How Immigration Raids In August Have Changed A Small Town In Mississippi

Nov 12, 2019
Originally published on November 12, 2019 8:09 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Morton, Miss., is a small town surrounded by the Bienville Forest. A little more than 3,000 people live here, about 45 minutes east of the capital, Jackson. In the last few months, people who work with children in Morton have noticed something different.

PNYKII MCDOUGLE: Before, you know, they were very lively. We knew their personalities really well, so we know if something changed with them, right?

SHAPIRO: Pnykii McDougle teaches at an after-school program called Excel. She remembers one young girl.

MCDOUGLE: She was writing her definitions, and she just stops. And she goes to the top of the page, and she writes I miss you, dad. And I just - I almost broke down right there.

SHAPIRO: This classroom is just a couple blocks from a chicken processing plant. On August 7, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided seven chicken plants in Mississippi. They arrested 680 people. It was the biggest-ever workplace immigration raid in a single state. About half the arrests were in Morton alone. So three months later, we went back to Morton to look at how the raids have affected the town.

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SHAPIRO: Almost a quarter of the people in Morton are Latino, so these raids have rippled across town from banks to churches to shops. Many people who don't work at the poultry plants are still feeling the impact.

PATI: (Through interpreter) My business is at 50% now.

SHAPIRO: Pati owns a shop called Mercadito. We're only using her first name because everyone here is afraid that ICE agents will make a return visit. Dried chilies hang on the wall over bins of tropical fruit and cactus paddles.

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PATI: (Through interpreter) This is my first sale of the day. That shows you how tough it's been.

SHAPIRO: Behind the counter, she's cooking albondigas - meatballs - that she'll deliver to nearby workers for lunch. A white-haired businessman stops in to see if they're ready yet.

PATI: When I'm finished cooking, I'll bring you food, Mr. Harry, OK? Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Pati opened this business three years ago after more than a decade working at chicken plants around Mississippi.

PATI: (Through interpreter) In my 19 years living here, I've never seen anything on a scale so big. This is a small town, so people are really suffering. The Latino community here was holding up the chicken plant - not anymore.

SHAPIRO: What changed after the raid in August?

PATI: I feel different. (Through interpreter) Every day, we think we'll leave the house and not come back. It's hard. It's very scary.

SHAPIRO: A woman who asks to be called Elisa stops in to buy groceries. When the ICE agents burst into the plant three months ago, she was at work deboning chickens.

ELISA: (Through interpreter) We looked up and saw they were armed, so I thought they were terrorists. I panicked because they were yelling in English, and I couldn't understand them.

SHAPIRO: This was four days after a mass shooting in Texas, where a racist gunman targeted Latinos. Elisa thought the same thing was happening in Mississippi. She says she was locked up for 49 days, and she didn't see her children that whole time.

ELISA: (Through interpreter) I have three kids, so that was the most painful part for me because my baby, who was 6 years old, suffered a lot. He cried, begging me to come back to them.

SHAPIRO: Her husband wasn't at work the day of the raids. When he did show up at the plant, he was fired.

ELISA: (Through interpreter) Whenever I leave the house, my little boy worries if I'll come home. He cries.

SHAPIRO: Does it feel different when you walk around town?

ELISA: (Through interpreter) A lot of people aren't leaving the house. The truth is nothing will be the same here. Now we're just living with fear.

SHAPIRO: If you could talk to the ICE agents, what would you say to them?

ELISA: (Through interpreter) Quite simply, I'd tell them you've ruined our lives. If I have to leave the country, for example - I had plans to buy a house, to start a business. And with what happened, all those plans are lost.

JERE MILES: Whether you've been here a week, a month or 10 years, you're still violating the law.

SHAPIRO: Jere Miles is the ICE special agent in charge for the region that includes Mississippi. He helped organize the team of 650 people who carried out the 680 arrests in August. When I sat down with him in Jackson, he told me the undocumented workers were not the only reason for the action.

MILES: We're building a criminal investigation against a target. And pursuant to that criminal investigation, we encountered and detained undocumented workers.

SHAPIRO: But many people have observed that company executives were not detained that day. Only the workers were.

MILES: That's why we keep saying it's an ongoing criminal investigation.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're kind of saying the people who were arrested that day are almost collateral damage. Is that right?

MILES: No.

SHAPIRO: OK.

MILES: I think collateral damage is the wrong word because I think when we use a word like collateral damage, I think what you're - you're drawing a distinction in acting like these people are not criminals. These people are criminals, OK? They've - they break the law.

SHAPIRO: He says 400 of the people arrested that day were found to be using someone else's social security number. According to the U.S. attorney's office, 119 have been charged with federal crimes. Morton sits in a county where almost 60% of people voted for President Trump in 2016, so plenty of people in town cheered the ICE enforcement actions...

CATHY JOHNSON: If you're here illegally, you shouldn't be.

SHAPIRO: ...Like 67-year-old Cathy Johnson, who believes undocumented workers deserve to be arrested.

JOHNSON: This town - it's kind of pitiful like it is. I mean, my kids call it, though, Mexico. I mean, it's just kind of sad.

SHAPIRO: She wishes churches would stop giving free food and other help to immigrant families that aren't allowed to work anymore.

JOHNSON: I - just the way I feel. Maybe I'm hard-hearted, but I - you know, there's a lot of people here that are needing help that are legal that, you know, you can give handouts to.

SHAPIRO: In Morton alone, 342 people were arrested on that August day. That equals about 10% of the town's population; a population that has changed a lot in just a few decades.

JIM FARRIS: We're not a rich community to start with, you know? There's not a lot of wealth here.

SHAPIRO: Seventy-three year old Jim Farris is just one of the people whose rallied behind the immigrants who are now out of work.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, we need chicken and eggs.

SHAPIRO: He's volunteering a food bank, where Latino families show up for big boxes full of diapers, canned food, dried beans and rice...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Is that that one?

SHAPIRO: ...Enough food for a family to get by for a week. There's also fresh chicken donated by the poultry plant at the center of this whole episode. That company, Koch Foods, did not respond to our request for an interview.

FARRIS: Tonight, we've given about almost 80 boxes - I guess about 800 pounds of chicken.

SHAPIRO: Farris was born and raised in Morton.

FARRIS: It's changed greatly. I graduated in '64, so the schools were not integrated at the time I graduated from school in '64. So there's been a big change, but the change has been positive.

SHAPIRO: The population isn't all that's changed. Now aid efforts are part of the fabric of Morton. In a city that was segregated during Jim Farris' lifetime, black and white volunteers are now talking to Latino families in need of help, discussing their lives, their needs and their hopes and fears about the future.

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