“We were just trying to have a fun community event,” said Ricky Branham, the chamber’s executive director. “It took on a life of its own. It got political.”
Founded in 1874 at the junction of several rail lines, Willard blossomed into a manufacturing base and agricultural hub, even though its population never broke the 7,000 mark. Today, the blue-collar town is home to a maker of snowblowers, a large book printer and a Pepperidge Farm cookie factory. The farming operations grow, pack and deliver fresh produce for consumers across the East and the Midwest.
In the 1890s, an entrepreneur named Henry Johnson realized that Willard’s expansive marsh could produce quality celery, if only it could be drained. He enticed Dutch farmers, who had settled in Michigan, to relocate here.
The first families arrived in 1896. They drained the swamp to reach the fertile earth below, built a canal system and divided up the land. Their celery cultivation gave rise to a community named Celeryville that still exists, though growers have moved on to other crops.
Their descendants — the Wierses, Buurmas and Holthouses — now grow more than three dozen kinds of vegetables sold through Kroger, Meijer, Walmart and other retailers.
For decades, the farmers have relied on migrant labor from spring to fall. Depending on how quickly they work, field workers can earn up to $18 an hour, compared with Ohio’s $8.15 minimum hourly wage. Many return year after year to do the strenuous seasonal work, sometimes in temperatures that soar to 100 degrees. (Local residents largely steer clear.)
Seven in 10 field workers nationwide are undocumented, according to estimates by the American Farm Bureau Federation. In Willard, it is probably no different.
“Without the Hispanic labor force, we wouldn’t be able to grow crops,” said Ben Wiers, a great-grandson of the pioneer Henry Wiers, who bought five acres here in 1896, noting that he considers many workers at Wiers Farms, which cultivates more than 1,000 acres of produce under the Dutch Maid label, to be friends.
But beefed-up border enforcement has slowed the flow of workers who enter the country illegally. Last year, a shortage forced Mr. Wiers and the other growers to leave millions of dollars’ worth of produce in the fields.
This year could be worse. The Trump administration has encouraged local law enforcement across the country to help identify deportable individuals for the federal authorities, making long-distance travel risky for those already in the country without legal status.
“It’s not a hospitable climate,” lamented Mr. Wiers, who joined other farmers in discussing their concerns recently with Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio.
Down the road, another area farmer, Chadd Buurma, said, “I have nothing but positive feelings toward the migrants.”
At the monthly muck growers’ association breakfast, the farmers pray for the safe travel of their workers.
“We pray and hope the workers show up,” Ken Holthouse, a descendant of the Dutch settler Jan Holthuis, said as he looked out across his fields.
About 30 people showed up for a community meeting on May 16 at the Church of God of Prophecy here to learn about the potential impact of immigration enforcement on Willard.
They heard from a panel of clergy members, immigrant advocates, lawyers and Jesus Manuel Lara Lopez, a Mexican national who has lived in Willard since 2001 but is now facing deportation.
“I have four children; I’ve never been in trouble. I’d like to ask for your prayers,” he said in Spanish, which was translated into English. “Sadness fills my heart.”
Listening attentively at round tables were Hispanics and a handful of white residents, including Judy and Dave Smith, who stormed out of the room.
“I’m a compassionate person,” Ms. Smith declared, fuming in the hallway. “I believe people who come here have to come here the right way. It makes me angry when I hear people talking about harboring illegals.”
Growing up poor in Willard, Ms. Smith said, she sometimes faced racial slurs for being Italian. Now she lives on the right side of the tracks, she said, selling used beds, mattresses and clothing, often to “Spanish people.” That doesn’t mean they all belong here, she said.
Her husband said he didn’t like hearing that everyone in the country, legally or not, is protected by the Constitution.
Ask where to find immigrants in Willard, and residents respond “in the muck,” the charcoal-black, organic-rich farmland that abuts the town.
Over the years, many Latin Americans have settled here, working year-round on the farms as well as at nurseries and factories.
Downtown Willard’s main artery, Myrtle Avenue, has enjoyed a renaissance thanks to Taco Rico and other Hispanic-owned businesses.
“We need to make them part of the fabric of Willard,” said City Manager Jim Ludban, who grew up here. He said he had been “100 percent” in favor of throwing a welcome-back party for the seasonal migrants.
As it is, the fear that exists among Willard’s immigrants is palpable and, with apprehensions on the rise, fewer are expected to arrive.
