After ICE Raids, a Reckoning in Mississippi's Chicken Country

December 30, 2019 0 By HearthstoneYarns

MORTON, Miss. — Juan Grant strode into the Koch Foods chicken processing plant for his new job on a Wednesday morning, joining many other African Americans in a procession of rubber boots, hairnets and last cigarettes before the grind.

At 20, Grant was too young to remember the days of a nearly all-white workforce in Mississippi’s poultry industry or the civil rights boycotts and protests that followed. He was too young to have seen how white workers largely moved on after that, leaving the business of killing, cutting and packing to African Americans.

He did not know the time before Hispanic workers began arriving in the heart of chicken country by the thousands, recruited by plant managers looking to fill low-paying jobs in an expanding industry.

But Grant clearly remembered Aug. 7, the day the Trump administration performed sweeping immigration raids on seven chicken plants in central Mississippi. He remembered the news flashing on his phone: 680 Hispanic workers arrested. He remembers seeing an opportunity.

“I figured there should be some jobs,” he said.

He figured right.

The raids were believed to be the largest statewide immigration crackdown in recent history and a partial fulfillment of President Donald Trump’s vow to deport millions of workers living in the U.S. illegally. The impact on Mississippi’s immigrant community has been devastating. For nonimmigrant workers, the aftermath has forced them into a personal reckoning with questions of morality and economic self-interest: The raids brought suffering, but they also created job openings.

Some believe that the immigrant workers had it coming. “If you’re somewhere you ain’t supposed to be, they’re going to come get you,” said a worker named Jamaal, who declined to give his full name because Koch Foods had not authorized him to speak. “That’s only right.”

But there was also Shelonda Davis, 35, a 17-year veteran of the plant. She has seen many workers — of all backgrounds — come and go. But she was horrified that so many of her Hispanic colleagues were rounded up. Some of them, she said, wanted to work so badly that they tried to return the next day.

“I’m glad that I see my people going to work,” she said of her fellow African Americans. “But the way they came at the Hispanic race, they act like they’re killing somebody. Still, they were only working, you know?”

Some of the new replacement hires also felt conflicted. While the roundup “gave the American people their jobs back,” said Cortez McClinton, 38, a former construction worker who was hired at the plant hours after the raids, “how they handle the immigration part is that they’re still separating kids from their families.”

Devontae Skinner, 21, denounced the raids one recent morning while finishing up his first turn on the night shift. “Everybody needs a job, needs to work, provide for their families.”

Then there was Grant, only two years out of high school and still finding his way in the world. He said it felt good to be earning $11.23 an hour, even if the new job entailed cutting off necks and pulling out guts on a seemingly endless conveyor of carcasses. It was about $4 better, he said, than what he used to earn at a Madison County cookie factory.

But he also called the raids “cruel” and “mean.” There were moments when the necks and guts and ambivalence and guilt all mixed together so that he wondered whether he wanted to stick with the job.

“It’s like I stole it,” he said, “and I really don’t like what I stole.”

The New Cotton Fields

The story of poultry work tracks closely with the 20th-century story of race relations in Mississippi.

White women dominated the lines until the 1960s, when African Americans pressed for their rights. In Canton, African Americans called for a boycott of the local chicken plant over its refusal to hire black workers, according to Angela Stuesse, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina and author of the 2016 book “Scratching out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.”

By the end of the 1960s, black workers predominated on the lines.

It was an important win for African Americans looking for an alternative to housework in wealthy white homes, or for those who had seen fieldwork dry up in an increasingly mechanized agricultural sector.

“The chicken plant,” Stuesse quoted a civil rights veteran saying, “replaced the cotton field.”

But as U.S. chicken consumption boomed in the 1980s, manufacturers went in search of “cheaper and more exploitable workers,” Stuesse wrote — chiefly Latin American immigrants.

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At the time, the Koch plant in Morton was owned by a local company, B.C. Rogers Poultry, which organized efforts to recruit Hispanics from the Texas border as early as 1977. Soon, the company was operating an effort it called “The Hispanic Project,” bringing in thousands of workers and housing them in trailers.

A 2016 study on the effects of immigration on the U.S. economy found that immigration had “little long run effect” on U.S. wages. But some wonder whether Hispanic immigrants displaced black workers in central Mississippi, the heart of the state’s multibillion-dollar chicken industry.

Some black Mississippi workers, Stuesse said, took advantage of less dangerous new job opportunities in retail, fast food, construction and auto parts. But “an eager pool of black labor did indeed exist,” she wrote, noting that a black labor force moved in when a large number of Hispanics were fired from a Carthage chicken plant in the mid-2000s.

And yet much of the outrage over the August raids has come from leaders in Mississippi’s black community. Constance Slaughter-Harvey, a renowned local lawyer and civil rights activist who was the first black woman to receive a law degree from the University of Mississippi, called the raids a “Gestapo action.”

Wesley Odom, 79, president of the Scott County NAACP, spoke of the family members separated — the Hispanic mothers and fathers who remain in custody — as well as the moments, on the day of the raids, when some schoolchildren must have wondered whether they would walk into empty homes.

