For Honey Grove student Abigail Rubio, Aug. 28, 2018, was the longest day of her life.
“It was just a day, but it felt like a month,” she said. “It was shocking.”
That’s because Rubio’s father was one of more than 150 employees administratively arrested that day in a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid at Load Trail Trailers in Sumner. Rubio said her father “didn’t have anything” at the time for work documentation, and as a result he was “shocked, traumatized. They treated him like he was a criminal.”
The raid was described by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent as “one of the largest single-site workforce operations in 10 years.” Katrina Berger, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Dallas, said the operation centered around a criminal investigation of Load Trail. The company was suspected of knowingly hiring “a significant number of illegal aliens.”
The enforcement action was a shock, Load Trail CEO Kevin Hiebert said. The company was surprised by “a whole army” of ICE and Homeland Security agents, he said.
Since then, most detainees have bonded out and arranged short-term work documentation, said immigration advocates, community leaders and lawyers familiar with the operation. As Load Trail works toward a settlement in the criminal investigation, some of the workers’ cases remain in flux.
A common outcome in workplace cases is a settlement where the offending company pays a fine and agrees to adopt measures like checking every new hire in the federal E-Verify program, which examines personal information submitted to an employer in government records for any potential fraud.
Load Trail had reached a settlement with ICE just four years earlier. The latest criminal investigation is ongoing, and lawyers for Load Trail say they are close to reaching another settlement. The company said it had relied on staffing companies to provide workers and confirm their legal status.
Congress first created criminal penalties for employers in 1986. According to researchers at Syracuse University, prosecutions under the law banning employers from knowingly employing unauthorized workers have rarely exceeded 15 a year since then. Between April 2018 and this March, just 11 people were prosecuted in seven cases.
Employers can also be charged with other crimes. The former owner of a meat-processing plant raided in Tennessee last year was sentenced in July to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, wire fraud and employing unauthorized workers. Investigations are still ongoing following several major Trump administration raids.
Waiting to see a judge
Despite notifications to appear in court, it could take years for those arrested at Load Trail to see a judge.
Felix Villalobos, managing attorney for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Dallas, said his organization in 2018 hosted 200 consultations for Load Trail detainees. By his estimation, his office’s clients probably wouldn’t see a court until 2022.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon,” he said. “The courts are pretty backed up.”
Readily available legal immigration resources in Paris are slim to none. Many families, like the Rubios, travel to cities like Dallas and Tyler for consultations or legal assistance. Many visit the Metroplex for their court dates.
Daniel Ross is a Tyler-based immigration lawyer with an emphasis on employment and investor-related cases and affirmative asylum claims. Last year, he spoke to 15 to 20 Load Trail workers about their cases over the phone. He said a common challenge presented by rural immigration cases is the lack of attorneys.
“You have no right to an appointed attorney in immigration proceedings. You can have an attorney, but the government is not going to appoint one,” he said. “What we see frequently is that a lot of areas where the raids have taken place — be it in Paris, or more recently, Mississippi — are in rural areas where there are no immigration attorneys.”
Ross said detention centers also are difficult for lawyers to access.
“A lot of the detention facilities are located in very remote areas. If your client is detained, it is difficult to have face-to-face interactions with them,” he said, citing examples like Lumpkin, Georgia, and Jena, Louisiana.
Cases can also prove costly for families, starting with a bond set anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000. From there, costs can grow to “several thousands of dollars,” Ross said. Every case presents unique challenges, from mixed-status families to criminal history, work permits and asylum claims.
“It really is a case-by-case basis,” he said. “What I always tell people is ‘How I find you is really not important. It’s the fact that they found you that’s critical.’”
Rubio’s father has been to court in Dallas two times so far, she said. His final court date is June 2020. In the meantime, he’s found employment out of town, building fences for a contracting company. As the family works to return a sense of normalcy, her dad’s new job provides some stability, she said.
‘They don’t think it will happen’
Delila Reynoso, program director for Justice For Our Neighbors - East Texas, said most families never think they will be involved in a raid. The nonprofit urges families to plan ahead in case of arrests and provides free and low-cost legal services and education for the immigrant community.
“They don’t think about it. They don’t think it will happen. But it does, and they’re not ready,” she said. “We urge people to be proactive and know your rights.”
Reynoso said these are “sensitive conversations” for many families. For many involved in the 2018 raid, it was their children who continue to feel the lasting effects. Some of those arrested were parents to children in local school systems, like Paris and Honey Grove ISDs.
Beto Prado, a local pastor and former school bus driver, noted a slight drop in school attendance after the raid. There were some kids along his routes he would always see, he said. In the days following Load Trail, they didn’t get on his bus.
In Honey Grove, 23 students had parents who were detained, Superintendent Todd Morrison said. He still remembers breaking the news to them.
“We brought the kids in that we knew who had dads detained, that day before school was out, to let them know all the information we had,” he said. “We wanted to make sure nobody was going home to an empty house. But we also wanted them to know what we knew.”
Like other school districts with students who had detained parents, Honey Grove has tried to help families with their cases. Morrison said he’s made the drive to Dallas courts with some families. District staff have collected canned goods, clothing and money. They’ve written letters of recommendation, proving parents have shown interest in furthering their children’s education.
Morrison said the staff has focused primarily on the impact on the children instead of the political hot-button topic.
“In our school, our faculty has always seen this as a human issue, not a political issue,” Morrison told KUT 90.5. “Whatever your belief is, when it comes down to it, I’ve got 23 kids that were involved in this, and their world’s been turned upside-down.”
Returning to normal
Rubio has mixed feelings on the anniversary of her father’s return from detention. While she’s thankful for Honey Grove’s support and her family is moving on with life, she said she still has a fear that her father will be deported.
“That is always on my mind,” she said. “It was a lot to take in, to process. It’s still shocking up to this day, but I’ve gotten better.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.