Yearning to Breathe Free

It was business as usual at the Wampler Longacre turkey processing plant in Harrisonburg, Virginia, last February 3, 1997. Some 150 workers punched in, took to their stations, and did their part to provide Americans with reasonably priced, low-fat alternatives to bologna and bratwurst.

Shortly after 2:30 p.m., just as people were beginning their shift break, armed men surrounded and stormed the factory. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services agents, local and state police, the FBI, and local sheriffs rounded people into corners and slapped handcuffs on them. Aided by barking dogs and a loud command of the English language, they interrogated the workers in an effort to weed out all undocumented people. Everyone was cornered and grilled about their citizenship, including workers from Russia, China, and Latin America. In the end, 50 people were arrested and taken to jail. All those taken were Latin American.

Hours later, Rev. Samuel Pagan of the Agape Bilingual Mennonite Mission received word of the raid from local pastors asking him to go to the jail and check in on their parishioners who had been arrested. After much negotiation with INS agents, he was able to secure the release of women whose young children were awaiting them at home.

Pagan learned that 12 people were deported immediately after admitting to being in the country illegally. At least one from this group actually had been here legally; apparently he had been so intimidated by the experience that he pled guilty in order to secure his release, after which he was escorted out of the country. His family in Virginia didn’t know what had happened to him until they received his call from Mexico.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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