Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

A Tennessee ICE raid, cancer-causing coal ash, & dystopian scenarios

Immigration authorities recently raided a meatpacking plant in Bean Station, a rural town in northeastern Tennessee, and arrested 97 people. Almost immediately, half of them were transferred to immigration detention centers out of state. Some who had young children or work permits were let go, but 54 people are still in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Some civil rights organizations say it was the largest single workplace raid in a decade, and another example of President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. Tennessee immigrant rights organizations are rushing to locate those arrested and notify their families. 

Sixteen-year-old Raul Romulo’s aunts, uncles, godparents, and mom were detained. He talked to Nashville Public Radio about his mom. “I love her, and I just hope I get to see her and my family again,” he said. “I don’t want to see her behind bars. I just wish she wouldn’t have gone to work that time.”

The day after the raid, more than 500 students—about 5 percent of the district’s total students—missed school in nearby Hamblen County. Hundreds of people attended a prayer vigil at the school’s gym. Teachers are being educated on how to talk to students about the raid and how to help them express their grief. Local churches are serving as sanctuaries for families and meeting places for immigrant rights advocates.

Not only is this tragic for the families of those detained and scary for undocumented immigrants in the area, it also massively impacts the regional economy. Southeastern Provisions, the cattle-slaughtering facility, is the third-largest employer in Grainger County. One worker said employees worked 12-hour shifts daily and were paid $300 in cash once a week. The IRS claims the owners of Southeastern Provisions failed to report $8.4 million in wages and owed at least $2.5 million in payroll taxes for dozens of undocumented workers, which is part of what raised red flags in the first place.

The plant is now operating at only 10 percent capacity. “If you just figure 250 head of cattle a day, 5 days a week for a year is over $30 million at $500 a head. So that would be a big impact,” Grainger County Mayor Mark Hipsher told WBIR. “It affects a lot of the Southeast. I know cattle came in from Georgia and Alabama, you could see the trailers coming in every day.” It also impacts the other businesses in the rural area that these people contributed to, he added.

Much of the Southeast’s beloved cuisine exists because of the work done by undocumented immigrants in fields, factories, and food trucks. The United Farm Workers estimates that anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of farm workers are undocumented. The numbers are even more staggering when broken down by state. Florida’s $8 billion agriculture industry relies on workers with H-2A visas for temporary agricultural work, and leads the nation in the number of visa holders, with Georgia and North Carolina trailing not too far behind. More than 3,000 migrant farm workers travel to Virginia annually for seasonal work.

There aren’t enough domestic workers—or enough of them willing—to work backbreaking, low-paying jobs like harvesting crops or packing meat. In 2011, Alabama passed strict immigration laws in an effort to stop agricultural operations from hiring migrant workers and get them to start hiring American citizens. It backfired and ended up causing a farm labor shortage. 

Outside of immigration rights circles and local news, it has taken nearly 10 days to draw significant attention to what happened in Bean Station. Under the Trump administration,  large raids have happened more frequently across the country, including in New York and California. But in the conservative state of Tennessee, advocates have to yell louder and try harder to drum up noise about them. This week, a state lawmaker introduced legislation to punish employers like Southeastern Provisions for taking advantage of undocumented workers. It comes at the same time as Tennessee Republican Rep. Jay Reedy, who twice used an ethnic slur while speaking in front of a House subcommittee, tries to push a bill outlawing sanctuary cities and mandating local law enforcement to detain immigrants.

As more details emerge about Bean Station, the situation becomes more appalling and the levels of exploitation seem more impossible. The shock of the raid—the suddenness of it, the lack of information families have, the sheer fear it has caused, the effects the region is already feeling—is reverberating throughout Tennessee. If more light is shed on what happened, hopefully those shock waves will be felt throughout the U.S. as well.

Stories worth your time

Eight Florida youth ranging from ages 10 to 20 are suing Gov. Rick Scott over his failure to take action on climate change. They’re trying to force the state to start work on a court-ordered, science-based “Climate Recovery Plan.” The Miami Herald initially reported the news. As InsideClimate News reports, the lawsuit is connected to the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, in which 21 young people from across the country are suing the federal government over climate change.

Fayetteville, North Carolina’s drinking water is laced with a chemical called 1,4 dioxan, which has been shown to be carcinogenic. The levels have exceeded federal standards every year since 2013, the Fayetteville Observer reports. The point sources aren’t clear yet, but it’s likely that it is coming from treated wastewater.

I wrote for The Daily Beast about the many public health risks of coal ash on nearby communities. As the Trump administration moves to deregulate coal ash management and give utilities more flexibility, the long-term health impacts of these toxins are becoming clearer than ever. “It’s shocking how many different bodily organ systems these can affect,” Barb Gottlieb, director of environment and health for the Physicians for Social Responsibility, told me.

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and there were quite a few winners from or related to the South. The Washington Post won for its investigative reporting on Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore; John Archibald of Alabama Media Group won for his commentary on Alabama issues like Confederate monuments and Moore; Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah won the feature writing category for her portrait of Dylann Roof in GQ; Ryan Kelly of The Daily Progress won for his photo of a car plowing through protestors at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; University of Florida professor Jack Davis won for his book on the history of the Gulf of Mexico.

News flying under the radar

To help Miami avoid a “dystopian inundation scenario,” Harvard graduate students came up with ways for the city to adapt to sea level rise, like deepening canals, elevating properties, and installing spongy floors in buildings.

A Houston-based gas company will build its corporate headquarters and first manufacturing operation in Somerset, Kentucky.

Nearly 615,000 gallons of wastewater spilled in to a Gainesville nature park’s wetlands, creek, forest and soil.

Not everyone is protesting pipelines. Some business owners and residents in West Virginia are excited about the economic opportunities of new energy infrastructure.

Also in West Virginia: Democrat and Republican lawmakers are pushing for tax credits forcoal-fired power plants. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed a petition asking the EPA to reduce permitting burdens for American steel producers.

Some North Carolina legislators are pressing Gov. Roy Cooper on why the state hasn’t spent any of the $236.5 million approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help Hurricane Matthew victims fix their homes.