Members of Mennonite churches were among more than a hundred workers arrested in August in what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls one of its biggest operations in the last decade.
Die Mennonitische Post reported a dozen Mennonites were among about 160 workers arrested Aug. 28 at the Load Trail trailer factory in Sumner, Texas. The Post is a German-language newspaper that covers conservative Mennonite groups in North and South America, predominantly of Germanic background.
NBC News reported more than 300 federal agents and other staff inspected documents of about 500 workers. They were accompanied by dozens of police in vans, trucks, helicopters and buses.
Local media reported Homeland Security Investigations were informed many “illegal workers” from abroad were employed at the facility without proper work permits.
Load Trail was started more than 20 years ago by Cornelius Thiessen and today is owned by five of his children. Two of them attend Lighthouse Mission Church, an Anabaptist congregation in Honey Grove.
Lighthouse Senior Pastor Corny Froese told MWR that at least 10 to 15 families in the congregation include Load Trail workers, including members of the upper management team. One woman from the church was taken into custody during the raid and was released on bail.
“Wherever you look and wherever you go in the area here, there are people whose paperwork isn’t quite in order or is in process,” Froese said. “For them to just come in and raid the place, it affects everything. Restaurants are closed and people aren’t coming in to work because they are scared.”
He noted Load Trail set up a phone number to call if a family member was taken into custody for people to receive financial assistance. The Lighthouse congregation has also been in communication with other local churches about responding to needs in the community.
In a news conference, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ Dallas office Katrina Berger described the raid as “one of the larger worksite enforcement operations conducted at one site in the past 10 years.”
She said detained individuals were treated with “respect and humanity,” and parents of small children would be released under certain conditions.
The Post reported that a day after the raid, parking lots of neighboring factories were nearly empty. One person said a facility that would typically have a few hundred vehicles had only 30-40 in its lot.
Only a few years ago, Load Trail was fined heavily for using undocumented workers. It remains to be seen if penalties will be harsh this time.
Shocked and unsettled
Many Mennonites in the Sumner and Tigertown area are shocked and unsettled. Some lack documentation from any country, but have lived in the area for more than 20 years with children who are U.S. citizens.
Tigertown Mennonite Evangelical Church Pastor Diedrich Loewen told MWR at least one person from his congregation was taken into custody and paid $7,500 bail as he waits on a court date. But more than just a few families are rattled.
“This will affect very much the whole of Lamar County and Fannin County [in northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border] because that’s where they live and work — not just the Mennonites but the Hispanics too,” he said. “It would be like if suddenly half of Dallas suddenly disappeared.”
He said that while some Mennonites in the area have dual Mexican-Canadian citizenship, most in the area who are not U.S. citizens were born in Mexico.
New Hope Mennonite Church in Honey Grove is in a similar situation. Pastor Larry Friesen told MWR at least one man from the congregation of about 90 people was taken into custody.
“There’s a couple more who are wondering what direction things will go . . . but they may have to leave,” he said.
He said the entire community is shaken.
“I’m sure some of these people, if they do not see a future, will go somewhere else or go back to Mexico,” he said.
Of the millions of undocumented people living in the U.S., the Post says possibly thousands are Mennonites such as its readers. They typically come to the U.S. for a brief while to make money before traveling on to Canada or going back to Mexico.
Many have no way to immediately obtain U.S. legal documents, so they wait for the day their first U.S.-born child turns 21 and can sponsor parents into the country. Hundreds of Mennonites have received their green card in this way in recent years, allowing them to apply for citizenship.