For people in Bean Station, Tennessee, the July 26 court-ordered deadline to reunite immigrant families points to the broader problem for Latino families in the United States. Glenmary Home Missioners Father Steve Pawelk, pastor of St. John Paul II parish in nearby Rutledge, spoke recently about his frustration with the federal government co-opting local authorities.
He had just come from a Nashville hearing, “where I challenged the House of Representatives for passing a law which makes our local law enforcement into ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agencies.” He based his testimony—preceding the upcoming August 2 primary election for state and local offices—on a raid that had plundered his rural parish.
Glenmary, Father Pawelk’s society, seeks to establish a formal Catholic presence where there is none in Appalachia and the Deep South. Its missioners serve the entire community where they are stationed, including those living in poverty. In Pawelk’s case, that includes a large Latino community currently in crisis.
Bean Station, home of the Southeastern Provision meat-processing plant in Grainger County, was the site of an April ICE raid. Ninety-seven people, mostly from Mexico and Guatemala, were detained by state and local law enforcement who descended on the scene early in the workday.
The company’s owners were clearly in trouble with the law, with questions about minimum wage compliance and back taxes. But workers took the brunt of the raid. Of the 97 arrested, 86 were placed in deportation hearings. Some were allowed to return to their families, but 54 were kept in detention. At least 12 families at Father Steve’s small parish had an immediate relative arrested.
“The reason why the inspection took place is that the owners had been withdrawing hundreds of thousands of dollars from their bank and paying people in cash, and claiming to pay themselves like $9 an hour,” explains Pawelk.
The day of the raid, he recalls, “I was at church from 10:30 a.m. to 10 at night. We went out picking up families. We found homes threatened and those afraid to go back to the trailer park.” He was on triage duty for the next two days, linking bereft families with volunteer psychologists, lawyers and other help. Family income for the workers suddenly came to a standstill, and in some cases both parents were gone. His parish gathered donations. “We have given over $8,000 to pay rent, light bills, other things so that the children don’t become homeless,” he says.
The immigrant children in Tennessee share anxiety like those affected by President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border. “If you’re a three-year-old, you don’t have any words for this anxiety,” Pawelk told a local television journalist in June. “You see them clinging to their parents, more tears, more anxiety of separation, they don’t play the same.”
As the drama in Tennessee has unfolded over many months, some have been deported while the rest await hearings. One of the couples was featured in the Glenmary Challenge magazine a few years ago, after their wedding, as an example of effective mission work. Soon after the April raid, Glenmary president Father Chet Artysiewicz drove home the point: “These are our family members,” he said. “Our country must find a better and more moral way of dealing with these issues.”
Those being scrutinized are not newcomers, says Pawelk. “Some have worked at the plant for 20 years–most have worked there for 15.” The immigrants initially came here working with seasonal crops, such as tomatoes. Southern Provision, hungry for workers, was a place to find year-round employment.
“The issue to me is not a matter of legal versus illegal,” says Pawelk. “It’s a matter that, since 1985, more than 30 years ago, we have not changed the immigration laws.” The U.S. needs and currently has 300,000 immigrants working in low-skill jobs, whether labor, agriculture, or service sector, he observes, yet the law allows only 5,000 legal visas.
“There’s no way for the farmers or this company to regularize the status of these people. So, the problem is really the law not serving the employers or the employees,” he says. “The law does not deal with the reality of labor needs.”
Pawelk also draws on a principle of Catholic social teaching to make his point about April’s raid: “The reaction is disproportionate,” he insists. “Nothing has happened to the plant’s owners!” He is preparing a pastoral letter for his congregation at St. John Paul II to help people understand the local labor and immigration issue in light of their faith.
“I’m trying to bring about a dialogue that removes it from the political circle and into the Gospel,” he says, as the debate picks up for the coming political primary. “I do it because little do they know that when they share an anti-immigration Facebook post that other parishioners—who are Catholic members of their church, and who are U.S. citizens but with a different racial background—read that and say, ‘I guess I can’t attend that meeting. I’d better be careful with that parishioner.’”
The oversimplified talk of the political campaign can bring divisions to the Church family, he says, against the spirit of the Gospel. “My goal is to keep light on that issue.”
Avelardo Mercado Chavez, a young man whose family has legal status in Tennessee, explains from a different, more basic, perspective. “I think, in general, people are afraid,” he says. “Mexico, in many places, is not a safe place to raise kids.”
Veteran journalist John Feister is on the communications team at Glenmary Home Missioners, Cincinnati, Ohio. Updates on this story can be found at: www.Glenmary.org