In Canton, Mississippi, where they account for only 5 percent of the population, Latinos were often seen but not heard. Their children would translate for them at parent-teacher conferences, as generations of kids have done for their immigrant parents.
That changed last week, as a sweeping immigration raid of seven poultry plants swept up 680 undocumented workers, leaving children sobbing and wives tearfully saying goodbye to husbands through chain-link fences as authorities processed workers. For many children, it was their first day of school, one that some ended sleeping in a gym after their parents were detained. On Sunday, Trump administration officials conceded that “the timing was unfortunate,” coming on the heels of a white-supremacist hate crime that targeted Mexicans, shattered the El Paso community, and left Latinos across the country fearing the political climate will lead to future violence aimed at those who look like them.
Even more troublingly, the plants raided included those owned by Koch Foods, which in August 2018 paid $3.75 million to settle a lawsuit alleging racial and sexual harassment against Latina workers at these plants. The suit alleged that “supervisors touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments to Hispanic female employees, hit Hispanic employees and charged many of them money for normal everyday work activities.” As part of the settlement, Koch Foods—no relation to the Republican mega-donors—agreed to create a 24-hour bilingual hotline for worker complaints. While there is currently no evidence that the raid was connected, the history of exploitation here has made the raids feel especially cruel. And activists worry the example of Canton will also have devastating effects for communities elsewhere—all, contrary to right-wing talking points, without having any meaningful effect on migration.
“I don’t know if they came after them because of the litigation or not, but ultimately the effect is the same,” said Caitlin Berberich, an attorney at Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS), in Tennessee, which represented the workers. “I know how hard it is for immigrant workers to get to the point to speak out about their abuses. Honestly, the majority of the people we speak to, their rights are being violated, but most people do a cost-benefit analysis on the potential risk they face if they speak up. So to me the raids don’t serve any real purpose but to push people further underground, discouraging workers from feeling comfortable to assert their rights.”
Activists on the ground told me they’ve begun the process of collecting the stories of the affected families. As lawyers and advocates descend on this broken Mississippi community, they are creating triage centers, safe spaces of sanctuary, like churches, where people can find relief in the form of donated food, diapers, and toiletries. For some, who in the immediate aftermath of the raids don’t know where their families are, the first priority is reconnecting them. Everyone detained is going to need a lawyer, but as one activist told me, “there aren’t just 680 immigration lawyers available.” For many immigrants, the next paycheck they receive is their last, so groups are also trying to alleviate economic need.
“Everybody is saying ‘the cruelty is the point,’” said Alida Garcia, vice president of advocacy for the immigration and criminal justice reform group FWD.us. The phrase was coined in 2018 by Atlantic writer Adam Serwer, arguing that this is the common theme in Trumpism. “But the chaos is also the point,” Garcia said. “[The administration’s] policies result in everyone else having to solve the problems and it’s completely inhumane, with pastors and teachers and labor leaders and activists having to build these operations every time they do this. It’s really the best of humanity, but because the administration is the worst of humanity.”
Still more frustrating is the sense that, in the face of the profound human cost in the Latino community, the companies themselves will face no serious repercussions. Last year, a raid on undocumented workers in Morristown, Tennessee resulted in 18 months in jail for the employer. Since then, a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse analysis at Syracuse University found that only eleven individuals—not the companies they were operating on behalf of—have been prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers from April 28 to March 29 of this year, while 120,000 undocumented immigrants were charged for illegal entry or illegal reentry during the same period. Following the raids last week, The Washington Post reported that the Trump Organization employs undocumented immigrants, as other Trump properties have been found to do, but there have been no penalities for doing so.
The dependence on cheap labor is built into these companies. Koch Foods has already announced a job fair for Monday. Activists recall that after a major raid a decade ago in Postville, Iowa, that led to the deportation of 400 immigrants, workers were brought in from out of state, and the company hired members of the Somali refugee community and Native American communities.
The emotional and economic devastation of these raids will not stop migration, either.
“If I’m faced with a choice, am I going to sit here and watch my family be murdered and starve to death or am I going to get up and move?” said Shuya Ohno, an activist with the Advancement Project currently working in Mississippi to help affected immigrants, as he has after some of the largest raids of the last decade. “I’m going to get up and leave, this is why people come here, they’re fleeing desperate situations, they have no choice. The plant got raided, that’s not going to deter them.”
What the raids, occurring the same day Trump visited victims of the El Paso shooting, will do is discourage other immigrant communities, particularly in the South, from reporting labor rights violations, sexual assault, wage theft, and more.
“Anytime something like this happens, it empowers the corporations,” Berberich, the SMLS attorney, said. “From my perspective it actually empowers the employers to get away with more abuses. They will read from this that their workforce is petrified.”
That’s bad for the community as a whole. “Someone that perpetrates sexual violence will on average do so nine times,” Mónica Ramírez, the gender justice campaigns director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told me. “When people are permitted to sexually assault immigrant workers, more people are at harm, including people who do not work in those places. Perpetrators are violent outside the job, too. And what happens is women are afraid and tell me they need to go into hiding because they’re so terrified law enforcement is going to come after them, they’re more vulnerable to exploitation and harm.” In fact, victims may be eligible for a “U visa,” set aside for victims of crimes, but may not realize that or pursue one.
The other enduring effect, Garcia said, will be “ripples of pain that go beyond the media moment.”
That media moment Garcia referred to included little eleven-year-old Magdalena Gomez Gregorio, between sobs, begging the government in a video published by CBS News to “please show some heart,” along with other devastated children and mothers. “That fleeting image you see,” Ohno said, “is lasting damage, that one child, their whole family, friends, and communities.”
“I believe this raid is a continuation of the Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents,” Jennifer Riley Collins, the Democratic candidate running for attorney general of Mississippi, told me. “We should not be torturing children as a way to deter persons who want to immigrate to this country. This is not about anti-immigration, these are anti-immigrant, racially motivated, hate-filled actions against communities.”
The Mississippi raids so soon after the El Paso shooting have galvanized the immigration rights world, which is soliciting donations for local immigrant rights coalitions and organizations as they spring into action.
“It’s been heartening, how black, brown, and white communities are coming together. You have southern Baptists coming to Catholic churches to donate food, first in Tennessee and now Mississippi,” Ohno said. “That’s what America should be and can be. If we all turned off Fox News that’s what we can become again.”