Loss of Fresh Mark Employees a Blow to Salem

SALEM, Ohio — Officials say the potential loss of 100-plus Fresh Mark Inc. employees – or even the company – would be a big blow to the City of Salem.

The Fresh Mark meat and packaging plant at 1735 S. Lincoln Ave. is Salem’s second largest employer with a workforce that fluctuates between 750 and 850 employees depending on the season. It’s also the city’s largest water customer. On Tuesday, a raid by the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement, or ICE, resulted in 146 employees being arrested on grounds of violating U.S. immigration law.

Audrey Null, executive director of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, said she was shocked by the news.

“The people that were taken were good patrons, good community people. They spent money in our stores, they rented property, some owned property,” she said.

Salem Mayor John Berlin wouldn’t go into specifics but said a conservative estimate would put Fresh Mark employees’ contributions to annual tax revenue in the range of $250,000.

“The services that we provide here for the street repair, fire department, police department, would be reduced by a quarter of a million dollars or more if anything affected that business,” he said.

Of the 146 employees arrested during Tuesday’s immigration raid, 80 still remain in custody. The rest have been processed and released “for humanitarian purposes,” an ICE spokesman said Thursday.

In a release Tuesday, ICE stated that several of the detainees were processed and released the day of the raid in accordance with its policy of utilizing “prosecutorial discretion on cases involving humanitarian concerns, such as health or family considerations.” Thursday’s update puts a number to that prior announcement.

The ICE raid on the Salem plant included 98 men and 48 women, primarily from Guatemala. In an email confirming the release of the detainees, the ICE spokesman stated that the men are being held at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown and the women at the Geauga County jail in Chardon.

Special agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations executed a criminal search warrant at the Fresh Mark plant around 4 p.m. Tuesday. In an email to The Business Journal on Wednesday, ICE spokesman, Khaalid Walls said the raid was “the opening salvo into the investigation against Fresh Mark.”

Several media outlets have reported stories alleging Fresh Mark helped employees who are undocumented immigrants – mainly from Guatemala – cover their tracks, and that the practice had been going on for decades. However, Null said Fresh Mark management has always maintained that their hiring practices are legal.

“I can tell you we’ve had conversations here about the situation because we hear people in town ask if there are illegals and they’ve always told us they’re doing the proper things,” she said.

What Null can say for sure is that Fresh Mark and its employees are of great benefit to the city.

“They’re supporters of our United Way here in Salem. They gave a large donation to the Salem Community Pantry last fall and that was employee driven,” she said. “They’re a good company and a good partner and it’s just an unfortunate situation.”

Nothing has been said about what could happen if the allegations are found to be true. However, Berlin said the city will still have to contend with the loss of the workers who have been arrested. While they may not have the proper documentation, he said they still contribute to the community, and in many ways give more than they receive.

“When there’s child abuse or a woman is beaten up, they don’t call the police. They’re afraid that they’re going to get deported, that they’re going to get arrested,” he said.

“So it’s not fair to them. They’re paying their 1¼% income tax to the city to have these services but they can’t use them. So it would be better all the way around if everyone that’s in Salem who is an immigrant, that’s working at any place in Salem or any other place in the whole country, is here legally.”

In addition, he said they’re also filling jobs in the community that otherwise would go unfilled.

“The day before ICE came to Salem there was a help wanted sign on the front of the building and it still remains,” said Berlin. “So it wasn’t that there were jobs being taken by other members of our community. There were still jobs available there; those jobs are still available.”

The AFL-CIO was among several organized labor unions to condemn the raid. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Petee Talley released a statement in response to ICE raids in Salem, Sandusky, Canton and Massillon, arguing that worksite raids “do nothing to raise wages and standards for working people in Ohio,” while creating fear in the workplace and community.

“The labor movement rejects enforcement-only tactics like raids that punish working people and are part of a larger agenda to weaken our unions and lower our wages,” Talley said. “The right way to use immigration policy to improve working conditions is to give long-term members of our workforce and our unions a well-earned path to citizenship, not by creating terror in our worksites or expanding abusive guest worker programs.”

He continued, “We refuse to let the politicians or employers divide us. Our answer is to stand united, as a politically independent movement of working people, for an immigration agenda that lifts people up, strengthens our communities and ensures that we are all able work with dignity, regardless of where we were born.”

The events of the last few days are taking place against the backdrop Thursday’s delay in Congress voting on an immigration reform bill. As the debate over family separations at the southern United State border still rages on, House members voted down a proposed immigration bill 193-231. They then postponed a vote on a second proposal deemed more moderate, but still appeared that it would face the same result because of division amongst Republicans.

The vote on the second bill is postponed until Friday.

The first bill would have provided some $25 billion for construction of a border wall, cut back on legal immigration programs and provided temporary legal status to young immigrants brought to the country as children. The second bill earmarks $23 billion for the wall and makes cuts to legal immigration programs, but would reportedly provide legal status to some 800,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.