SALEM, Ohio - Some families of the 146 workers arrested at a meat processing plant gathered at St. Paul Catholic Church to figure out next steps and meet with immigration attorneys ahead of a special mass in response to the arrests.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Fresh Mark meat processing plant here Tuesday, with the agency saying it arrested employees for suspected immigration violations.
"They were terrorized last night," said Sr. Rene Weeks, Director of Hispanic Ministry at St. Paul. "No one had any idea this was going to happen."
ICE spokesperson Khaalid Walls said in a statement that the arrests followed a year-long investigation based on evidence the company may have knowingly hired workers living in the country illegally and many of the immigrants were using fraudulent identification belonging to U.S. citizens.
Search warrants were also carried out at two Fresh Mark facilities in Massillon and another in Canton.
"Unlawful employment is one of the key magnets drawing illegal aliens across our borders," Steve Francis, ICE Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge for Michigan and Ohio, said in the statement, noting businesses must be held accountable.
A spokesperson for the company, which supplies meats to Sugardale, provided a statement confirming ICE's presence at the facilities but declined to comment on the investigation. Fresh Mark Director of Corporate Communications Brittany Julian noted the company participates in ICE's voluntary IMAGE program, which is designed to strengthen hiring practices and requires participants to participate in a verification program that compares records to confirm employment eligibility.
Signs posted outside the Salem plant before the raid advertised available jobs. If they're stealing the jobs, why is Fresh Mark needing employees?" Weeks said.
Columbiana County Children Services estimated that more than 50 children were affected by the arrests and all have now been placed with a relative or another community member close to their family. The agency said it was working to help reunite families.
Walls said some of the people arrested were processed and released because of humanitarian concerns.
Others will be detained in Ohio and Michigan pending removal hearings, according to ICE.
"It tears families apart and I don't think any of us want to see that," she said.
The church held a service Wednesday evening for the community to come together. In addition to advice from immigration attorneys, St.
Paul's also provided affected families with necessities like diapers, milk and food, since many parents now don't have a job.
"I think if any of us had families in the countries these people came from and were experiencing the day-to-day violence that these people are fleeing from, we'd break the law to get our families somewhere else too," Weeks said, noting the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.
"What should they do? There aren't any answers to that." Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican who represents the district including Salem said in a statement that the raids "prove that America is serious about enforcing our immigration laws. When we finally secure our borders, there will be less need for raids like this."
"My office is looking into what we can do to help them. Tearing families apart is not going to fix our broken immigration system. Instead, we need a bipartisan solution that recognizes we aren’t going to deport 13 million people here already, but we can secure our borders and create a pathway for people to earn citizenship if they follow the law, have a job and pay taxes."