CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Stephanie Teatro recalls the April day when federal helicopters circled over a meatpacking plant in Grainger County, Tennessee and Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted its biggest workplace raid in years.
“That really signaled the return to these mass worksite enforcement operations, and Tennessee was the site of the first one,” said Teatro, co-director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
While detention centers and the Mexican border sit at the white-hot center of the immigration debate, communities in the American heartland also are seeing a change of tone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
And though Tennessee recently enacted a law that requires local law enforcement to assist in immigration enforcement, immigrant advocates say tough enforcement will hurt the state’s economy.
“We have heard from many small business owners that when there are policy changes or rumors of ICE activity in a community, their businesses suffer because so many families are too afraid to leave their homes or drive,” Teatro wrote.
According to a study by The Partnership for a New American Economy, if 10 percent of Tennessee’s 132,000 undocumented immigrants left the state, Tennessee would lose $21 million in state and federal taxes and $588 million from its Gross Domestic Product.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimated Tennessee’s 2017 GDP at $345 billion.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May commended the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee for tripling its prosecutions of illegal re-entry.
In Session’s prepared remarks, he told law enforcement officers:, “You may not be on the front lines on this — you may not be on the border — but you have prosecutorial responsibilities to enforce our immigration laws. … That’s great work and I want to thank you for that.”
While officials from the 11 districts that attended the conference in Gatlinburg increased their prosecution of illegal re-entry by 56 percent from fiscal year 2016 to 2017, the U.S Attorney’s Office in eastern Tennessee prosecuted 12 people in fiscal year 2016 for illegal re-entry and 35 in 2017. All the defendants pleaded guilty, according to the office spokeswoman Sharry Dedman-Beard.
Acting director of ICE Thomas Homan, who retired this year, ordered the agency last year to quadruple its number of workplace raids — a directive that extends nationwide.
ICE works in districts, and according to ICE spokesman Bryan Cox does not have data on how many arrests it makes per state, but tracks data by field office.
Tennessee falls under the purview of the ICE field office in New Orleans, which in the first two quarters of fiscal year 2018 arrested 5,049 people, 60 percent of which it says are “convicted criminal aliens.”
Three years ago, in FY 2015, the New Orleans ICE field office arrested 5,244 people, 84 percent of whom it says were convicted of a crime. In FY 2013, under the Obama administration, the New Orleans field office made 9,115 arrests, 70 percent of whom allegedly were convicted of a crime.
Cox wrote in an email to Courthouse News that ICE “conducts targeted enforcement with a focus on convicted criminals and other threats to public safety. Claims of sweeps, checkpoints, or any other type of indiscriminate arrests are simply false.”
The Tennessee economy increasingly relies on foreign companies for job creation and the number of foreign-born residents has increased as well.
In 1990, only 1.2 percent of Tennesseans were foreign born, according to The New American Economy. The number had quadrupled, to 5 percent, in 2014.
The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) touts that in 2013 and 2015, thanks to foreign investment in the Volunteer State, Tennessee ranked top in the nation in job growth attributed to direct foreign investment.
Since 2011, Tennessee has received $13 billion worth of direct foreign investments, according to TNECD spokesman Scott Harrison, attracting companies that include Volkswagen and Bridgestone.
“The recruitment of international businesses is a key part of TNECD’s strategy to promote and attract high quality jobs in Tennessee,” Harrison wrote in an email. “In 2017, about one-third of the job commitments TNECD secured came from foreign-based companies.”
Harrison declined to answer questions on how changes in ICE activity are affecting those foreign investments. But the companies themselves said they have seen little change.
Nissan spokeswoman Nissan Lloryn Love-Carter said in an email: “Currently, we haven’t seen any effects.”
The Spanish auto parts company Ficosa said it has not been affected by the enforcement.
“At Ficosa we have not modified our strategy in the United States,” said Ficosa North America’s CEO Joan Cañellas. “We are highly committed with one of the most dynamic automotive markets in the world and for a new production center in Cookeville (Tennessee), which is one of the most advanced in the group worldwide.”
Nor has the Tennessee Farm Bureau seen much change.
“There may be a step up in ICE raids,” said Farm Bureau spokeswoman Melissa Bratton, “but over the years the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division conducts random inspections of farm operations across the state to ensure farmers are in compliance with migrant worker employment laws.”
Attorney Terry Olsen, chairman of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Immigration Law Section, said changes in immigration enforcement have caused some of his clients to put their business plans on hold.
For the past two years, Olsen hosted a group of lawyers at his office in Chattanooga and invited ICE to give updates on immigration law. That meeting, which usually happens in February, did not happen this year.
It used to be that Olsen could call ICE officials on their cellphones and seek prosecutorial discretion on behalf of his clients. That’s all changed, he said.
One client was scheduled to meet with ICE in Atlanta, but three ICE agents drove up to Tennessee and waited for five hours to try and arrest Olsen’s client. Talking with other immigration lawyers in Tennessee, Olsen has said many of them have clients – parents – who were arrested when they attend a meeting with ICE.
That has placed immigration lawyers like him in an ethical bind, he says.
Do they recommend that their clients meet with ICE, where they may be arrested, jailed and deported? Or should they stay away, which could results in having their asylum petition or other claims thrown out?
“We can no longer advise our clients in Tennessee that they’re not going to be arrested if they go to a meeting,” Olsen said. “We have to advise our clients now there’s a high likelihood that they might be actually detained.”
Olsen said he is trying to use lawful ways to delay meetings, such as medical or school reasons.
Hundreds of miles away from the border, Olsen said, the way immigration laws are being enforced resembles enforcement at the border.
“Basically, in the last year and a half, since Trump’s been president, they have not respected the family unity concept of immigration law,” Olsen said.