/The Terrorized Mississippi Towns That ICE Left Behind

The Terrorized Mississippi Towns That ICE Left Behind

FOREST, Mississippi—A single mother called a neighbor on the morning of Aug. 7, as federal immigration agents stormed the rural Mississippi chicken plant where she worked: “Manuel,” he remembered her saying, “I can’t get out. I have faith, and I trust you to take care of my kids.” That afternoon, Manuel Ramirez watched TV with the boys, who are 12, 10, and 5, making excuses for their mother’s absence until the oldest child saw on Facebook that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had come to her plant. The child started to cry. “You’re a bad friend,” Ramirez recalled him saying. In the four days that followed, as the children’s mother sat in a Louisiana detention center, Ramirez tried to cheer the brothers with pizza and burritos, but he was struggling with the burden—and nervous. Like the boys’ mother, he is in the United States illegally. He might be rounded up too. And then what? He had already been ticketed for driving without a license earlier this year. “What am I going to do?” he asked rhetorically. “I can’t fly.”

As Ramirez, 38, recounted this story last Sunday afternoon in the annex of St. Michael’s Catholic Church here in Forest, he used the sleeves of his polo shirt to dry his tears. (Like several other undocumented immigrants in this story, I have changed his name because of his fears of deportation.) He wanted to know if I could help him get working papers. The other night he dreamed he was dressed all in white. “I asked Father Roberto, ‘What does it mean to be wearing all white clothes?’ And he said, ‘It means you are an angel, because they are not your children and you are watching after them.’ ”

Welcome to this city of babysitters, where the sudden disappearance of hundreds of working adults has pulled hundreds more into new and unfamiliar roles. A teacher spent the hours after school watching two girls, ages 4 and 7, who hadn’t seen their mother in a week. A woman arrived at the grocery store with 11 kids in tow, their mothers detained hundreds of miles away. A frantic father left his engine running in the school parking lot, afraid that in picking up his children he was driving into a trap. Latino parents kept more than 150 students home from school in central Mississippi’s Scott County, where Forest is the county seat, in the days after the raids.

Fresh crises are unfolding now. Husbands are trying to find (and pay) lawyers for their incarcerated wives, and vice versa. The economic consequences of mass job loss will soon come face to face with September rent payments. The fallout from the country’s largest workplace raids in years has blanketed the Hispanic community here in sadness, fear, and desperation. Their roots in these small towns north and east of the state capital—many arrived more than a decade ago—have permitted them to call upon extensive social support systems, from family to school to church. At the same time, as they navigate a legal process designed to encourage them to leave the country, they will face wrenching decisions about the houses they purchased with the savings from years of chicken work and what the future will hold for their U.S.-born children.

Mario, standing, speaks to a group of fellow immigrants in a seating area.

Mario, standing, speaks to a group of fellow immigrants in a seating area.

Mario, a Mexican chicken plant worker with two American children, was arrested last week. On Tuesday, he addressed his former colleagues inside the Hondumex grocery store in Morton, Mississippi.

Henry Grabar

The workplace raids that took place on Aug. 7 represent the new face of immigration enforcement in the Trump era. Six hundred and eighty workers were arrested across seven chicken plants in two counties. That dwarfs the raid last August in which ICE agents detained 160 workers at a manufacturing plant in Paris, Texas. Before that, in April 2018, ICE arrested 97 immigrants at a meatpacking plant near Morristown, Tennessee. That had been the largest act of workplace immigration enforcement since 2008, reflecting a jarring change from the Obama administration’s decision to focus internal immigration enforcement on those who had committed serious crimes. Now Morristown seems small.

In Morton, Mississippi, population 3,600, more than 10 percent of the town has now been either incarcerated or fired. While 300 of those arrested were released shortly after the raids, the claim made by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, Mike Hurst, that “all children were with at least one of their parents” by the night after the raids was not true then, and it was not true days later. It turns out that the first thing that happens when hundreds of adults vanish is a child care crisis.

On Sunday, Aug. 11—four days after the raids—the second of two Spanish-language masses was underway at St. Michael’s. In a low brick outbuilding, a trio of nuns who had driven from Alabama tried to keep the kids out of trouble while a group of young civil engineers from Vicksburg, 90 minutes to the west, helped adults fill out raid intake forms for missing family members.

For Americans everywhere, the children of Mississippi’s incarcerated Latino poultry workers had become the latest symbol of the Trump administration’s inhumane treatment of immigrants. A tearful plea for mercy from an 11-year-old girl named Magdalena had gone viral, provoking sympathy and anger at the circumstances of families split by the raids. After arriving in Mississippi, I heard the video mentioned by everyone from the owner of a local Mexican restaurant, who used it to explain to his daughter what had happened, to Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi congressman who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, which shares oversight of ICE. “You come to Morton and Forest, wreak havoc on a community that was carrying out the American dream,” Thompson told me on Monday, when he stopped in Forest with his granddaughter. “I can see how people who are Latino would be afraid.”

