Months After Massive ICE Raid, Residents Of A Mississippi Town Wait And Worry
On the morning of Aug. 7, Tony McGee was driving to work in Morton, Miss., when he noticed something unusual happening at one of the local chicken processing plants.
McGee is superintendent of the county schools, and it was the second day of classes.
"There was some activity there with law enforcement that had the parking lot barricaded," he recalls. "I actually called one of our assistant superintendents because it's relatively close to the school."
What McGee soon learned was that he was witnessing part of the biggest workplace immigration raid ever in a single state.
That day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested approximately 680 people at seven plants across Mississippi. Just more than half the total — 342 people — were arrested in Morton alone.
Later that morning, McGee started receiving phone calls from parents who wanted to check students out of school. He says the confusion compared to a natural disaster, but this was man-made.
"We have plans for tornadoes, we have plans for a fire," McGee said. "But you know, ICE raid is not one that is really on the radar."
Three months later, Morton is coping with the fallout of the massive raid. Almost a quarter of the people in Morton are Latino, and the arrests have rippled across town, from banks to churches to shops. Some Morton residents are rallying around their neighbors. Others are defending the actions of ICE. For the Latino community, there is worry and waiting.
Living In Fear
Surrounded by the Bienville National Forest, the small town of Morton lies about 45 minutes east of the state capital, Jackson. It's home to 3,462 people, and chicken processing plants are the main source of employment.
Employing more than 1,000 people, the largest poultry plant in Morton is owned by Koch Foods Inc.
When federal immigration agents entered that plant, a woman who asked to be identified as Elisa was at work de-boning chickens.
"We looked up and saw they were armed, so I thought they were terrorists," Elisa recalls. "I panicked, because they were yelling in English and I couldn't understand them ."
The ICE operation came four days after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where a racist gunman targeting Latinos killed 22 people. Elisa thought the same thing was happening in Morton.
She says she was locked up for 49 days, and didn't see her children during that time.
"I have three kids, so that was the most painful part for me. Because my baby, who is 6 years old, suffered a lot," she says. "He cried, begging me to come back to them."
Her husband wasn't at work the day of the raids. When he did show up at the Koch plant, he was fired.
Elisa says her son continues to struggle.
"Whenever I leave the house, my little boy worries if I'll come home," she says.
It's not just her son that has been affected. Elisa says the whole Latino community feels the strain.
"A lot of people aren't leaving the house," she says. "The truth is nothing will be the same here. Now we're just living with fear."
Elisa says before the raid, she dreamed about buying a house and starting a business. Not anymore.
"With what happened, all those plans are lost," she says.
Enforcing The Law
Jere Miles, the ICE special agent in charge for the region that includes Mississippi, helped organize the team of 650 people who carried out the arrests in August.
"Whether you've been here a week, a month or 10 years, you're still violating the law," he says.
But Miles, who is based in Jackson, says the undocumented workers were not the only reason for the action.
"We're building a criminal investigation against a target," he says. "And pursuant to that criminal investigation, we encountered and detained undocumented workers."
No charges have been brought against the companies involved in the raids, or their executives. But Miles says that it's "an ongoing criminal investigation," and that the goal in every probe is to "see a conviction at the very highest level that we can get at."
Koch Foods did not respond to NPR's request for an interview. In a statement issued the day after the raids, the company said it is " diligent about its compliance with state and federal employment eligibility laws." The company is now suing the government for what it calls an " illegal search."
When asked if — in light of the larger criminal investigation — the arrested workers in Mississippi could be considered "collateral damage," Miles responds: "I think collateral damage is the wrong word, because I think when we use a word like collateral damage, you're drawing a distinction and acting like these people are not criminals. These people are criminals. They break the law."
Out of the 680 arrests across Mississippi that day, Miles says 400 were found to be using someone else's Social Security number.
U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst, who is also based in Jackson, was involved in the investigation for 18 months leading up to the raids.
His office is now prosecuting 119 of the immigrants picked up in August for federal crimes ranging from stealing Americans' identities to falsifying immigration documents.
He says the experience of children in Morton was unfortunate, but unavoidable.
"Anytime I see a child or a family who are adversely affected by their family members' criminal actions, it concerns me. It bothers me. But at the end of the day, we have laws on the books and so our job is to enforce those laws."
Almost 60% of people in Scott County — where Morton is located — voted for President Trump in 2016. So plenty of people in town cheer the ICE enforcement actions, including 67-year-old Cathy Johnson.
"If you're here illegally, you shouldn't be," she says.
Johnson believes undocumented workers deserve to be arrested.
"This town, it's kind of pitiful like it is," she says. "My kids call it 'Mexico,' I mean, it's just kinda sad."
Johnson wishes churches would stop giving free food and other help to immigrant families that aren't allowed to work anymore.
"It's just the way I feel. Maybe I'm hard-hearted," she says. "There's a lot of people here that are needing help that are legal, that you can give handouts to. "
Support For Affected Families
There also have been many people in the community who have rallied behind the immigrant families.
The Morton United Methodist Church is one of the churches helping out. For the last three months, the church has been collecting donations — $100,000 so far — to pay bills for people affected by the raid.
"The poor are the poor, no matter what their race is or legal status," says Sheila Cumbest, pastor at the church.
At first, she thought relief efforts would take about six months. Now, she says, it seems like it will be a lot longer.
Jim Farris, 73, is another local who has rallied behind the immigrant community.
"We're not a rich community to start with, you know, there's not a lot of wealth here," he says.
He's volunteering at a food bank where Latino families show up for boxes full of diapers, canned food, dried beans and rice — enough food for a family to get by for a week.
There's also fresh chicken. On a recent night, Farris says the food bank gave out about 80 boxes — or about 800 pounds — of chicken, donated by the poultry plant at the center of this whole episode.
Farris was born and raised in Morton.
"It's changed greatly," he says about his hometown. "I graduated in '64. So the schools were not integrated at the time I graduated. ... So there's been a big change, but the change has been positive."
One of those changes is that now almost a quarter of the kids in Scott County schools are Latino, including a 17-year-old boy whose family asked he be called Luis, due to their immigration status.
In August, Luis had just started his senior year of high school. His parents were both working at the Koch plant when ICE started arresting people.
The family is still holding onto hope that they can stay in Morton at least until Luis graduates next year.
But for now, his mother and father are prohibited from working while they await a court date.
"I'm desperate, not being able to work," his mother says. "Our future is totally up in the air."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.