Kay* was cooling her machine down Tuesday morning at Bear Creek Arsenal in Sanford when she and a mechanic nearby noticed a supervisor looking visibly worried talking to someone they had never seen before.
It didn’t take long for word that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had arrived to spread like wildfire. Before Kay could process what was happening, other employees were trying to run away – one even tried to climb out a window.
That’s when the officers made their presence known. They flooded into the building and began yelling at everyone. They surrounded the area and no one could leave.
The ICE officers reported that they had a list of people they were looking for, but they asked everyone for identification and then separated them into different groups. Anyone who didn’t have an ID was fingerprinted.
Kay was one of them, and several hours after the raid had begun, she found herself in the back of an undercover ICE van handcuffed with plastic zip ties around her wrist. She was taken to a nearby military building for questioning and processing while her four-year-old daughter waited for her to come home.
“I was crying even before they took me; I couldn’t calm down,” she said in a later interview. “They told me I really needed to calm down. They said they needed me to be calm, that there would hopefully be some way to a solution.”
Kay, whose attorney interpreted her Spanish for an interview with Policy Watch, was one of at least 30 people detained by ICE at the gun manufacturing plant after an investigation that had been ongoing since early last year. The people detained were undocumented immigrants found to have been working unlawfully – most were women and many had no criminal history or prior run-ins with ICE.
The raid was a shock to the community and the first that raised statewide attention this week, but it was only one of several in North Carolina. Advocates and service providers helping Hispanic communities in the wake of the raids have called them historic.
ICE has only given specific information about the Sanford raid, but others have been reported in Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Burlington and Asheboro.
Laura Garduño Garcia, a community organizer with AFSC/Siembra NC, said these are the most ICE detentions at one time that she and other organizers have seen in the Triad, but that they will meet the raids with an outpouring of love for immigrant families.
“ICE wants us immigrants to be afraid,” she said. “They want to cause chaos and then blame it on local law enforcement for ‘not doing enough’ to help them with family separation. We won’t be afraid, and we won’t let them isolate these families, picking them off one at a time. We will stand together against this injustice.”
Focused on individuals
ICE reported arresting 25 individuals on criminal charges and two individuals for civil immigration violations at Bear Creek Arsenal.
So far, only 11 of those people have been charged in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina – nine are accused of using a false Social Security number and two are charged with re-entering the United States illegally. Preliminary hearings for them have been scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in Winston-Salem.
Luis Castrillion, a Department of Homeland Security special agent, wrote in several criminal complaints that he initiated a worksite enforcement investigation at the machine company, which manufactures firearm barrels and components, on March 19, 2018.
He reviewed more than 200 I-9 employment forms during the course of the investigation and found that numerous employees were using fraudulent government-issued documents to gain employment. Bear Creek Arsenal cooperated in the investigation, and therefore was not implicated in enforcement.
Lynne Klauer, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of North Carolina, confirmed this week that ICE’s investigation was focused on individuals, not the employer. She would not release any specific information about the raid, but did provide criminal complaints once they were filed.
There have also been several criminal complaints filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina charging people arrested in Raleigh with re-entering the country illegally.
The court documents don’t contain specific information about ICE’s investigation in those cases and only state that the individuals named were “administratively” arrested. Several of those individuals also have preliminary hearings set next week in Raleigh.
“The agency conducts targeted immigration enforcement and makes arrests every day,” said ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell.
Bryan Cox, who is a spokesman for the Atlanta field office, which encompasses Georgia and the Carolinas, said that targeted immigration enforcement stems from a variety of sources, such as investigative leads and publicly available information.
“Like other law enforcement agencies, we don’t disclose specific investigative methods as a general rule to protect operational security,” he added. “I’d simply say ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in full accordance with federal law and agency policy.”
Cox said ICE does not conduct any type of random or indiscriminate enforcement.
“The agency focuses first and foremost on criminal offenders and other public safety threats,” he said.
He pointed to a statistic from ICE that more than 90 percent of the people arrested last year in Georgia and the Carolinas had a prior criminal conviction or pending criminal charge. The majority of those charges, though, are traffic offenses and immigration offenses, according to a report from ICE.
