LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — The men were chopping silage on a farm field near Little Falls last fall when they noticed three vehicles, about 200 yards away, lurking and waiting.
The workers, about six of them, were supposed to drive on to their next task three miles away, but they worried that the minute they got on the road they’d be stopped by the immigration enforcement officers they saw sitting in the cars.
“None of the guys wanted to leave the field so they waited. They called me and I thought I better get out there,” said their employer, a Morrison County farmer who asked to remain anonymous for fear his property would be further targeted. “Believe me, you’ve gotta work up some courage to jump in your pickup and drive toward three ICE vehicles.”
The cars were gone by the time the farmer arrived, and none of the workers were arrested that day. But a message had been sent.
Morrison County is Trump country, with the state’s highest voter turnout for the president in 2016. It’s also a place where local farmers rely on Hispanic labor, and the president’s national push to catch unauthorized workers is starting to bite.
An increase in farm worker arrests and deportations the past few months has Little Falls on edge.
Concerns about the increased level of enforcement echo throughout this rural community of about 8,000 people in the center of the state, where several residents, activists and farmers say Border Patrol trucks, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been highly visible since last fall.
It’s not unusual for immigration authorities to raid larger operations and penalize employers for allegedly knowingly hiring unauthorized immigrants.
But longtime farmers in Morrison County say federal agents arresting individual employees on their way to and from work, outside of the grocery store, and driving around town, is a new practice that’s emerged in recent months.
At least seven from the Little Falls area have been picked up by immigration authorities, according to their employers.
‘All God’s people’
The arrests have created fear and anxiety throughout the community, prompted meetings with the sheriff and multiple “know your rights” presentations for Hispanic employees who may not be familiar with the constitutional protections they have in the United States.
Two of the employees, brothers from Mexico, were stopped by immigration last fall while driving. One of them was deported, the other got away, another farmer in Morrison County said. The farmer said one man’s paycheck was in the car, which he suspects helped authorities discover his farm. Since then, he said he’s seen the unmistakable Customs and Border Protection vehicles driving around the farm a few times.
“These are valued employees. We get their IDs and everything. Do we know if they’re legal or illegal? Well, we’re going to say we’re open on that,” said the farmer, who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “We don’t know that they are, we don’t know that they aren’t. But they are employees and they are the most hard-working people that you can find.”
According to a Morrison County incident report, another man was arrested in a similar manner by Morrison County deputies in March.
The 24-year-old Richmond, Minn., man was stopped for driving under the influence and taken to the county jail. The man gave deputies a Mexican identification card and told them it was fake but that his name was real, according to the report. The man had been stopped once before and cited for driving without a Minnesota driver’s license or insurance last year, according to court records.
The Morrison County incident report sheds light on how the man ended up in immigration custody after the misdemeanor DUI offense.
Although sheriff’s deputies stopped him, Little Falls Police got involved and called U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agent Jeremy Poser to “ask if there’s anything he would like us to do with this individual,” according to the incident report. Poser spoke with the man “for a period of time” and asked whether deputies “had enough to detain” him until he picked him up the next morning.
The Morrison County Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against the man because Border Patrol had begun deportation proceedings.
Some county residents have pressured Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen to stop cooperating with immigration authorities after they expressed concern that agent Poser is often called by local police as a Spanish translator. They’ve held meetings with him and plan to hold another in mid-July.
“I think there is room for everybody, whether you’re documented or undocumented,” said Greg Spofford of Little Falls, who’s facilitated some of the meetings. “We’re all God’s people.”
Everyone deserves to have a part of the seven Catholic tenets, one of which is an opportunity work, have meaningful work. “We’re not taking any jobs away from anybody,” he said.
Larsen said he understands the concerns, but that he’s unwilling to create a policy that would require deputies to never call CBP or ICE.
“We don’t seek out illegal immigrants, but if there is an assault or a crime being committed, then I need to be aware of it,” Larsen said. “We don’t say we want this person deported.”
Larsen said he would ask immigration to step in and help identify folks in violent crime situations, however, he said the only incidents that have led to immigration detaining people have stemmed from traffic stops.
The presence of Border Patrol vehicles in Little Falls has raised questions about the division’s authority over the town that sits more than 200 miles from the U.S.-Canada border. Little Falls is within the Customs and Border Patrol’s Grand Forks sector, which includes eight states and has 203 agents sprinkled throughout.
Poser is one of those agents, who previously worked in Arizona and is now stationed in International Falls.
An agency spokesperson said that for decades, the Border Patrol has had broad discretion to conduct enforcement actions away from the immediate border to prevent trafficking, smuggling and other criminal organizations.
The Immigration and Nationality Act states that agents are free to search suspected immigration violators without a warrant “within a reasonable distance” from the border. The law defines reasonable as 100 air miles from the border.
That’s why some Morrison County residents are alarmed that the Border Patrol is cooperating with local law enforcement, more than 200 miles from Canada, to detain and deport immigrants living in the heart of the community.
“It’s like letting the fox guard the chicken coop,” said another dairy farmer, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely about his experience.
One Sunday morning in May, one of his employees was speeding on the way to church when he was picked up by immigration authorities. The farmer said he drove the 100 miles to ICE regional headquarters in the Twin Cities to pay $7,500 to bail out his employee. That employee now awaits a court hearing.