The impacts of an Aug. 12 raid on the Mills Manufacturing Corp. plant in south Asheville that netted 57 suspected illegal workers continue to ripple through the community, the plant’s executive vice president and immigration activists say.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the plant, which produces parachutes for the Defense Department, at 7:30 a.m. Of those detained, 29 were released due to health or child-care issues, after having been instructed to appear before an immigration judge at a later date. The remaining 28 were processed in Henderson County before being transported to a detainment facility in Charlotte.
On the day of the raid, ICE spokesperson Ivan L. Ortiz-Delgado declined to elaborate on what had prompted the investigation, saying only that the company itself is not a target. All workers seized, he said, had fraudulent documentation.
“We don’t expect [the company] to be document experts,” said Ortiz-Delgado. “We could say that Mills is a victim too.”
In an e-mail circulated the same day, Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower took credit for tipping off the federal agency, saying he’d initially been approached by a Mills Manufacturing employee.
“We developed a connection with ICE in Charlotte on Mills Manufacturing,” Mumpower wrote. “I am grateful for their follow-through and will continue to press this issue.” He has repeatedly spoken out during Council meetings against illegal-immigrant workers and the companies that hire them.
Mumpower also had choice words for Mills Manufacturing, taking the business to task for employing workers with fraudulent documents. “It is wrong that this company has so flagrantly ignored immigration law and the importance of employing American workers,” the e-mail declared.
But John Oswald, executive vice president of Mills Manufacturing, took issue with Mumpower’s characterization, saying that employers’ ability to accurately verify documents is limited.
“For Carl Mumpower to make that statement is out of line. It shows he is totally out of touch with the business community and what they have to go through to hire people,” Oswald told Xpress. “He has really outraged the business community with those comments.”
Feeling the heat
Hispanics account for about 80 percent of the job applications at Mills Manufacturing, added Oswald, and those working at the company were referred by either the N.C. Employment Security Commission or other employees. Workers at the plant earn a minimum of $9 an hour, he said.
The plant, noted Oswald, is now using the Department of Homeland Security’s online E-Verify system for new hires, but even that system has drawbacks and vulnerabilities, he asserted.
Mumpower, however, isn’t buying it. “I hold the people who provide the jobs and money and who are fueling the flood the most responsible,” he told Xpress. “They can take their company to Mexico, but they can’t bring Mexico here.”
Meanwhile, the seized workers account for about one-third of Mills Manufacturing’s work force, and production has slowed down significantly while the company scrambles to restore its employee base. At the time of the raid, said Oswald, there were 175 people working at the plant, and the company was looking to hire 10 to 15 more. Now, he says, it will take awhile to bring the plant back up to full capacity.
The raid has also affected the company’s remaining workers. “We’ve really been focusing on making sure our employees are OK, because it’s been pretty traumatic,” noted Oswald.
That trauma is also extending into the broader community, immigrant advocate Edna Campos maintains. The families of those seized are struggling to make contact, and some workers at other companies have walked off the job for fear of being raided or because of the need to contact arrested family members, she notes, adding, “There are people who are worried their plant is going to be next.”
Andy Meltzer of Arvato Digital Services (formerly Sonopress) in Weaverville has confirmed that workers there had left midshift and that some had been fired as a result. But he declined to give specific numbers, saying the workers are handled by a temporary agency, which fired them for violating its policy regarding leaving in the middle of a shift.
Campos and other immigration activists have begun meeting to seek ways to help those affected by the Mills raid, but she says the impact extends far beyond things like food and supplies. “It feeds the division that is permeating … the area,” she asserts. “The anti-immigration sentiment. People are forming a distrust [toward] others.”
Although Campos doesn’t dispute that some immigrant workers are breaking the law, “Obviously, Mills Manufacturing needed the workers, and the people needed to work,” she points out. “The law of economics says that eventually the two will come together.”
Meanwhile, lack of meaningful action at the federal level, she asserts, has spurred local communities to take matters into their own hands in ways that do little or nothing to address the national immigration crisis. “Immigration issues are not going to be resolved by local law enforcement or the Right,” says Campos. She favors some kind of earned legalization for immigrants who live and work in the United States.
And if there’s anything positive about the ICE raid, she maintains, it’s that it’s spurring people to take action. “We’ve been getting calls from people who have not been even peripherally involved in the past.”
Hoping to continue the momentum, the Coalition of Latino-American Organizations, a local nonprofit, announced Aug. 15 that two rallies were planned for that weekend in downtown Asheville: an anti-ICE rally at Vance Monument on Saturday and a faith-based vigil the next day at First Congregational United Church of Christ.
“We will not tolerate such inhuman treatment of our neighborhood sisters and brothers,” the announcement stated. “Come in solidarity to protest this injustice.”