PARIS — Hildebrando Torres Jimenez received long-awaited good news last week: He was awarded primary custody of his 3- and 4-year old daughters after a long legal fight with his girlfriend. Then the undocumented immigrant from Mexico was rounded up in an immigration raid at Load Trail, a trailer factory just outside this North Texas town.
“In one moment it was like work stopped and we didn’t have anything to do, so I walked toward my coworker to ask what was going on,” Torres, 24, said. “And when I turned around, that’s when I saw the agents.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up more than 150 undocumented immigrants on Aug. 28 in one of the agency's largest enforcement actions in decades. As of Tuesday, about one third of the immigrants were still in immigration detention facilities in North Texas or Oklahoma, according to ICE.
On Tuesday, a large “Now Hiring” sign hung outside of the plant in Sumner, about 10 miles outside of Paris. According to the company's website, it employs more than 500 workers.
Torres was released after two days when he posted a $5,000 bond. On Tuesday, as he balanced his youngest daughter on his knee with one hand, he clutched with the other a folder with documents that could determine whether he’ll be separated from the daughters he’s fought to protect. He has a notice to appear before an immigration judge later this month. After that, he’s unsure of what will happen.
“My biggest fear is that I’ll get deported and my daughters will be left without my supervision because their mother can’t be with them,” he said. His daughters are both U.S. citizens, and their mother is only allowed supervised visits.
Torres found himself at Paris’ Iglesia Evangelica Filadelfia, which for the last week has doubled as a one-stop shop for former Load Trail workers who have been released on bond and aren't sure how to proceed with their cases.
The effort is a collaboration between the Workers Defense Project, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), the East Texas-based Justice for Our Neighbors, Movimiento Cosecha, and local volunteers who are helping the immigrants with legal advice, money for utility bills or a free meal, said Dalila Reynosa, the program administrator.
The center was up and running less than 24 hours after news of the raid, which reportedly involved 300 ICE officers, broke. The volunteers are gathering information about whether workers are owed wages and how they were hired. Load Trail has a history of hiring unauthorized workers: The Dallas Morning News reported the company was fined about $450,000 in 2014. It was also ordered to use the federal E-Verify system to verify employment status, but television station WFAA reported the company found a way around the mandate.
In a statement released last week, an ICE spokesperson said many of the arrested workers used fake documents when they were hired.
“Businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens create an unfair advantage over their competing businesses,” said Katrina W. Berger, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Dallas. “In addition, they take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal residents, and they create an atmosphere poised for exploiting their illegal workforce.”
Attorney Gene Besen, who represents Load Trail, did not return a phone call seeking comment. But Besen told WFAA that his clients were surprised by last week’s raid and the company has set up a fund for the employees’ families.
Some workers interviewed by the Tribune admitted they used fake documents to get hired. Hector Huerta, 30, said he worked at the company for nearly a year and used a fake Social Security number, along with his Mexican ID card. Torres, meanwhile, said he was never asked for a Social Security card and only presented his ID and a Mexican passport.
Maria de Jesus Garza, an organizer with the Dallas chapter of the Workers Defense Project, said they’re still trying to determine how the company handled job applicants.
“We don’t have an actual record that they all used false documents,” she said. “What we’ve heard is they filled out an application and they were asked not to fill out certain parts of it.”
Farheen Siddiqi, a staff attorney with RAICES, said it’s difficult to predict what will happen to the workers swept up in the raid.
During the Obama administration, ICE was instructed to use its limited resources on repeat offenders and undocumented immigrants with serious criminal histories. “This administration’s priorities are anyone and everyone, basically,” Siddiqi said.
An ICE spokesperson said of the 159 people arrested, 98 have posted bond and one voluntarily returned to Mexico, while 55 remain in custody. The other five were released at the scene "on humanitarian grounds," according to ICE.
The spokesperson added that “non-criminal” immigrants from Mexico will be allowed to voluntarily return to their home country, which does not have the same legal consequence as an official deportation.
Reynosa, the program manager at Iglesia Evangelica Filadelfia, said she hopes people don’t forget that family separations don’t just happen at the border.
“We’re terrorizing communities and community members,” she said. “I can think of the first family I met, they were here for more than 20 years. He’s paid taxes, he has a son that has autism. To be deported now, how is this fair?”
As he tried to corral his energetic young son, who was climbing over the church pews, Huerta added: “I’ve been here all my life. What the hell I want to do in Mexico?
"If Mexico was so great, I’d be over there," said Huerta, who's been in the country since he was 6. "But I’m not. I’m here.”
Kathryn Lundstrom contributed to this story.