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ICYMI: “Chicken plants lured them. Feds jailed them. How Mississippi’s immigration crisis unfolded”

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Employers Break the Law; Workers Pay the Price.

In a heart-wrenching story from Mississippi, a joint investigative piece between the (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger and USA Today recounts the backstory behind the recent massive immigration raids in Mississippi, telling how thousands of undocumented immigrants found a home in Mississippi’s poultry industry, only to be targeted in mass Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, leading to the arrests of 680 people, separated families, and a devastated community left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the showy raids. 

The joint Clarion Ledger and USA Today piece, “Chicken plants lured them. Feds jailed them. How Mississippi’s immigration crisis unfolded,” is excerpted below, and available in full here

JACKSON, Miss. – The Guatemalan couple crossed the Rio Grande, stepped into Texas and gazed out across miles of farmland.

Behind them, in their hometown of Comitancillo, was a 2-year-old daughter with expensive medical bills. The young couple planned to leave the girl with a relative and travel north to find work in central Mississippi chicken plants. They told each other they would send money for their daughter’s hospital expenses and eventually save enough to move back to Guatemala’s highlands and build a home.

The couple had spent days riding buses through Mexico and hid from federales in a forest. For the next two days, they hiked deeper into Texas. They had no food or water. They paused at a horse trough to drink the dirty green liquid. They worried for their lives, but they were just as concerned that border agents would catch them.

Their next goal was Houston, where they knew someone who would drive them to a new life in Mississippi, complete with a job at a chicken plant.

The woman in this story, who lives in the Carthage area, is one of dozens of people the Clarion Ledger interviewed since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided seven poultry plants in central Mississippi, arresting 680 people in what authorities called the largest single-state immigration crackdown in a decade.

She and others provided an in-depth look at how the poultry industry played an integral part in transforming central Mississippi into a home for undocumented residents.

The couple’s journey eight years ago is similar to that of thousands of undocumented people from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries who have come to work in Mississippi’s poultry industry.

They helped build poultry into Mississippi’s richest agricultural commodity, which brings in more than $2.5 billion a year. They helped companies such as Koch Foods and Peco Foods – both of which were raided last month but face no charges – rake in billions in revenue.

… Within three days of arriving in Mississippi in 1999 – weak, tired and with nothing but the clothes on his back – a 19-year-old from Guatemala found work at a Tyson chicken processing plant.

The man, who asked to be identified as E. Miranda because he entered the USA without permission, had a friend in Carthage who worked in a chicken plant.

Miranda grew up in a home made of dirt and wood with no electricity, where his entire family slept in a single room. His friend described an entirely different existence in America and loaned him about $4,000, so Miranda could pay smugglers and come to Mississippi.

“He said that here in the United States, the jobs are not so hard like they are in our country. You get more pay, you get more money working here,” Miranda said.

… Cartagena, coordinator for the Hispanic Project, said that by the time Miranda arrived in Mississippi, several chicken processing plants were competing for Latino workers.

Plants would pay 10 cents more an hour to poach Latino workers from competing plants, he said.

Cartagena said he hired only documented workers. He said B.C. Rogers trained him to detect fake documents, and he personally checked to make sure everything was legal.

By the mid-to-late ’90s, chicken plants in the area seemed to stop caring about documentation, Cartagena said.

“Things start changing,” he said. “They start accepting whatever (documentation).”

Fraudulent documents were easy to come by. Social Security cards and fake IDs were sold at laundromats and convenience stores in the communities surrounding food processing plants, according to law enforcement affidavits and interviews with undocumented workers.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, said it used to be that immigrants could go to a Walmart parking lot in Forest and people would be there asking, “Do you need papers?”

“They don’t hide. It’s like they’re selling fruit,” she said.

… Romeo Ramirez, an undocumented worker in Leake County, described contractors who helped arrange papers and jobs – for a price. The prospective employees paid less than $100 up front and agreed to contribute 25% to 50% of their wages to the contractors for a set amount of time.

Others, such as Miranda, described showing up for work – no questions asked and no documents required.

… In the mid-2000s, it looked as though undocumented immigrants such as the Latinos in central Mississippi might become U.S. citizens – or at least be left alone.

Then the issue became increasingly polarized and politicized.

President George W. Bush had a plan to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, but senators from his own party killed his comprehensive immigration bill in 2007.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour supported immigration changes that would provide undocumented workers the opportunity to remain legally, citing their importance to local, state and national economies.

After losing the presidential election in 2012, the national Republican Party wrote an “autopsy” that recommended members “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”

President Donald Trump won office in 2016 by doing the opposite: criticizing immigrants, particularly Latinos who had crossed the southern border.

Under the Trump administration, ICE reported quadrupling workplace investigations and employee paperwork audits last year and made 2,304 workplace arrests of undocumented immigrants, up from 311 the year before. 

Forty-nine managers were convicted, fewer than the prior year, according to The Associated Press.

The size of the raids has steadily grown, including 21 arrests at 7-Eleven stores, 97 people detained in a raid of a Tennessee meatpacking plant and 280 taken into custody at a Texas technology company.

Last month, federal immigration officials targeted Mississippi.