JACKSON, Miss. – The Guatemalan couple crossed the Rio Grande, stepped into Texas and gazed out across miles of farmland.
Behind them, in their hometown of Comitancillo, was a 2-year-old daughter with expensive medical bills. The young couple planned to leave the girl with a relative and travel north to find work in central Mississippi chicken plants. They told each other they would send money for their daughter's hospital expenses and eventually save enough to move back to Guatemala’s highlands and build a home.
The couple had spent days riding buses through Mexico and hid from federales in a forest. For the next two days, they hiked deeper into Texas. They had no food or water. They paused at a horse trough to drink the dirty green liquid. They worried for their lives, but they were just as concerned that border agents would catch them.
Their next goal was Houston, where they knew someone who would drive them to a new life in Mississippi, complete with a job at a chicken plant.
The woman in this story, who lives in the Carthage area, is one of dozens of people the Clarion Ledger interviewed since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided seven poultry plants in central Mississippi, arresting 680 people in what authorities called the largest single-state immigration crackdown in a decade.
She and others provided an in-depth look at how the poultry industry played an integral part in transforming central Mississippi into a home for undocumented residents.
The couple's journey eight years ago is similar to that of thousands of undocumented people from Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries who have come to work in Mississippi's poultry industry.
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They helped build poultry into Mississippi's richest agricultural commodity, which brings in more than $2.5 billion a year. They helped companies such as Koch Foods and Peco Foods – both of which were raided last month but face no charges – rake in billions in revenue.
How it all began: ‘We are gonna form the Hispanic Project’
Luis Cartagena would never have come to Mississippi from Chile if his brother-in-law weren’t so good at tennis.
And the wave of Latino immigration might never have come here – or at least been delayed – had it not been for Cartagena.
His brother-in-law, Tito Echiburu, arrived to play tennis at Mississippi State University in the 1960s. Working as a tennis pro, Echiburu befriended John Rogers, whose family owned the B.C. Rogers chicken processing plant. Echiburu eventually became CFO at the plant.
Cartagena’s sister and parents came to Mississippi next, and Cartagena joined them in 1990, after waiting seven years to legally immigrate.
Despite holding a history degree from a university in Chile, his first job was working in the cooler of the B.C. Rogers plant.
Besides Cartagena and Echiburu, there were very few Latinos in central Mississippi – but that was about to change.
The chicken plant had hundreds of open jobs and struggled to hire American workers, when John Rogers saw a program on PBS about unemployment in Miami.
Cartagena said his boss approached him and said, “OK, Luis, I will consider that you’re ready.”
“We are gonna form the Hispanic Project. … You’re going to be the coordinator,” Cartagena said his boss told him.
In 1993, Cartagena began flying to Brownsville and McAllen in Texas and to Miami, where he would go to unemployment offices and interview Latinos.
Cartagena would fly back to Mississippi, and busloads of new hires would arrive days later.
Workers were provided a few weeks of free rent, beds and a sheet, Cartagena said. B.C. Rogers had 166 apartments for Latino workers.
“I offered them a job," Cartagena said. "I offered them where to live. A lot of people like it. They came, but finally, when they start working in the plant – it’s a hard life, working the plants – a lot of them quit.”
Are the jobs really so bad most Americans won’t do them?
For years, chicken plants struggled to fill jobs. The most-stated reason is the jobs are so difficult, dirty and low-paying that most Americans don’t want them.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted poultry workers face a slew of hazards. Some such as long hours, loud noises, dangerous machinery and dangerous chemicals are found in other industries. Some are unique to the poultry industry, such as floors that are often slick, not just from water used in processing but from raw chicken scraps.
Poultry workers suffer serious injuries on the job at a rate almost twice that of private industry as a whole, according to OSHA.
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The industry is so tough and has such poor wages that many new hires leave within weeks or even days.
In one role known as “live hang,” workers grab live chickens by the feet and attach them to moving metal hooks, often being attacked and defecated on by the desperate birds.
