Months After ICE Raids, an Impoverished Mississippi Community Is Still Reeling

Some 300 people arrested during August raids at Mississippi chicken plants remain detained, while the companies have received no legal penalties.

Migdalia couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, her whole body ached. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she told her children. She thinks the pains began in late June, around the time that President Donald Trump announced massive immigration raids across the country. On August 7, the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers stormed her workplace, her feet ached. “I could feel it coming, that’s what was happening to me,” Migdalia said, her electronic ankle bracelet flickering on her leg.

For 14 years, Migdalia had been slicing chicken breasts and pulling entrails at the chicken processing plant at Koch Foods Inc. in Morton, Mississippi. She was arrested there in August, as ICE targeted seven factories owned by five different chicken companies around Mississippi, taking with them 687 workers, almost all of whom were undocumented Hispanics. It was the largest immigration raid in history in a single state.

Two months later, some 300 people who were arrested in that raid remain detained at two ICE centers in Louisiana. The majority have not yet had the opportunity to defend themselves in front of an immigration judge. Among them, about 90 people have been charged in criminal courts with a count of identity theft, for working with Social Security numbers that were not theirs. None of the companies targeted in the raid have been charged with immigration or labor law violations.

Migdalia feels comparatively lucky. (Like other workers interviewed for this story, her name has been changed to protect her privacy.) She was released the same night of the raid, wearing the ankle monitor. But she cannot work, and she has an appointment before an immigration judge in February that could end with her deportation to Guatemala, where she was born 38 years ago and where she hasn’t returned for 20 years.

“I’ve been here for a long time. My children were born here and I’ve given them a better life. But unfortunately [ICE] came in and now I don’t know what I’m going to do. The future has changed, I realize now,” Migdalia said in an interview in September.

Her two American children noticed the change immediately. The oldest, who is 14 and in high school, told her mother that she would leave school to work and pay the bills. And the youngest, who is 9 and plays in the school band, is afraid each day that when he comes home, his mother won’t be there.

“I tell them not to cry, that no one is coming for me,” said Migdalia. “I don’t want them to miss school. I don’t have papers, but they are citizens, I don’t want them to be ruined like I am, working in those plants.”

The undocumented workforce is what has kept the chicken factories in Mississippi operating for decades.

Migdalia was born in the state of Quetzaltenango into a poor family of nine sisters. When she was 18, she walked alone for 12 days to cross the southern border of the United States. She first arrived in Alabama, where she met the father of her children. He left her, four months pregnant, for one of her younger sisters. She then went to Mississippi to look for work in the chicken factories using documents she bought on the black market.

“I didn’t even know that I needed papers in this country. I got some that weren’t mine, and I just worked there. I applied in the morning and went to work in the afternoon,” Migdalia recalled.

Everyone did it and everyone knew about it, because the undocumented workforce of which Migdalia was a part is what has kept the chicken factories in Mississippi operating for decades.

Chicken companies began bringing workers from Mexico and Guatemala to Mississippi in the 1960s. At first, most were Mexicans, who eventually moved on to better jobs in Jackson, the state’s capital. In the last 15 years, more Guatemalans have arrived, especially from the San Marcos and Huehuetenango departments, which border Mexico. This immigrant community has been established for four generations, and many of the families had mixed legal status, living always in fear of being separated by deportation. That fear had grown sharper since Trump took office, and the raid confirmed it.

Elena, a Nicaraguan who owns a grocery store in Morton, said that since the raid, “I live in fear that they might come here or that my husband will be caught. I have lived in Mississippi for 18 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen this happen. I felt this was one of the safest towns and that this was a state where you wouldn’t see this type of thing.”

The Pew Research Center estimates that about 20,000 undocumented immigrants live in Mississippi — making them 0.7 percent of the state’s total population and 35 percent of the immigrant population in 2016. According to Pew, 21 percent of undocumented adults in Mississippi have been in the country for five or more years, and their children represent 1.8 percent of elementary and high school students in the state’s public schools.

“These people are afraid to talk, to go out, they don’t want to be seen. I am running the risk of talking because I want people to hear us, to realize that we are all going through a very difficult time. Many people may think that now things are calm, but that’s not true,” Elena said in recent interview. “As things stand, the future is very uncertain for us Hispanics.”

Handcuffed female workers are escorted into a bus for transportation to a processing center following a raid by U.S. immigration officials at a Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. U.S. immigration officials raided several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday and signaled that the early-morning strikes were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as employees. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Handcuffed female workers are escorted into a bus for transportation to a processing center following a raid by U.S. immigration officials at a Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., on Aug. 7, 2019.

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

“We Have No Money, Not Even to Leave”

The parakeets go wild when Felix brings the phone close to the cage and they hear Crescencia’s voice. She calls from the LaSalle Detention Center in Louisiana, where ICE agents are holding her. This is the only way they’ll sing, Felix said. She might be telling Felix that she can’t sleep because her cell is too cold, that she’s been forced to shower naked in front of other detainees, or that she cries because she doesn’t know how or when she’ll get out. But the birds still sing when they hear her.

They barely whistle for Felix in the mornings, when he returns home alone and covered in the stench of feathers after the $9.50-an-hour night shift at Koch Foods.

Crescencia and Felix met at the Koch plant and got married. She is from Mexico, and he is from Guatemala. The two had both entered the U.S. without a visa and were hired by Koch more than 10 years ago, despite not having papers.