“People used to be care-free. Now they’re afraid to leave their homes,” said Romeo Perez, who arrived here from Mexico 13 years ago to work in agriculture but now runs Romeo’s Bakery, which prepares traditional Mexican sweet bread called pan dulce. As a consequence of that fear, he has seen business drop by 20 percent since January.
Mr. Perez worries that his bakery won’t get a seasonal bump this summer from farm workers, either, because “everyone knows they aren’t coming like they used to.”
Coin-operated laundries, banks, gas stations and other businesses could also lose the typical boom in business that comes with the arrival of the seasonal workers.
“Oh, Lord, we order extra of everything; we double up on people and hours,” said a hopeful Denise Maynard, assistant manager of Save-A-Lot, one of two supermarkets in town. She described buses that disgorge migrants, who push “overheaping cartloads” through the store’s aisles.
Just two days before the first radishes were ready to be pulled up in late May, field workers had hardly started to trickle in.
On the edge of Willard’s fields, three migrants pondered the current state of affairs after a day’s work.
“Everyone’s afraid to come,” said Jorge Ramirez, the only American among the three and the one who had driven the others — from Mexico — up from Florida. “There is too big a risk of getting caught.”
The men had a close call on a road an hour south of Willard.
Asked for identification by a pair of state troopers, the two Mexicans produced their passports. Mr. Ramirez, who presented his license, said that he was accused of human smuggling.
Two hours later, the men were released to their crew supervisor, whom they had reached by phone — but only after a sheriff’s deputy intervened. According to Mr. Ramirez, he arrived and told the others: “You aren’t immigration agents. Who the hell do you think will harvest our crops?”
It has been 16 years since Mr. Lara left his village in Chiapas, Mexico, sneaked across the border and headed to Willard, where he had heard that jobs were plentiful.
He worked the land. He fell in love with Anahi Salinas, a fellow Mexican, and they eventually married and had American-citizen children. He became rooted in the community.
“I was working and raising a family,” Mr. Lara, 38, recalled on the back porch of the beige clapboard house with maroon shutters that he bought a year ago with a $60,000 mortgage.
His sons, Eric, 13; Edwin, 11; and Anuar, 10, played basketball nearby. His daughter, Elsiy, 6, entertained herself by skipping around.
In 2008, Mr. Lara was pulled over on his way to the dentist. Unable to produce a driver’s license, which is not issued to undocumented residents in Ohio, he was jailed. A sheriff’s deputy contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Deportation proceedings followed, culminating in a removal order in 2011.
The government granted Mr. Lara a deportation reprieve because he was otherwise law-abiding, and he was placed under an order of supervision with a work permit, requiring that he check in with ICE annually and renew it.
In January, after the Trump administration announced that no one in the country illegally was exempt from deportation, immigrants like Mr. Lara became vulnerable.
On March 28, when he arrived for his check-in with ICE in Cleveland, officials tethered an electronic tracking monitor to his ankle over objections from his lawyer, who argued that he was no flight risk.
When Mr. Lara raised his trousers to reveal the black, clunky device — he charges it every 12 hours — Elsiy blurted out: “That’s a thing the police put. My Daddy isn’t a criminal!”
His application for a “stay of removal” included several letters of support, including one from an official at a center where he studied English, learned how to operate a forklift and enrolled in a machine workshop. Such efforts were “testimony of his great desire to better himself to be able to thrive in his community,” the letter said, aiming to prove “good moral character.”
In a denial note, an ICE assistant field director, Timothy Ward, wrote, “I have determined that pursuing removal of Mr. Lara Lopez is consistent with enforcement priorities.”
“If this guy is a priority for removal, I don’t know who isn’t,” his lawyer, David Leopold, said in an interview.
The authorities ordered Mr. Lara to report to the ICE office in Cleveland on May 19 with an airline ticket back to Mexico, which he bought at his own expense. On June 5, the agency denied a request by his lawyer that it reconsider removing him. The request included references from an employer, his neighbors and his children’s teachers.
Mr. Lara’s flight is scheduled for July 18.
For the moment, he continues to work the graveyard shift packing Milano cookies and Goldfish crackers at the Pepperidge Farm plant. He also picks up other part-time work.
“I don’t get any help from the government,” he said.
Their next-door neighbor, Jennifer Fidler, called Mr. Lara a role model. “All I ever see him do is work, take care of his children and go to church,” she said. “Why would you get rid of a good person?”