," said another dairy farmer, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely about his experience.

One Sunday morning in May, one of his employees was speeding on the way to church when he got picked up by immigration authorities. The farmer said he quickly drove the 100 miles to ICE regional headquarters at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities to pay $7,500 to bail out his employee. That employee now awaits a court hearing.