In the “deboner” role, workers use a knife to slice through various parts of the chicken and remove bones.
Cartagena said he hired about 700 people in his first year as a coordinator for the Hispanic Project, and about half made it more than a few weeks before quitting.
But Latinos kept coming for jobs and started to put down roots.
After 1993, Cartagena said, he no longer had to fly to unemployment offices to recruit Latino workers. The word was out, and prospective employees showed up, a trend that continues today.
Finding a job: ‘The jobs are not so hard like they are in our country’
Within three days of arriving in Mississippi in 1999 – weak, tired and with nothing but the clothes on his back – a 19-year-old from Guatemala found work at a Tyson chicken processing plant.
The man, who asked to be identified as E. Miranda because he entered the USA without permission, had a friend in Carthage who worked in a chicken plant.
Miranda gew up in a home made of dirt and wood with no electricity, where his entire family slept in a single room. His friend described an entirely different existence in America and loaned him about $4,000, so Miranda could pay smugglers and come to Mississippi.
“He said that here in the United States, the jobs are not so hard like they are in our country. You get more pay, you get more money working here,” Miranda said.
Miranda went with his friend to a Tyson plant, received an ID badge and started working as a chicken cutter.
After his first day on the cutting floor, his arms were sore, his hands hurt, but he didn’t quit.
“That was the reason we were here," he said. "We continue working, even if it was so hard.”
Cartagena, coordinator for the Hispanic Project, said that by the time Miranda arrived in Mississippi, several chicken processing plants were competing for Latino workers.
Plants would pay 10 cents more an hour to poach Latino workers from competing plants, he said.
Cartagena said he hired only documented workers. He said B.C. Rogers trained him to detect fake documents, and he personally checked to make sure everything was legal.
Obtaining fake documents: ‘It’s like they’re selling fruit’
By the mid-to-late '90s, chicken plants in the area seemed to stop caring about documentation, Cartagena said.
"Things start changing,” he said. “They start accepting whatever (documentation)."
Fraudulent documents were easy to come by. Social Security cards and fake IDs were sold at laundromats and convenience stores in the communities surrounding food processing plants, according to law enforcement affidavits and interviews with undocumented workers.
One woman, who asked not to be identified, said it used to be that immigrants could go to a Walmart parking lot in Forest and people would be there asking, “Do you need papers?”
“They don’t hide. It’s like they’re selling fruit,” she said.
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The fake IDs used by immigrants are unsophisticated, said Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee, who was chief of police in Forest before being elected sheriff.
Often the age, weight and height on the card do not match up with the individual, he said. Lee said the average person can look at an ID and quickly realize it's a fake.
“This is not like a James Bond, change-your-ID-type of operation. This is pretty much taking advantage of your own folks. They charge you $500 and say, ‘Here’s your ID and Social Security number.’ And it’s pretty much printed on card stock, regular card stock,” Lee said.
Romeo Ramirez, an undocumented worker in Leake County, described contractors who helped arrange papers and jobs – for a price. The prospective employees paid less than $100 up front and agreed to contribute 25% to 50% of their wages to the contractors for a set amount of time.
Others, such as Miranda, described showing up for work – no questions asked and no documents required.
Small towns transformed by growth of immigrant community
From 1990 to 2000, the Latino population increased by more than 1,000% in Scott County, which researchers call the "home of Mississippi's Poultry industry." It's roughly doubled since 2000, Census figures show.
Increasingly, immigrants to central Mississippi are from Guatemala, community members said, where jobs are scarce and pay is low. Of the more than 300 people not immediately released after the recent ICE raids, nearly three-fourths are from Guatemala.
Yolanda Soto, from Mexico, moved to Forest in 1996. She followed her brother’s husband, who found work in the town.
Back then, Soto said, there were only a handful of Latino families in the area. Few of the native residents spoke Spanish, and she didn’t speak English. If she had to go to a doctor, her husband had to write a note in English explaining what was wrong.
“There were no tortillas in the stores, no chiles, nothing,” she said. “I cried all the time because I wanted to go back home.”
