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More and more businesses are being raided as the Trump administration goes after employers who knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants. The biggest bust of all targeted a trailer manufacturer in northeast Texas. Immigration police hauled off more than 150 workers from the plant. As NPR's John Burnett reports, the raids have employers howling that the immigration crackdown is undermining another administration priority of boosting manufacturing in America.
(SOUNDBITE OF WELDING METAL)
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The sounds of raw steel being turned into trailers. It's brutish labor. Cut the metal, hammer it into place, arc weld it, repeat. Business was booming here at the Load Trail plant northeast of Dallas. Their heavy black trailers are popular for hauling hay bales, topsoil and oilfield equipment. Then came the raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in late August.
Jake Thiessen, whose family founded this plant, takes me onto the production floor, and I ask him why it's half empty.
JAKE THIESSEN: Well, there should be a lot more welding going on on this floor right now. It's very slow now.
BURNETT: I hear your production is down, like, 40 percent.
BURNETT: Over in company headquarters, Load Trail CEO Kevin Hiebert remembers the morning of August 28, when a helicopter thumped overhead and 300 ICE agents swarmed into his yard.
KEVIN HIEBERT: It looked like something that you typically would see out of the movies, not something you ever plan on living out in (laughter) real life.
BURNETT: ICE rounded up nearly a quarter of Hiebert's workforce, loaded them into buses and booked them for working in the country unlawfully. A criminal investigation of the company continues. So far this year, ICE agents have stormed 7-Elevens, a meatpacking plant, dairy and vegetable farms, and a feedlot. Katrina Berger, Chief Homeland Security Investigator in the Dallas office, read a statement to reporters after the Load Trail raid.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KATRINA BERGER: Businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens create an unfair advantage over the competing businesses. In addition, they take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal residents.
BURNETT: But you won't hear that complaint in Tigertown. This flyspeck community amid cotton fields near the Oklahoma border is home to a half-dozen major trailer manufacturers, all competitors.
Does the American trailer industry depend on undocumented labor?
HIEBERT: I can make a broader statement. I think the manufacturing industry in Texas, any kind of steel fabrication, construction, depends on immigrant labor, illegal immigrant labor.
BURNETT: That's what Hiebert thinks, and he's not alone. The vice president of a competing trailer maker down the road agrees. He says they all depend on illegal labor. He asked not to be named in hopes of staying off ICE's radar. But it's too late for that. ICE is currently auditing employee records of every trailer manufacturer out here to find out which workers have fake identity documents. Some unauthorized employees are so rattled, they're not showing up for work. Kevin Hiebert says what his industry needs are legal guest workers.
HIEBERT: Especially now that they're cranking up on the enforcement, everybody hopes that there will be some kind of a real immigration reform before what happens at Load Trail happens to them.
BURNETT: Load Trail has been in trouble before. In 2014, the company was fined $445,000 for employing more than 170 unauthorized immigrants at its plant. Hiebert says they hire who walks in the door, and they pay decent wages - $20 to $25 an hour. Still, they've always had a hard time finding welders. So the work is done by men like Ignacio Barrios. He's a sturdy, 36-year-old welder who came here illegally from Oaxaca, Mexico. He wears an American flag T-shirt and sits in the church that's helping to support his family of five now that he's out of work. Barrios paid a $5,000 bond to get out of detention. Now he's waiting for his day in immigration court.
IGNACIO BARRIOS: (Through interpreter) You have to work hard. Lots of times, you get injured, burned. You break your fingers. It gets over a hundred degrees in there. I've seen that Americans don't want to do the kind of work that we do.
BURNETT: Lamar County, where the ICE raid went down, is crimson Trump country. Yet, to hear the trailer bosses tell it, the administration's aggressive immigration enforcement now threatens one of the county's lifebloods. I took this conundrum to the old boys down at the Dairy Queen in the county seat of Paris. They meet every morning to solve the world's problems.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just coffee this morning?
BURNETT: Here's Alan Helberg, a former hospital administrator.
ALAN HELBERG: This country will not survive if we don't straighten the way they can come over here and work - because I guarantee you the Americans are not going to do that.
BURNETT: And his buddy, Jerry Akers, a retired dentist.
JERRY AKERS: The Congress of the United States needs to get off their duff and pass some meaningful legislation where people come here and work legally and not have to be afraid of getting uprooted.
BURNETT: Immigration reform is so far dead in the water in the gridlocked Congress, and back at Tigertown, the trailer makers say if they can't find enough welders, they would consider moving their whole operations to Mexico. John Burnett, NPR News, Tigertown, Texas.
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