“The blacks were witness to that same thing as slaves,” he said.

Jere Miles, a special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, recently told a congressional committee that the Mississippi raids would deter future illegal immigration. He also said authorities discovered 400 instances of identity theft that had been perpetrated against legal U.S. residents. Conservative columnist Henry Olsen, citing high poverty rates and low incomes in the area, argued that the Mississippi workers living in the country illegally were taking jobs from Americans.

Koch Foods representatives did not return requests for comment. The company, which has said it did not knowingly hire workers without legal status, has challenged the raid on its Morton plant in federal court, calling it an “illegal search” and demanding the return of seized property and records.

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE, said there was a continuing criminal investigation into the operation and hiring practices at all of the Mississippi plants. No executives from the targeted companies have been charged.

‘The Smell of Money’

The Koch Foods plant is in the heart of Morton, a rural community with about 3,600 residents, about one-quarter of whom are Hispanic. The parking lot at shift change can feel like the most social place in town, outside of church and school sporting events.

A sleepy clutch of downtown blocks hugs the opposite side of the highway. There are a few fast-food places, trailers and ranch houses, and several markets and businesses that cater to what has been for several decades a growing Hispanic population. A smaller chicken processing plant, owned by the company PH Food, was also raided in August.

Sometimes the smell of chicken hangs over the place. But longtime residents hardly notice anymore. “Of course, the joke in Mississippi is, that’s the smell of money,” said David Livingston, a real estate appraiser who grew up in town.

Today, the unknowable future for the Hispanic workers and their families hangs heavy over Morton and the nearby city of Forest, the county seat roughly a 15-minute drive away. Signs of pain and fear are everywhere; most of the people affected declined to give their full names for fear of government retribution.

On a recent afternoon in a quiet Latin grocery, a 46-year-old immigrant named Mariela said she had no choice but to shut down the taco truck she once stationed at a workplace that had been raided. She burst into tears as she realized she was unable to afford a basket of cilantro, radishes and pumpkin seeds.

At the Trinity Mission Center, a church in Forest that serves as a crisis response center, a man who was swept up in the raids stood by his van, rifling through confusing legal papers, unsure of his next court date. The man, Victoriano Simon-Gomez, 32, said he had a disabled child and was afraid she would receive insufficient care if he was forced to return to Guatemala.

At the church entrance, a 31-year-old Guatemalan mother of two named Eva waited to pick up a donated lunch. She had been detained at a chicken plant in Carthage and was wearing an electronic ankle monitor, now a common sight around Scott County. She referred to it as “la grilleta” — “the shackle.” She said she was going to fight to remain in the United States with her children, 13 and 9, who are U.S. citizens.

She knew it was going to be difficult. “The president doesn’t want us here,” she said. But she said she harbored no ill will toward the people who have taken jobs like hers. “I’m not mad.”

More than one-third of the 680 arrested workers across Mississippi were picked up at the Koch plant in Morton. In an affidavit taken a few weeks after the raid, Robert Elrod, a vice president of human resources, said 272 of the 1,170 employees there were Hispanic.

Marquese Parks, who works for a staffing agency that helped Koch Foods find new employees after the raids, said applicants included “a lot of African American, a lot of white, Caucasian. Latinos, not so much.”

He said potential hires were being subjected to strict identification checks.

Parks, who is black and grew up in Morton, said he never wanted to work in the chicken plants. He went away to college but later found himself in the industry anyway, first as a poultry supervisor and now at the staffing agency. He said he did not know how long the new non-Hispanic recruits would last on the job.

“I honestly don’t think they will stay because of the simple fact that the jobs are that hard,” said Parks, 28. “It’s something they didn’t see themselves doing growing up, something they don’t want to do.”

The opportunity to earn more than $11 an hour can still turn heads in this part of Mississippi. Grant was not the only person to jump at the chance the raids provided. Niah Hill, manager of the Sonic Drive-In in Morton, said 10 of her workers quit soon after the raid at Koch Foods.

“When they heard about the raids, they all went over there and got jobs right away,” Hill said. Carhops at this Sonic make $4.25 an hour — $3 less than the state’s minimum wage — plus tips, she said.

Yet the belief that native-born Americans are not sufficiently motivated to work persists, even among some African Americans. Jeff White, a Morton-based builder and rental property owner, said so many chicken plant jobs became available in the 1980s because American-born residents “didn’t want to work, period.”

He added that he quickly learned he was not chicken plant material after landing a job at one shortly after high school. “I worked there 3 hours and 20 minutes,” he said, chuckling. “I didn’t even get the check. It’s too hard.”

For a while, Grant said the hard work was worth it. With his better wage, he was starting to finally save a little. He talked about buying a used Honda and about getting serious with his girlfriend.

But Morton was 75 miles from his trailer home in rural Holmes County, and after a while it proved to be too much. He showed up late one too many times, and in November, he said, Koch let him go.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company