Cox said when people are picked up by ICE, they are initially booked in a local jail, but then transferred to an ICE detention facility in Georgia within 72 hours. ICE has a detainee locator tool on its website, but it’s not updated until individuals get to their final destination – none of the Sanford arrestees have shown up in the system.
Several families still don’t know where their loved ones are being housed, and attorneys typically can’t help those individuals until families know where they are and have information about their ICE processing.
A surprise visit
ICE’s Sanford raid was a bombshell to the undocumented immigrants who work at Bear Creek Arsenal. The CEO and founder, E. Eugene Moore, also says he was surprised by it, though documents show the business’ cooperation through the nearly year-long investigation.
Moore said Thursday in an email that he would try to send a formal statement about the raid a little later.
“ICE has stated our company did not do anything wrong,” he wrote. “Some people has (sic) gained employment by fraudulent means. Hope this helps.”
The company employs about 250 people according to its website. Several employees, including Kay, said a majority of them are undocumented immigrants.
Kay worked at the gun manufacturing plant for almost a year on the overnight shift. She liked the work because she could plug in her headphones and labor through the night without being bothered, and it allowed her to take her daughter to therapy appointments during the day.
Her daughter has numerous disabilities, including a cleft-palate, asthma, speech and developmental disabilities and a chromosome disorder. She goes to occupational, physical and speech therapy six times per week.
When Kay was detained by ICE, she was able to call her partner and had just enough time to tell him to make sure he took her daughter to therapy the following day.
“I may not be coming home,” she told him.
She was released before having to spend a night in jail, but she must now check in periodically with ICE and could be deported at any moment. Her attorney, Chris Barnes, said she will live in that limbo indefinitely.
“We can try to get her asylum case re-opened, but it will be an uphill battle from there,” he said. “It’s very difficult to win.”
Kay is from El Salvador and held back tears as she described the gang violence in her hometown, El Tigre. She had two friends who had children who were murdered after reporting a crime in their neighborhood.
“A car just pulled up and shot them,” she said.
Still, Kay must prepare herself and her family for the possibility that she will be forced to go back. She is writing out her daughter’s therapy schedule, her doctors and their addresses and her pharmacy information to make sure she is cared for in the worst-case scenario. Her daughter is a U.S. citizen.
To prepare herself, she is praying.
“I believe in God and I always say everything is in his control,” she said. “My faith is strong, and I believe he’ll protect me through anything.”
‘Imagine the devastation’
Barnes said the reality his clients face is bleak. Most people, he added, don’t understand that the general rule is, if someone has ever entered the country one time illegally, they have to leave and wait 10 years before returning.
A very small percentage of cases involving immigrants fleeing their country to seek international protection, called asylum, are actually granted, according to Barnes.
“We deal with a really marginalized group of people on a really polarizing issue,” he said.
Barnes said if people put themselves in others’ shoes for a moment, they might see the harm done to immigrant families being torn apart by ICE.
“If you have a four-year-old child you may never see again, imagine the devastation to that family; imagine that child — how in the heck do you get over something like that?” he asked. “I just kept thinking about my four-year-old — what if he never saw [my wife] again? I don’t know if I’m strong enough to get through that. I can’t imagine.”
Corina Penaloza had to imagine that possibility after the raid in Sanford. She and her mother worked together at Bear Creek Arsenal.
Penaloza, 26, had her ID, but her mother did not – she is undocumented and was detained by ICE.
When Penaloza went to bed Tuesday night, she hadn’t heard from her mom and had no idea where she was. She spent hours crying and trying to find any kind of help she could. It was fruitless.
“It’s devastating for everybody that is going through this,” she said. “Being able to work with my mom and seeing how they took her from me is the hardest thing.”
Still, she went back to work the next day, knowing she had to make money to provide for her family.
Her mother was eventually released from Alamance County Jail Wednesday night, but she was never given any information about why she was let go, if she was ever charged and what the future looks like for her from here on out.
“We’re a little scared, but we’re happy she’s home with us,” Penaloza said in a Thursday night phone interview.