Hundreds of children find themselves in Magdalena’s situation, passed between neighbors and relatives and a remaining parent, struggling to understand why the U.S. government has imprisoned their mothers or fathers. Esther, a 33-year-old poultry worker from Chiapas, Mexico, has lived in the U.S. without papers for 10 years. She and her husband were both arrested on the day of the raids, and she asked her sister-in-law to look after her children until she was released. When she came home later that day, she recalled, her 6-year-old son asked, “Did the police arrest you, Mama?”

Esther’s 6-year-old son asked, “Did the police arrest you, Mama?”

“Yes,” she told him.

“Well the police must be bad, if they arrested you.” Esther’s younger son, Osvaldo, had been happily circling the church annex with a toddler’s lurching, headlong gait. Now he was crying. She picked him up. He wanted his juice from his mother’s Winnie the Pooh shoulder bag. He hadn’t seen his father in six days, but at 18 months old, this little American citizen was too young to know that his father had also been jailed and was likely to be deported.

More than 350 workers remain in ICE detention centers in Mississippi and Louisiana, where advocates say it will be weeks, at least, before they can secure bond hearings in front of a judge. Those who have been released are struggling to make ends meet with one or both of their family’s earners out of the workforce. For the many immigrants who have lived in central Mississippi for a decade or more, staying put may mean permanent unemployment.

“It is a desperate situation. I have seen multiple families go homeless because of this,” said Jeremy Jong, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, referring to previous ICE detentions of working parents. “The vast, vast majority will not be able to work again in the United States.” Those who do manage to remain in the U.S., he said, will become wards of their citizen children or extended families.

Other residents had barely avoided arrest. An undocumented single mother named Linda, a Mexican immigrant from Guanajuato with a U.S. citizen daughter in 10th grade, pulled a U-turn in the parking lot of a plant as the raid got underway. An undocumented Guatemalan woman, Maura, didn’t go to work—and didn’t get arrested—because her 16-year-old son was sick with a stomachache. She stayed to care for him and later took him to the hospital, where the doctors told her they had to remove his appendix. Right around then, she remembered, her little brother called and told her he had been picked up by ICE. Her son spent the next two days in the hospital recovering from his appendectomy, which, she explained apologetically, was why she had waited until Sunday to try to locate and help her brother, whom she has not heard from since that Wednesday.

Maura hesitated even to contemplate the alternate reality where she went to work on Aug. 7. “If they’d detained me that day, I don’t know what would have happened with my son, dying at home, him not knowing about me, me not knowing about him.”

For an administration that pledged to quadruple its workplace inspections, the poultry towns of central Mississippi made an obvious target. Nominally, the plants employed E-Verify, the U.S. government’s online portal for checking Social Security numbers. But federal officials knew of hundreds of undocumented workers who had worked at the plants over the past two decades. Here as in other low-wage work centers, undocumented workers paid hundreds of dollars to purchase Americans’ Social Security numbers on the black market or borrowed them from family members to fulfill the terms of the 1986 immigration law that made employing undocumented immigrants a crime. It’s estimated that more than 1.8 million immigrants work in the United States using Social Security numbers that do not match their names.

Many conservatives frame this practice as identity theft, and there’s an upcoming case in the U.S. Supreme Court that would allow states to prosecute it as such. Americans are occasionally surprised to find that they have an auto loan in their name, stemming from a stolen Social Security number that an immigrant is using to pay taxes. Still, the practice is for the most part a victimless crime, one whose largest consequence by far is the $13 billion subsidy that undocumented workers contribute into the Social Security fund for U.S. citizens in the form of payroll taxes.

Immigrants also point out that the status quo has long been tolerated by virtually everyone, from Congress (which has repeatedly declined to address the issue of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents) to plant managers who have looked the other way or, just as often, actively sought out undocumented workers.

Chicken processing is difficult, dangerous work ridden with reports of exploitation and abuse. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, poultry workers sustain more severe injuries than their peers in road work or commercial construction. Unionization rates lag behind pork and beef plants.

Juan Garcia stands at the register of his deserted grocery store.

Juan Garcia stands at the register of his deserted grocery store.

“We will maybe shut it down,” Juan Garcia said of his Morton grocery store on Sunday, Aug. 11. “I hate to do it. We worked hard to make it like this.”