“I was inspecting breasts, thighs, and legs, and that’s when they came in. When we were leaving our shift, they had everyone surrounded. In all my years working there, I never had a problem and that’s how I kept working, right up until they caught me just now,” Crescencia said in a phone call from LaSalle, which is four hours by car from the trailer she shares with her husband and their birds in Morton.

Morton is home to poultry plants owned by Koch Foods (no connection to the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers) and PH Food. Two hundred and fifty people were arrested at Koch Foods on August 7, and together, the Morton facilities accounted for about half the workers arrested around the state that day.

“There were 40 people in my line. Now there are only 15, and we’re not doing the same job as before. A lot of production has been lost. A lot of the chickens are dying from heat.”

“Now there’s no one there,” said Felix. “There were 40 people in my line. Now there are only 15, and we’re not doing the same job as before. A lot of production has been lost. A lot of the chickens are dying from heat — now almost half are alive and half are dead. If there is another raid, the company would close.”

The company held a job fair and contacted the state employment agency to find substitutes, but only 30 people applied to fill the 250 spots, an agency spokesperson told Vice in August. PH Food, is experiencing the same problems with a lack of staff, according to people who work at the plant.

Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the U.S., where 30 percent of children live in poverty (most of them are nonimmigrant black children). The raids on the Mexican and Guatemalan communities represent a severe blow to a precarious local economy.

“This is devastating and I am frankly terrified of what will happen in the coming weeks and months for these families who have now been deprived of any income. It’s a serious crisis of poverty, despair, and fear,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi and a lawyer who provides pro bono immigration services. “We are very worried about what can happen in the next month, when these people cannot pay their rent, cannot make their car payments or payments for their house.”

Many of the immigrants who have sought legal help in his mobile office at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church have lived in Mississippi for 15 or 20 years. They are paying for mortgages and cars and have restricted access to medical care because they cannot afford it.

Some families had only one main provider, who is now gone, and in others, neither parent can work. Very few families have any savings.

“People have a very thin margin every month, living from paycheck to paycheck, just as many of us do. And when you take that money away, everything falls apart,” Johnson said.

Carmen, a single mother from Huehuetenango, wasn’t arrested, but since the raid, companies that hired undocumented laborers directly or through third parties aren’t taking her back. She can’t find work at Koch Foods — where she chopped chicken for four years — nor at PH Food, where she had been for two years before the raid.

“Let us work a few more days,” she said she’d ask Trump if she had a chance, “because we have no money, not even to leave.”


Iglesia Saint Michaels in Morton, Miss., where Father Roberto Mena has been a pastor for over a year.

Image: Univision

The Trauma of Separation

In Father Roberto Mena’s masses, half of the parishioners are missing. “I have half the readers, half the choir, half the board,” the priest said in a sermon two weeks after ICE descended.

Although authorities hail the raid as a success, Morton and the nearby town of Forest feel as if they have been hit by a tornado: abandoned houses, empty streets, bankrupt families. Parents disappeared from one day to the next from their children’s lives, and those who were spared live in anxiety and in a panic that it could happen again at any moment.

Like other churches in the area, Mena’s became a refuge for affected families. Lawyers and psychologists from Arizona, Louisiana, and Georgia arrived to help. And although most of them have years of experience dealing with raids in the country, what is happening in Mississippi has hit them like nothing else before.

“Everyone here who helps others is experiencing this same stress: It’s happening to lawyers, to everyone who is volunteering. Everything is affecting them personally,” said Mena. “For my own mental health, when I get home I have to rest, meditate, think about other things, talk to other people.”

Mena has been a pastor in Morton and Forest for a year and a half. He is originally from Guatemala, like many of his parishioners.

“They are practically forced to come here,” Mena said. They are driven by drought, unemployment, and drug trafficking violence. Crops of corn, beans, and coffee don’t grow anymore; seasonal jobs on the Guatemalan coast have disappeared; and in their villages, Mexican drug traffickers extort them. In Mississippi, on the other hand, there were jobs and many had family.

“They leave their homes less and less. You see less cars in the streets with Hispanic people. They just go from home to work, from work to home.

“When President Donald Trump said there were going to be massive raids, people kind of prepared themselves psychologically for what was going to happen. There were people who were very afraid of these raids, and we had fewer people at Mass that weekend, both here in Forest and in Morton,” Mena recalled.

Now that ICE has been here, “they leave their homes less and less. You see less cars in the streets with Hispanic people. They just go from home to work, from work to home. They don’t go anywhere else. Only on Sundays, they go to Mass,” Mena said.

Ángeles Maldonado traveled from Arizona to Mena’s church to support the families affected by the raids. She is an educator, and for 17 years, she has studied the effects of these types of operations in those who suffer them, especially under the notoriously anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in her state.

The August 7 raids coincided with the first day of classes for local schools. Hundreds of children did not find their parents when they returned home. Some did not want to go back to school in the days that followed. Maldonado understood.

“How do you show up to school to learn math or anything else? How do you eat if you don’t know where your parents are? It’s really very disturbing,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado’s own experience informed her line of research: She came to the U.S. at age 8 and saw her father taken away.

“For a long time I felt ashamed of who I was, and I thought there was something wrong with me or my family, I felt ashamed for what had happened to me. And I’ve seen that fear again in many of the children [in Mississippi]. These experiences are attacks on children’s identities,” she said.

Translated by Juliana Jiménez.

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