In ICE Custody he Lost his Sight in One Eye But Gained a Tennessee Town’s Support

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — He cleaned coagulated blood and fat from the slaughterhouse conveyor, making $11 an hour. That type of work was enough to buy a 55-inch television and a white Ford Focus, two of his proudest possessions.

But on April 5 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept up Gonzalo Chavez in a slaughterhouse raid in rural East Tennessee. More than three months later, he emerged blind in his left eye into a world where he had lost nearly everything.

Chavez, 42, said an ICE agent didn’t believe him when he said he had diabetes, so he went a week without medicine. His eye blurred after two weeks, then fell dark.

While in detention his landlord rented his two-bedroom apartment to someone else. Gone was his clothing, the title to his car.

“My friends used to tell me that the only thing I was missing was a wife,” Chavez said. “I had a nice television, I had nice furniture. Now I realize that all those were material things, and what matters most is my health.”

Morristown coalesced to support Chavez and other immigrants, who were woven into everyday life. With 106 manufacturing companies, the local economy depends on immigrant labor. The public schools are integrated. Mothers sell tamales at soccer tournaments. Its population is 21 percent Hispanic, compared with 5 percent in the state.

It’s one of the handful of American cities across the U.S. reeling from workplace immigration sweeps. ICE has conducted at least four other major raids since the East Tennessee roundup, which civil rights groups say was the largest in a decade.

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All the cities have seen an outpouring of support from social service groups and neighbors, said Elizabeth Oglesby, a professor in the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona. She also studied the long-term effects of workplace raids during the George W. Bush administration.

By Mike Reicher for TENNESSEAN
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