Henry Grabar

In an area of rural Mississippi with an infamous history of racist violence, the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Central and South America has caused surprisingly little consternation—in part because these workers have sustained the state’s largest agricultural sector, chicken, and pumped money into the pockets of local businesses and landlords. In Forest, brightly painted rooster sculptures are perched in front of the dry cleaners, the gas station, the bank. In Morton, 10 miles down the road, the signs by the side of the road read:

“Sign up now for Morton Youth Football”

“Poultry jobs available—call for an interview”

In Scratching Out a Living, an engrossing account of life among central Mississippi’s Hispanic poultry workers, Angela Stuesse writes that the first Cuban poultry workers were sometimes mistaken for Choctaw Indians by the area’s white and black residents during the 1990s. Plant owners have said for decades that immigration was the only solution to a persistent labor shortage; viewed another way, immigrants permitted management to maintain the low wages and dangerous conditions that black chicken workers had fought to improve in the ’70s and ’80s.

“I have seen multiple families go homeless because of this. The vast, vast majority will not be able to work again in the United States.”

— Jeremy Jong, Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer

In the 1990s, Stuesse recounts, a local company (whose facilities were later purchased by Tyson Foods) initiated a “Hispanic Project” to bus Hispanic workers from Miami to Mississippi. Cubans were followed by Argentines and Venezuelans. Later, Mexicans and Guatemalans found their way to the area, too. They settled in trailer parks and overcrowded ranch homes on the outskirts of Carthage, Canton, and Forest, sharing bathrooms, bedrooms, and sometimes beds. Nationally, these new arrivals were indispensable to the poultry industry’s immense growth, as Americans went from eating 28 pounds of chicken per person per year in 1960 to more than 90 in 2018. At the same time, tenders, nuggets, wings, and other cuts exploded in popularity, creating demand for skilled factory workers to perform the cuts that Mom once did in the kitchen—hundreds of times an hour. As early as 2000, more than half the country’s chicken workers were immigrants, and poultry was a leading factor in rural diversification from Georgia to Nebraska.

One afternoon, I met with Martha Rogers in the grand stone building of the Bank of Morton, where she explained just how enmeshed chicken has become in the regional economy. The bank’s CEO, Rogers is a garrulous 76 with a red bob and a deep Mississippi accent. “Many of the people who are here have been here a long time,” she explained. “They’re gainfully employed, they’re paying taxes, they’re making decent salaries for this market. And they have become good citizens.” The processing plants are only one piece of a supply chain that also included hen farmers, hatcheries, chicken growers, and the hundreds of trucks that bring the finished product to market. “If any element falls out of line, it backs up and causes a real catastrophe.”

Later that afternoon, as Democratic politicians began to ask why the chicken companies had not also been punished for employing undocumented immigrants, another 100 employees of one of the raided plants, PH Food, were let go, according to workers I interviewed that day. (The company has not responded to requests for comment.) The mass firing seemed to confirm the worst fears across chicken country: that Aug. 7 was just the beginning of the trouble these communities will face.

The best precedent for what is happening here might be the 2008 raid of a meatpacking facility in Postville, Iowa, in which ICE arrested 389 workers. Three years later, enrollment in the local school district had fallen by 13 percent. “Since the raid, the town’s school population has rebounded, the housing market has recovered and the community has healed and grown,” the Des Moines Register reported last year. It took a decade for the town to bounce back from a shock the paper described as a “natural disaster.”

Residents remain on edge. One afternoon, I watched scores of workers protesting a firing scatter in minutes after a city official drove by, talking on a cellphone. A television station reported that one plant, Koch Foods, had scheduled a sparsely attended Monday job fair before the raids. (Not true, said a local official.) A groundskeeper who mows the lawn of a raided chicken plant told me that dips beneath the fence had been filled with rocks days before the raid to prevent workers from fleeing. Many people remain afraid to drive, and Hispanic residents share ICE sightings instantaneously over WhatsApp.

At Forest’s Trinity Mission Center, an A-frame Methodist church set beneath towering pine trees, pickup trucks delivered frozen meat, soda, and diapers to be distributed to families driven into sudden penury by the raid. Inside the church, relatives are filling out intake forms, which will wind up in the hands of lawyers from around the country who have signed up to take these cases pro bono. Jorge Salles Díaz, a staffer with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which had taken a leading role in organizing legal aid and relief, was blunt. “It’s absolutely fucked,” he said. Their clinics had reached the families of hundreds of arrested workers, but as of early this week, he believed there were still at least 200 people who had been arrested who were off their radar. The sprawling rural landscape made it hard to be sure they were reaching everyone. “I don’t know what to say besides that it feels apocalyptic.”

A crowd of congregants gathered outside the church on a sunny day.

A crowd of congregants gathered outside the church on a sunny day.

St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Forest, Mississippi, after the morning Spanish-language mass on Sunday, Aug. 11.

