When federal agents engineered the nation’s largest single-state immigration raid at multiple chicken processing plants in Mississippi, a scrappy network of immigrant activists knew their work was about to get much harder.
Mississippi has never been a hotbed for immigration advocacy, despite a growing immigrant population working in its food processing and hospitality industries. The small band of migrant advocates in the state operate in hostile territory, and they are woefully underfinanced.
That changed last week after the Department of Homeland Security agents rounded up and detained almost 700 undocumented immigrants at seven chicken processing plants in central Mississippi.
The raids unleashed a national outrage that sent a legion of organizers, interpreters, attorneys, and others pouring into the state from across the country. Defying state sanctuary laws, cities and churches set up collection centers to help those affected. And within 24 hours, monetary donations to one of the state’s primary immigrant organizations, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, had reached six-figure status.
“There are so many people to thank who joined together with us so quickly to form a legal team and other teams to help,” says Patricia Ice, legal project director at the alliance. “Today we are not the only ones, and I appreciate you all.”
Help came from everywhere.
Jamie Beatty, director of the Morton United Methodist Church Children and Youth Ministries, within driving distance of one of the factories, was taking calls from as far away as California.
She was barely able to talk between offers of financial donations and volunteer help after she had released her cellphone number publicly after the raid.
The public was responding.
“We’re trying to get prepared to help people with utility bills and rent because when people are out of work and that check doesn’t come, there are still bills to be paid, and we need to be in a place where we can respond,” she says. While some would miss last Friday’s paycheck, she said, the loss of wages for others would come next week. “We’re trying to be ready for them.”
Boxes of foodstuffs and supplies were continuing to grow at the church’s distribution center, she says, but so was the line of raid victims.
“The raid was so arbitrary. I have to remain focused to keep from getting angry.”
A lot of people need help, she says. “Family is at the core of our community, and when people are hurting, we really all just want to be together.”
The city of Jackson slyly thumbed its nose at federal officials, holding citywide collections and drives to support families affected by the raid, which occurred on the first day of school. It was joined by local churches.
Financial donations started rolling in the day of the raid, but then online fundraising organization, actblue.com, kicked things into gear, distributing donated funds among a number of local organizations, including the rights alliance and the ACLU of Mississippi.
Mississippians stepped up as well. Constance Slaughter-Harvey, who was the state’s first Black female judge, presides over the Legacy Education and Community Empowerment Foundation, which runs an in-school mentoring program for children living in the shadows of the chicken processing plants.
Slaughter-Harvey says several of the program’s students had parents who were swept up in ICE raids; one mother who was arrested is married to a member of her organization’s advisory board.
“This thing has affected us all,” Slaughter-Harvey says. “It’s touched countless lives. I was almost brought to tears to see the compassion last night at a meeting and the support from this community. It touched my heart. [The raid] was so arbitrary. I have to remain focused to keep from getting angry.”
She has put that focus to aiding the detained. She and her group of pro bono attorneys have been helping victims make bond, and providing them legal guidelines to follow, because most of them do not speak English.
She and allies have also been working to place the children of detained parents into the homes of trusted relatives, preferably within the same school system, to avoid the hassle of registering them in a new district.
“We’ve taken care of the babies, and now we’re helping the parents,” Slaughter-Harvey says. “Right now we have about 55 attorneys and organizations working with us, so we’ve got a big crew.”
“Laws are passed to manipulate labor, not help immigrants. It’s the essence of America.”
This kind of compassionate response to the raid is a big change for local organizations like the rights alliance, though its executive director Bill Chandler doesn’t have time to revel in it. He’s just grateful that the nation’s eye—for a moment, at least—is trained upon a long-neglected wrong.
Chandler, 78, is a California native who’s has to contend with nativist Mississippi politicians for decades. He and his organization have been helping immigrants with housing, education, workplace issues, and citizenship applications, while lobbying an ever-shrinking support base in the Mississippi legislature.
The alliance was also organized hospitality employees on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and was working to unite laborers at the state’s chicken processing plants—while ignoring the smoldering gaze of politicians hostile to their work.
In 2010, for example, then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant accused the alliance of breaking the law for legally aiding immigrants with citizenship applications. Later, as governor, Bryant joined a majority of legislators to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” in the state.
They also promoted bills requiring police to check the immigration status of people who are arrested, and supported other bills prohibiting state “business transactions,” with undocumented workers, including driver’s license or business license renewal. Conservative politicians here make space in every campaign platform to clamp down on “illegals.”
And then, just days after a white extremist gunman published a shrill, racist manifesto targeting Hispanics and later killed 22 people inside a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement joined forces with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District to carry out the biggest raid the nation has ever seen.
As in previous raids in the state, they targeted businesses that Chandler and others had been working to unionize, inciting the kind of terror in families that is sure to last for years. Meanwhile, no employer in last week’s raid has yet been charged.
What’s happening now, Chandler says, is quite similar to when the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to ditch migrant workers who had slaved to connect the nation’s railroads.
Chandler has worked with unions in Mississippi and elsewhere, and says he’s personally witnessed abuse by U.S. border officers. “We have a long history of abuse in America,” he says. “Laws are passed to manipulate labor, not help immigrants. This is just who we are. It’s the essence of America.”
This past week, however, gave Chandler a glimpse into what can happen when the American public disagrees with its government and shows its humanity. For him, it’s a nice change.