She knew things had changed when she was clicking through TV channels and discovered the cable provider had added a Spanish-language station. She marveled as Mexican restaurants opened, grocery stores with Spanish names appeared and whole sections of Forest were filled with Spanish speakers.
Two of Soto's brothers-in-law came and found jobs in plants. Then her cousin came, then her cousin’s sister-in-law, then Soto’s sister, then her mother and father-in-law.
"Now I don't want to go back to my country," she said. "I want to stay here."
From a path to citizenship to polarization
In the mid-2000s, it looked as though undocumented immigrants such as the Latinos in central Mississippi might become U.S. citizens – or at least be left alone.
Then the issue became increasingly polarized and politicized.
President George W. Bush had a plan to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, but senators from his own party killed his comprehensive immigration bill in 2007.
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour supported immigration changes that would provide undocumented workers the opportunity to remain legally, citing their importance to local, state and national economies.
After losing the presidential election in 2012, the national Republican Party wrote an “autopsy” that recommended members “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”
President Donald Trump won office in 2016 by doing the opposite: criticizing immigrants, particularly Latinos who had crossed the southern border.
Under the Trump administration, ICE reported quadrupling workplace investigations and employee paperwork audits last year and made 2,304 workplace arrests of undocumented immigrants, up from 311 the year before.
Forty-nine managers were convicted, fewer than the prior year, according to The Associated Press.
The size of the raids has steadily grown, including 21 arrests at 7-Eleven stores, 97 people detained in a raid of a Tennessee meatpacking plant and 280 taken into custody at a Texas technology company.
Last month, federal immigration officials targeted Mississippi.
The raid: ‘We’re hungry, the bills are piling up and we’re all out of work’
Of the 680 people arrested Aug. 7, 300 were released within 27 hours. More have been let out on bond, some equipped with ankle monitors. Though no longer behind bars, they face immigration court hearings. Some have been accused of federal felonies, mostly related to the use of fraudulent Social Security cards.
No charges have been brought against managers or owners of the companies that were raided.
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Maria Elodia Anton Ramirez, a mother of four and no relation to Romeo Ramirez, said she no longer feels safe in Forest after the raids. She followed her sister from Guatemala to Forest in 2011, joined a church and sent her kids to school.
Ramirez, her 22-year-old daughter and her husband were all arrested by immigration officials. She and her daughter were soon released, but they lost their jobs, can’t find work and are waiting for an immigration hearing.
“That’s the worry – we’re hungry, the bills are piling up and we’re all out of work,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez is among hundreds of people who are unemployed in the wake of the operation.
"The immigration raids broke a community," Cartagena said.
Moving forward: ‘Helping this country … to be great’
Miranda, the man who paid smugglers to get him here from Guatemala, said his wife was arrested during the raids and released on a $3,000 bond after nearly a month in detention.
While locked up, she didn’t eat well, was cold and cried every day, he said.
Miranda had to stop working to take care of their three children. He seemed most concerned about how the raids affected one of his sons.
According to Miranda, the boy saw Trump talking on the news a year ago about a zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants. The child told his parents he could not deal with the situation and threatened to kill himself. Miranda said he and his wife took the boy to a psychologist for treatment.
On Aug. 7, the child screamed and wept when Miranda told him what happened to his mother.
Even so, “I love American people. I love America,” Miranda said. “That’s why we are here.”
Miranda said he doesn’t understand why people think undocumented immigrants get things for free. The opposite is true, he said.
They pay sales taxes when they shop at Walmart. They pay income tax when the chicken plants withhold money from their paychecks. Miranda said he paid more than $1,000 in property tax to Leake County on the ranch-style home he owns on a quiet dead-end street in Carthage.
But he can’t file for a tax refund. He’s not receiving any public benefits. And he can’t qualify for Medicaid.
“We been spending our life here, and we’re helping this country – like the president says – to be great,” Miranda said.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Immigration raids: How Mississippi poultry industry lured workers