Henry Grabar

A volunteer brought a Guatemalan turkey stew in a flame-darkened steel pot and doled it out over rice to families and volunteers. Snacking in a shady patch of grass were Rosilla and her daughters Cristal, who is in second grade, and Ariadne, who is a few months old. Rosilla, who has applied for asylum in the U.S., had come to this church with her sister; both their husbands are detained. It feels like a stroke of extraordinarily bad luck: Unlike many workers who were arrested, Rosilla’s husband only started working at the plant a few months ago, moving into poultry from construction when she left on maternity leave. She has gained a daughter but lost a husband.

“I’m happy that I’m a big sister now,” Cristal told me. Art is one of her favorite subjects, and she asked me for my notebook so she could draw something. In English, she wrote: “I love you so much mama.” “Yo también,” Rosilla replied.

“No doubt it’s going to affect everyone in this town. A lot of people are probably going to move to a different state.”

— Benny Soto

Monica Soto, who teaches English as a second language at the local elementary school, has been driving here every afternoon as soon as the bell rings. “I taught all these kids for 20 years,” she said. “I’ve been here so long I’m teaching my students’ children.” She seemed to know everyone in the churchyard, which, despite functioning as a soup kitchen and legal clinic, had the buoyant vibe of a summer camp. Infants lay on blankets in air-conditioned rooms while older kids kicked a soccer ball on the lawn.

Soto’s husband, Benny, has a small business renting out party equipment. Two ladies had rented water slides for children’s birthday parties and canceled after their husbands were picked up by ICE. “No doubt it’s going to affect everyone in this town,” Benny said. “A lot of people are probably going to move to a different state.” He felt dismayed by the hatefulness, he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. I was moved by the multiracial coalition of volunteers who had come together here. Benny opened Facebook to a WJTV Jackson broadcast on the raids and started scrolling through the comments. “Great news,” said one. Another: “They broke the law and they got caught. Why is there so much controversy?”

That night, I dined at Los Parrilleros, a Mexican restaurant down by the Forest Walmart. An immigrant named Carlos Medellin runs the restaurant. Since the raids, he told me, his servers had experienced a surge in aggressive behavior from both black and white customers.

“I got a lady come in the other day, she got mad because we charged for the sour cream,” he said. “ ‘That’s ridiculous to charge for sour cream,’ she said. I said, ‘If you go to Walmart, you’re going to pay for sour cream.’ Then she said, ‘If you’re going to be a smart-ass, I’m going to call immigration to take all of you back to Mexico.’ And I said, ‘Then where are you going to get your sour cream?’ ”

At that point, he told me, the lady demanded to see Medellin’s green card, and he showed it to her. You didn’t have to do that, I said. “I know, but I wanted to prove her wrong. They’re racist, but they like Mexican food,” he sighed. Medellin walks a tightrope. He serves ICE officers and is one of the few Hispanic immigrants here who speaks English all day. In three days, he said, he has also had 40 laid-off chicken cutters ask him for a job.

I was invited here by Terry Truett, a retired Department of Labor investigator who drove from the Gulf Coast to volunteer at the clinics. Truett has close-cropped blond hair and blue eyes. “I can pass,” she said. She was born in Costa Rica, adopted by a Panamanian mother and American father, and Spanish is her first language. “I told my husband, I can’t just sit here knowing what needs to be done, knowing I can communicate and help them,” she said. She brought up the video of Magdalena. “That’s what broke my friggin’ heart.”

Truett paid her own way to come up here, spending a hundred dollars a night at a Holiday Inn Express. At Los Parrilleros, she approached the waitstaff. “Any of you have relatives who got rounded up?” she asked. One server raised her hand.

“Two uncles, two cousins.”

“Come to the Trinity Mission tomorrow,” Truett told her. “You don’t need to be afraid.”

“OK, I don’t know.” The server had big eyes, black hair pulled up on top of her head, and looked tiny next to the older woman.

“Look,” Truett pressed her, “do you want to help them or not?”

The server’s name was Juana Diego. She is 23, and not as helpless as she seemed. On Friday, she asked Medellin, her boss, for a loan of $3,000. He brought the money on Saturday. It is her emergency fund for her relatives—for their bond, their lawyers, their rent, their children. She’ll pay him back out of her paycheck.

Sitting in the restaurant, I watched Diego move between tables of uniformed soldiers and plainclothes police officers with pistols at their sides. “Hope and see what happens” is her strategy, she said. “Try not to think too much.”

She has applied for asylum and is waiting for a decision. Her big worry is her baby, Pedro. “I don’t want him to stay here alone,” she said. “He’s so small. Who’s going to take care of him? Whoever takes care of him wouldn’t take care of him like his mama.” As if it needs to be said.