By Erin Segroves, Staff Writer
Anxious phone calls poured in early Wednesday morning.
Friends and relatives of the morning-shift workers at Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plants called Esteban and Netchie Lopez, co-owners of the Latin American Consulting Co., even before the immigration sweep started at 8:15 a.m.
“There are many families that already knew that at any moment there would be raids,” Mr. Lopez said in Spanish.
Tension and fear burned through Chattanooga’s immigrant community Wednesday after federal agents arrested more than 100 people at the downtown Pilgrim’s Pride plants. One second-shift worker at the company, worried that his aunt was caught in the raid, called about his three young cousins, Mr. Lopez said.
“I told him to take responsibility of the children temporarily,” said Mr. Lopez. “(He) said to me, ‘I’m not going back to work’.”
Some businesses in the area surrounding Main Street, where immigrants live and work and many businesses are Hispanic owned, locked their doors.
“You can see it is affecting a lot of business in the area — most of them are closed,” said Rene Hernandez, who runs Taco Rico, a Salvadoran restaurant near the Pilgrim’s Pride plant.
Juan Hernandez, owner of Centro Azteca, a business on Main Street that offers services such as money transfers and translation assistance, said workers would lay low.
“Nobody will come to work tonight,” he said.
Others said the fear in the immigrant community was palpable after the arrests.
“Everyone’s just really scared,” said Stacy Johnson, board chairman for the referral center La Paz de Dios. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
Reacting to that fear, many businesses locked their doors in the Main Street area.
People called Latin American Consulting Co. all day Wednesday to get lawyer referrals and leave information so Mr. Lopez said he kept a running list of workers’ false names, real names, children and emergency phone numbers.
Phone lines also buzzed all day Wednesday at WDAL-AM, a Spanish-language radio station in Dalton, Ga. Deejays provided details about the federal raid and gave frequent updates on what was happening. Listeners called in with questions, worried about friends and families and wanting information, said David Hernandez, the station’s program director.
Until this morning, all rumors about an immigration raid pointed to Dalton, Ga., where 200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are being trained, he said
“We were not sure what they were doing here until today when we found out about the raid,” Mr. Hernandez said.
As the day wore on, some members of the Main Street community worried about the mothers, fathers and children affected by the raid.
“They are separating families,” said Felipe Ayala, a clerk at Carnicerias Loa, a Hispanic grocery and meat store. “The government tries to help people with education, but a kid who doesn’t have parents won’t be well educated. He’ll be a future gang member.”
Mrs. Lopez said she sees both sides of the issue.
“I know that it is a difficult decision that the government has to do to put in place a good (immigration) program,” she said. “On the other hand, there are so many that are coming that we need them to stop.”
Mrs. Lopez said she often encounters immigrants with false documents.
“They pay for these papers,” she said. “In their hearts, they really think that it’s OK because they bought it.”
Sophia Martín, owner of Signs by Sophie on Main Street, was angered by the arrests, seeing only hard-working people being treated unfairly.
“Why don’t they go after the people that are committing crimes? After the ones who steal? After the ones who assault?” she said in Spanish.
The Hispanic community has come together to ensure that children whose parents are arrested are safe, even if it means feeding many new mouths on an already tight budget, said Mike Feely, executive director of the St. Andrew’s Center, a resource for Chattanooga’s multi-cultural communities.
“The positive thing we’ve seen out of this — if you can call it that — is that you really see people watching after each other,” he said.
Staff writer Lauren Gregory contributed to this story.
E-mail Erin Segroves at email@example.com