Her mother, who doesn’t speak English well, told Penaloza everything that happened. She and two other women were let go from the jail at the same time. They gave them their personal belongings and then told them they were free to go.
“They were thinking they were being transferred to Georgia,” she said. “They walked outside and they started crying and hugging each other.”
The women then walked to a nearby McDonald’s to borrow a phone.
“I don’t know how or why this happened, but this was a miracle to us,” Penaloza said.
Community organizations, advocates and attorneys have banded together in response to the raids. They are cautioning undocumented immigrants and coordinating help for the families left in the dark about their loved ones, including school-aged children.
More than 50 people showed up Wednesday night to a church in Sanford to get information about legal services. Not even a quarter of those people had heard from their detained family member at that point.
“Where is my loved one?”
“If he’s incarcerated, how do I get them out?”
“How does this process work?”
Those were some of the common questions, according to immigration attorney Steve Monk, who presented at the meeting. He tried to answer some of those questions and met individually with people who needed a specific legal consultation.
Oneyda Argueta was one of the people at the meeting. She had been detained and released the same day at Bear Creek Arsenal, but many of her coworkers weren’t as lucky.
She asked if she could get in trouble for videotaping any of the raid. Later, she described what happened. Her experience was not unlike others who spoke about the raid.
“I closed my eyes and asked God to do what I wanted, but I was very worried about my daughter, who is very small, and my mother, who had surgery recently,” she said of the time she was detained. “The officer told me he should have arrested me but he was going to give me another chance for my daughter.”
Her face was flushed and her eyes filled with tears as she tried to explain the devastation. Another woman, a colleague, who had been talking with her wanted to tell her story but was too choked up to get the words out.
Penaloza said Bear Creek Arsenal was a ghost town when she returned Wednesday. In a room where there would have been 15 women assembling parts, only one remained.
She alleged the owners knew employees were undocumented immigrants. She said she was even asked Thursday to translate for people that they could return to work and that ICE wouldn’t come back.
“I was confused because an ICE officer told my mom, ‘I’m not going to leave that place alone,’ that they’re going to keep investigating,” Penaloza said.
She has been trying to help other families whose loved ones were detained. But she, like Kay, is also trying to prepare for all scenarios.
“[My mom’s] still a little scared because she’s not sure what happened, why she was released,” Penaloza said. “Are they going to come get us? Are they going to come to our house? You just never know.”
Ilana Dubester, founder and executive director of Hispanic Liaison, said raids stoke fear and tear families apart.
“We’re trying to get people to reach out to us and get attorneys reaching out to us, referring people to attorneys or if there is any chance to get them released,” she said.
Dubester and her organization were also on the ground-level response team in Siler City when a Hispanic community was being forced out of its trailer park homes.
She said earlier this week Sanford had become their top priority. When asked how she was doing throughout everything, she said she was hardly making do for herself.
“It’s a lot of pressure to help the families and also with the struggles of running a small penniless nonprofit short on resources and people,” she said. “It’s hard on all of us. … But my problems are minimal compared to wives losing their husbands and husbands losing their wives … so I can’t spend a lot of time kidding myself.”
Dubester spends that time instead doing what she can for others who need the help. She was also at the event Wednesday night trying to connect people with the right resources.
Lee County Sheriff Terry Carter was not at the meeting, but he has been trying to assure the community that the only reason his officers assisted ICE in Sanford was because it had been an ongoing investigation with alleged criminal activity.
“The main thing I wanted people to know, this was not random,” he said in a Tuesday evening phone interview. “There was reason for them to be here.”
He added that he made sure to work with the schools as well to take care of any children affected by the raid. There were a few, but they were able to be put in the care of other family members for the most part, he said.
“We’re not trying to cause fear, and we’re not trying to do random checks and all that,” Carter said.
But that was the impact. Kay, Penaloza and Argueta will live in fear every day until their situations have some kind of solution that doesn’t involve being shipped back to violent countries.
Barnes vowed to keep working hard as an immigration attorney for his clients.
“We love the people we represent, and we won’t stop fighting,” he said.