It was El Dia de Guadalupe, a day for feasts and celebration for millions of Catholics—and a reminder that even the lowliest peasant can be an instrument for the greatest of miracles.
But now, among many in Cache County, Dec. 12 is a day associated with horror and heartbreak.
It is el día que esta esperanza se murió.
The day that hope died.
“It’s like a local Sept. 11,” says Norma Martinez, director of the Multicultural Center of Cache County, which served as a community crisis center of sorts on that day five years ago, when scores of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept into northern Utah and spirited away 154 workers from the E.A. Miller meatpacking plant in Hyrum. “You remember where you were, where you were sitting, what you were doing—and you’ll never forget.”
Perhaps that’s because the raid never really ended. Sure, the black-jacketed federal agents came and went, but their impact is still being felt in this community. Five years later, the raids still induce overwhelming emotional reactions. Grown men shake in fear. Women break down in tears. Children wake at night, screaming for their mothers and their fathers.
The rest of us must ask: For what?
The answer: Not much.
Today, many of those who were arrested in the raids are back in Cache County, living deeper in the shadows and closer to the edge of desperation. Families that were once working class are now more reliant than ever before on the community’s social safety net. Many of the criminal cases filed in the wake of the raids have been left unresolved in the Cache County District Attorney’s Office. The meatpacking plant, one of the county’s largest employers for generations, has not returned to the employment levels it enjoyed in the mid-2000s—and is now leaning on state taxpayers to help it grow. Business owners are still caught between federal laws that make it illegal to profile applicants and hire undocumented laborers. An expected army of identity-theft victims failed to materialize. A very simple, very exploitative arrangement that permits undocumented workers to find jobs continues unchecked.
And, in the least surprising development of them all, Congress has utterly failed to act.
Operation Wagon Train
It was a frigid Wednesday morning. As the sun came up over the craggy opening of Blacksmith Fork Canyon, day-shift workers checked into the plant, donned butcher vests and protective gloves, and set about the slaughter. As they did, ICE agents quietly gathered in staging areas, donned bulletproof vests and handguns, and prepared to make history.
They surrounded the facility, charged in and ordered managers to halt operations—granting a temporary stay of execution to dozens of cows serpentining up a ramp on the factory’s east side.
Some workers contend that ICE used a blatantly unconstitutional scheme for determining whom to interrogate: Light-skinned people were put in one line and dismissed; darker-skinned people were put in another line for questioning.
The raid was one of six “worksite enforcement actions” on plants owned by meatpacking giant Swift & Co. scattered about the United States in the single-day, multi-jurisdictional dragnet dubbed “Operation Wagon Train.”
At a news conference a day after the raids, then- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agents weren’t concerned with just illegal immigration.
“The evidence we uncovered indicates that hundreds of Swift workers illegally assumed the identities of U.S. citizens, using stolen or fraudulently acquired Social Security numbers and other identity documents, which they used to get jobs at Swift facilities,” said the secretary—who cut his legal chops prosecuting mobsters alongside Rudy Giuliani in Manhattan.
“This is not only a case about illegal immigration, which is bad enough,” Chertoff said. “It’s a case about identity theft in violation of the privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans.”
Standing next to Chertoff at the conference was Cache County Attorney George Daines.
Daines would later grow furious with the feds following an FBI investigation into allegations that he coerced witnesses during a sexual assault trial. At the time, though, Daines was downright chummy with his new friends in Washington, boasting that the cases he’d been handed by ICE were a “slam dunk.”
But not everyone was so impressed with Chertoff’s approach.
Left to Clean Up the Pieces
ICE spent months getting ready for the raids, which resulted in the arrests of nearly 1,300 people nationwide. But the G-men apparently hadn’t spent much time planning for what to do about the thousands of family members, including children and elderly individuals, who were dependent on those swept up in the operation.
What resulted, Martinez says, was nothing short of a humanitarian crisis—beginning with scores of children who arrived home from school to find their mothers and fathers gone.
ICE officials say they asked those who were arrested where they lived and whether they had any children at home. Critics say that may have been a well-intentioned query, but it was certainly naive, as it was unlikely that any of the arrested individuals were going to give up their families to La Migra.
“Two or three days after it happened, the telephone rang,” says Martinez, then a Utah State University student who was volunteering at the multicultural center. “The guy who was the director back then answered the phone, and his voice lowered, and you could tell then that he was talking to a child. Then, almost immediately, he started to choke up.”
On the other end of the line was a 7-year-old boy. He hadn’t seen his mother for several days and was wondering where she was.
“That moment was just so intense,” Martinez says, lifting her dark-rimmed glasses to wipe away a tear. “He didn’t even know his address—and who knows how he got our number. How were we going to help him?”
Five years on, Logan Mayor Randy Watts is still steaming.
Immigration agents “came in, broke apart a bunch of families and left the community cleaning up the pieces,” he says.
Watts is proud of how his city, located just a few minutes north of Hyrum, responded.
“The community rallied; it had to rally, and it did,” he says. “These were people who were living paycheck to paycheck, and all of a sudden, the breadwinner was gone. All of the churches, all of the denominations, the teachers at the schools—everyone all of a sudden saw this need and reacted.”
A contractor by trade, Watts understands the need to prevent companies from using illegal labor to depress wages.
But ICE’s approach? “I think it was distasteful,” he says.
Hyrum Mayor Dean Howard has a slightly different perspective. In a phone interview, he said the raid “affected some individuals, but really didn’t affect the community as a whole.”
So did he support the raid?
“I wasn’t in favor of it,” Howard said.
Pressed to elaborate, Howard declined. And pressed again, he hung up.
His response makes plain one of the fundamental problems with the way immigration has been politicized by many American conservatives: Compassion is all too often seen as weakness.