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ICYMI: New Yorker: “After ICE Came to Morton, Mississippi”

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Charles Bethea for the New Yorker reports on the small town of Morton, Mississippi, transformed by its large Latino immigrant community and the place of “the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history.” Bethea details the rise of the Mississippi poultry plants, where immigrants flocked from Central and South America to work and build their home, to the town’s demise after an attack on its people in the form of a massive immigration roundup and even fears of an attack along the lines of what happened in El Paso. 

What once was built on immigrants, welcoming them into their community, is now a town demoralized, afraid to come out behind the curtain in fear of another catastrophe. 

Cristina, an immigrant impacted by the raids, explains, “‘We’ve been threatened that immigration will come there,’ she said. Sitting in her store, without customers, she began to cry. ‘Look at what’s happening,’ she said. ‘Look at how they come to kill Hispanics. I’m afraid to go to Walmart. I’m afraid to go to the mall. To the movies. We’re not well. Not well. This has affected us so much. We can’t work. Every day, every day, I pray to God that my husband comes home. Because immigration is everywhere.’”

Below are excerpts of the New Yorker piece entitled “After ICE Came to Morton, Mississippi.”

Morton, Mississippi, a quiet city of a few thousand residents, lies around forty miles east of Jackson, on the edge of Bienville National Forest. Tito Echiburu, the senior vice-president of finance at the Bank of Morton, has lived in the town since 1973. In the nineteen-sixties, he was a top junior tennis player in Chile. He got a scholarship to play at Mississippi State University, where he ended up studying business and accounting. A few years after graduating, he took a job as a tennis pro at a country club in Jackson, where he met John Rogers, whose father founded B. C. Rogers Poultry, one of several companies that operated chicken-processing plants in and around Morton. When John took over the company, after his father’s death, he asked Echiburu, who had returned to Chile, to become the company’s chief financial officer. Echiburu’s young family moved back to Mississippi, and they became, he believes, “the first Hispanic family” in Morton. Today, around one in four residents of the town speaks Spanish or a language indigenous to Central or South America.

B.C. Rogers began hiring Latino immigrants to work in its plants in the late seventies, but few of those early hires stuck around. In the early nineties, John Rogers saw a TV news report about high unemployment among Latinos in Miami and decided to recruit them to Morton, Echiburu said. The company set up a small office in the Miami area, and Rogers sent Echiburu there as a company representative. “The only reason he asked me was because I spoke the language,” Echiburu said. “I wasn’t in human resources.” The company also began running Spanish-language newspaper ads in Florida and Texas. They called the recruitment effort the Hispanic Project.

B.C. Rogers spent millions transporting workers to central Mississippi and housing them there, Echiburu said. The Hispanic Project only lasted a few years; B. C. Rogers was sold to Koch Foods, one of the country’s largest poultry-processing and distribution companies, in the late nineties, and Echiburu left soon afterward for his job at the bank. But, in the meantime, the effort brought thousands of workers to chicken plants in Morton, first from Cuba and later from Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Echiburu’s daughter, Ana Maria Tyrrell, is thirty-six and now lives in Chicago. When these workers first started arriving, other people in town thought they were “part of our family,” she told me. Most of those who came did not stay in town for good, but word spread about the work that could be found there. “That opened the door for Hispanics,” Echiburu said. “They kept coming on their own, telling others to come.” Eventually, immigrants began to settle down in Morton, and in the surrounding towns—Forest, Canton, Carthage, Pelahatchie—that also have chicken plants.

“All of Central America is here,” a seventeen-year-old, whom I’ll call Danny, told me in August, standing in the parking lot of a plant owned by P H Food, where he used to work. (The names of undocumented Morton residents have been changed throughout this piece, to allow them to speak freely.) Danny’s family moved to Morton from Guatemala about five years ago. His mother’s sister came first. “She was here and said it was a really calm place,” Danny said. “That’s why we came. And for the work.” Danny was used to working. In Guatemala, he started shining shoes for eight dollars a day when he was eight years old. When they arrived in Morton, his parents got jobs working the morning shift at the P H Food plant, and Danny took eight-hour shifts after school, earning two dollars for every forty pounds of chicken he chopped. “At least half of us were minors,” he said, of his co-workers. “Most people had no papers. But the people who hired us didn’t care back then.”

…Danny recently started his junior year at Morton High. On the first day of school, in early August, a janitor came to his classroom to tell the students that ice agents were raiding the chicken plants. Danny looked outside, minutes later, and saw two helicopters circling the P H Food plant. More than six hundred ice agents had come to seven Mississippi cities to carry out what a U.S. attorney later described as “the largest single-state immigration-enforcement operation in our nation’s history.”

…Danny’s parents were at work; ice agents came into the plant while they were on the line. “They said, ‘Put your hands on your head and leave all the knives exactly where they are,’ ” Danny’s mother, Isabella, told me. “They tied up all the men’s hands behind their backs, but not the women.” The workers were kept in a cafeteria and were directed, one by one, into an office, “to give a declaration,” Isabella said. The agents wanted to know who had told the workers that they could find jobs at the plant. “I told them that we came here to fight for our family,” Isabella said. “To put my children ahead. In Guatemala, there’s no future, no nothing. I couldn’t work there; I was a house mother. . . . I never went to school. I don’t know how to read or write. I don’t want to give that same type of path to the kids. I want to see their future.”

…The day before his parents returned home, Danny went back to the plant. A plant manager told him and other workers who had shown up that there was no more work for them and that they should leave. About one in ten residents of Morton was jailed or fired as a result of the raids. It was clear, if it hadn’t been before, that things were going to be different now. “We looked around at each other, not able to believe what had happened,” Danny recalled. “That they could do this to us with so few words.”