Terry H. Schwadron
Aug. 10, 2019
The huge immigration raids on a handful of Mississippi chicken processing plants this week has raised a lot of questions about compassion, fairness and effectiveness, ranging from how magically the industry came to have so many undocumented Latino immigrants working there to the actual methods used by ICE in making the 680 arrests.
In the day or two since the raids, it came out that the raids had been in the works for a year. Yet the raids still seemed to come about in a way that left children at school, separated from parents, with school officials trying to figure out how to deal with the families, for example. ICE did not even know how many children were stranded.
While we know that more than half those arrested were allowed to return home, many were not, and were being held to face charges from illegal entry into the country at undisclosed detention centers, from undisclosed companies, on undisclosed schedules. What happened to going after immigrants who have committed crimes rather than those getting up and going to work every day at chicken-plucking jobs that most Americans won’t do. The raids rounded up immigrants, but what of the owners of these companies? And what of news reports that ICE did not tell the White House for fear that Donald Trump would boast of them beforehand, essentially warning targets of the investigation? What happened to going after immigrants who have committed crimes rather than those getting up and going to work every day at chicken-plucking obs that most Americans won’t do?
Despite the fact of law enforcement, why did these raids feel so odd, so wrong this week?
Maybe ICE should have taken the year plus one day for the raids, to come up with appropriate handling of the messiness left behind. Imagine if ICE decided to raid Trump’s own properties, where undocumented individuals have stepped forward to say they have been working.
For sure, the timing of the raids, following directly on the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the public debate about rising white supremacist ideas driving an anti-immigrant agenda in the White House, and Trump’s own equivocal statements trying to defend his attitudes, merely seems to make public understanding of the raids more complicated.
Unexplained anywhere is why the federal government could not expand guest worker visa programs to allow the poultry industry to function and legally hire immigrants.
According to The New York Times, representatives for Peco Foods, one of the firms hit, declined to say how the plant was operating in the wake of the raid, but its parking lot was full, and big trucks were moving in and out. A few workers, black and Hispanic, could be seen walking into the building wearing plastic hair coverings.
On its website, Peco Foods has no acknowledgement of the raids. With its job listings, there are extensive equal opportunity employment company notices, but nothing about immigration status.
One of the companies has scheduled a job fair for Monday to fill the vacancies.
In The Washington Post, Angela Stuesse, a cultural anthropologistat the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who studies immigration in the poultry industry, argued in an op-ed column that the presence of so many Latinos in the chicken plucking plants of the deep South was not accidental. “It was calculated, strategic and intimately related to deeply rooted structures of labor exploitation in the region. Beginning in the 1990s, Latin American immigrants were recruited to the state by the poultry industry, where they arrived to work in some of the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in the country. This week’s raids target deeply rooted workers and families and leave behind a devastated community, while also terrorizing many others across the country,” she said,
After some early stirrings of a labor movement, in 1994 a chicken plant in Morton, Miss. headed to Miami in search of immigrant labor. “Advertising in Cuban stores and local papers, it took the poultry processor just one week to fill a Greyhound bus of immigrants eager for work. This experiment marked the beginning of the plant’s formal Hispanic Project, which included not just recruitment and transportation from Florida, but also the provision of housing — mostly in dilapidated and overcrowded trailers — as well as local transportation and leisure activities, all for fees deducted from workers’ paychecks that often reduced their meager earnings to below minimum wage.”
Within four years, that project recruited nearly 5,000 workers to two Mississippi towns with a combined population of 10,000. Other plans began recruiting immigrants as well. “By the time I arrived to work in Mississippi’s poultry communities alongside the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center in 2002, over half of the country’s quarter-million poultry workers were immigrants, most of them in the South,” she said.
Today’s Mississippi poultry workers are from nearly every part of the continent, hailing from Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras, Venezuela and other Latin American and Caribbean countries. They are doing work that is hazardous, painful and often degrading. They work long hours for low pay, scratching out a living so that the rest of us can buy cheap chicken.
So, when ICE arrives and finds undocumented workers in large numbers, why are these companies not under serious investigation?
“As the alt-right celebrates this wreckage as another win for white nationalists, let us keep in view that these immigrants are here because 25 years ago one Mississippi poultry executive conceived an inventive idea, to flood the processing lines with eager and compliant immigrant workers. And while they come at enormous costs to thriving, vibrant communities, these raids do little to affect immigration trends; people continue to migrate to the U.S. to survive,” argued Stuesse.
So we have raids and arrests of hundreds of individuals in plants that invited immigrants, apparently regardless of proper logal documention, incented immigrants, housed immigrants — all without arrest of the companies involved — in a month that saw 72,000 arrests at the border for illegal entry into the country. What could possibly be odd here?