21 June 2018 | Evan MacDonald | Cleveland.com
SALEM, Ohio — Eight years ago, Salem — a predominantly-white city on the border of Columbiana and Mahoning counties — had just two Hispanic students in its entire school district.
The years after the Great Recession brought change to the community. Migrant workers can often be a lifeline to the economies of small towns devastated by the absence of high-paying industry jobs, and Salem saw an influx of Guatemalan natives. By last year, the number of Hispanic students in the city’s school district ballooned to more than 100, accounting for roughly 6 percent of the student population, officials said.
The city now faces uncertainty after Tuesday’s federal immigration raid on Fresh Mark, a meat packaging plant that serves as the city’s second-largest employer. The raid resulted in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s and Homeland Security agents arresting 146 people, including many Guatemalan nationals, suspected of being in the country illegally. Federal agents said the raid came after a yearlong investigation targeting undocumented immigrants.
The raid also brought concern to Salem, a community of roughly 12,000 people. Some in Salem are strongly in favor of a tough approach to curb undocumented immigration, but others, including government officials and community leaders, expressed concern over the effect the raid could have on families, local businesses and city services.
“Maybe the silent majority might say they’re glad this happened,” Mayor John Berlin said. “But the vocal ones are against it.”
Business leaders worry the raid could have an impact – not only on Fresh Mark, but on other business that depend on the patronage of the people arrested Tuesday afternoon.
“We fear this will cause a rippled effect in the business community,” said Audrey C. Null, the executive director of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re hopeful the situation will be taken care of.”
Removing more than 100 undocumented immigrants from the community could result in more vacant apartments and the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in tax revenue for the city, Berlin said.
Berlin, who has been mayor since 2012, said the Guatemalan community has assimilated well in Salem. They’ve also been important to the city’s resurgence after the recession.
“They have, if nothing else, filled homes and apartments that would otherwise be empty,” he said. “The rational conclusion is that if there are deportations [after the raid], there will be vacancies.”
The community has rebounded well after the recession, Null and Berlin said. Many business have “help wanted” signs hanging in windows, and some of the larger employers – including Fresh Mark – advertise job openings with large signs or billboards.
“There’s plenty of jobs in this community,” Berlin said. “Everywhere you go, everyone’s looking for help.”
The city’s school district also has seven teachers certified to teach English as a second language, and provides lists of commonly-used Spanish phrases to all of its employees, Superintendent Dr. Joe Shivers said.
The city’s Christian churches each offered assistance after Tuesday’s raid. First Christian Church opened its doors to families of anyone detained, offering food and other resources until children could be reunited with parents or transferred to the custody of the Columbiana County Department of Family Services.
The church took many calls in the past day from concerned residents offering help, Pastor Leonard Moore said.
The change to Salem’s population has not been seamless, officials acknowledged. In 2011, the Ohio Valley Tea Party protested outside Fresh Mark, accusing the company of hiring undocumented immigrants, according to the local newspaper, The Salem News.
Students in the school district have been more accepting than parents of the influx of Hispanic students, but the change in the school district’s population has not created any issues, Shivers said.
He dismissed the notion that a generational gap is the reason for the difference in opinion, but allowed for the notion that students’ day-to-day interactions with Hispanic peers could be a reason.
“You get to know people who are in your classes,” Shivers said. “They’re your friends.”
Moore also said churchgoers have been largely welcoming of Guatemalan natives.
“The assimilation has created more goodwill than tension,” he said.
The Fresh Mark raid happened weeks after federal immigration agents made 114 arrests at a Sandusky gardening and landscaping company. It also came as President Donald Trump’s administration elicited outrage for its “zero tolerance policy” of separating children from parents arrested after illegally crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump responded Wednesday by signing an executive order to keep families together while they are in custody, and expedite their cases.
Federal agents also executed search warrants Tuesday for documents at Fresh Mark’s two locations in Massillon and one location in Canton, authorities said.
Investigators said Fresh Mark hired undocumented immigrants at its processing and packaging plants, and many of them used fake identities belonging to U.S. citizens, according to a statement from Homeland Security. Agents have been investigating Fresh Mark for a year, officials said.
Fresh Mark officials directed questions to federal authorities, and stopped short of saying the meat company knowingly hired people who were living in America illegally.
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