After ICE Raid, A Shortage Of Welders In Tigertown, Texas

Oct 19, 2018
Originally published on October 19, 2018 11:46 am

With new enforcement priorities under the Trump administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are taking aim at employers that knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants. The most recent — and largest — bust happened at a trailer manufacturing plant in northeast Texas.

Business had been booming at Load Trail LLC, about two hours northeast of Dallas, as customers bought the black trailers to haul hay bales, topsoil, construction refuse and oilfield equipment. Then came the ICE raid in late August.

Inside Load Trail's huge production building, welders turn raw steel into trailers, amid cacophonous clanging and showers of sparks. It's brutish labor — cut the heavy black metal, lug it into place, arc-weld it, repeat — but the production floor is nearly half-empty because of an acute shortage of welders.

Load Trail CEO Kevin Hiebert remembers the morning of Aug. 28, when a helicopter thumped overhead and 300 ICE agents swarmed into his yard. "It looked like something you would typically see in the movies," he said, "not something you ever planned on living out in real life."

ICE rounded up more than 150 employees — 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-Eleven stores, a meatpacking plant, dairy and vegetable farms and a feedlot.

"Businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens create an unfair advantage over their competing businesses. In addition, they take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal residents," said Katrina Berger, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in the Dallas ICE office.

But you won't hear those complaints in Tigertown, Texas. This flyspeck community situated between cotton fields near the Oklahoma border is home to a half-dozen major trailer manufacturers — all competitors. And they all employ undocumented workers.

"I think the manufacturing industry in Texas, any kind of steel fabrication construction, depends on illegal immigrant labor," Hiebert says.

The head of a competing trailer-maker down the road agrees, saying they all use workers who are in the country illegally. He asked not to be named in hopes of staying off ICE's radar.

It's too late for that, though: ICE is auditing the employee records of every trailer manufacturer in Tigertown to find out which workers have fake identity documents. Some unauthorized employees are so rattled they're not showing up for work.

What the industry needs are legal guest workers, says Load Trail CEO Hiebert, "Especially now that they're cranking up on the enforcement. Everybody hopes that there'll be some kind of real immigration reform before what happened at Load Trail happens to them."

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 whoever walks in the door, and they pay decent wages — $20 to $25 an hour. Still, they've always had a hard time finding welders.

"The trailer industry is growing well," Hiebert says, "but manufacturers are unable to keep up with demand. It has to do with the inability to produce the product."

So the work is done by men like Ignacio Barrios, a sturdy, 36-year-old welder who came here illegally from Oaxaca, Mexico. He worked at Load Trail for 17 years before getting swept up in the ICE operation.

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 and is waiting for his day in immigration court.

"You have to work hard," he says in Spanish. "Lots of times you get injured, burned, you break your fingers. It gets over 100 degrees in there. I've seen that Americans don't want to do the kind of work that we do."

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says, "Texas has always been knowingly duplicitous when it comes to illegal immigration."

On the one hand, Texas is a staunch law-and-order state where conservatives support Trump's immigration agenda; on the other hand, Jillson says, if ICE is too successful, "employers are wondering where they're going to find people to man their businesses if American high school graduates aren't going to do it."

Lamar County, where the trailer manufacturers are headquartered, is crimson Trump country. Yet to hear the trailer bosses tell it, the administration's immigrant roundups threaten a lifeblood of the county. Locals who voted for Trump are nonetheless sympathetic to the hard-working, undocumented welders.

Every morning, a group of retirees meets at the Dairy Queen in the county seat of Paris to drink coffee and mull over the state of the nation.

"This country will not survive if we don't straighten the way [immigrants] can come over here and work. Because I guarantee you Americans are not gonna do it," says Alan Helberg, a former hospital administrator. His buddy, retired dentist Jerry Akers, chimes in, "Congress needs to get off their duff and pass some meaningful legislation to where people can come here and work legally and not have to be afraid of getting uprooted."

Comprehensive immigration reform is, so far, dead in the water in the gridlocked Congress. And back at Tigertown, some trailer manufacturers say that if they can't find enough welders, they would consider moving their entire operations to Mexico.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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.

THIESSEN: Yeah.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.