The Slatest

“We Had a Future We Built Here”

The ICE raids devastated the immigrant community in Morton, Mississippi. Then came a mass firing.

A lone customer sits in Maria's Mercado in Morton, Mississippi.
A lone customer sits in Maria’s Mercado in Morton, Mississippi. The owner’s nephew explained that before the raids, the store would be filled. Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger via Imagn Content Services, LLC

MORTON, MISSISSIPPI—Workers at one of the seven central Mississippi chicken plants raided last week by U.S. immigration authorities say that more than 100 additional employees lost their jobs on Tuesday. Poultry workers arriving for the afternoon shift at PH Food were met by a supervisor with a list of names of those who would be allowed to return to work. A few dozen, at most. Everyone else was fired on the spot.

The mass dismissal is the latest fallout of last Wednesday’s ICE raids, in which 680 immigrant workers were detained in the largest act of workplace enforcement in a decade. It is a glimpse of how Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s newly aggressive posture will devastate families, communities, and the regional economy—long after the agents, and the news cameras, have left town.

Tuesday brings the total number of jobs lost in Morton to over 450, meaning that more than 10 percent of the population of this tiny Mississippi city has been either fired or imprisoned in the past seven days.

Alejandra Gutiérrez, a 41-year-old undocumented woman who worked at the plant for 12 years, was one of those let go. She had been too scared to work after ICE detained her sister and brother-in-law last Wednesday. The pair were released that day to await immigration hearings—he with an ankle bracelet—but now have no source of income for their young children. (Some last names in this article have been changed to protect people who do not have legal status in the United States. PH Food did not respond to a request for comment.)

To pass the time, Gutiérrez drove supplies from the Trinity Mission in nearby Forest, Mississippi, a Methodist church and depot for organizers trying to help families with legal services and food, to the homes of friends whose husbands had been arrested. “I have a lot of friends with their husbands locked up, with three or four kids, who can’t drive,” she told me on Tuesday afternoon. “Am I scared? Of course I’m scared. But I’ve known these people for years. I’m not going to leave them without diapers and milk.”

Gutiérrez had just worked up the courage to get back to work, only to find herself out in the parking lot, unemployed, on a sweltering afternoon when the heat index rose above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. She had bought a house. What would she do with it now?

The layoffs were a sign of just how thoroughly last week’s ICE raids will change the handful of towns in central Mississippi where immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, and South America have made their home over the course of the past two decades. Now, hundreds are missing and hundreds more are unemployed. Those who still have jobs are scrambling to cover the bills and legal costs of brothers and sisters—in addition to paying their own rent.

The state’s largest agricultural product is chicken, and longtime residents say the arrival of Latino immigrants has filled classrooms, revived communities, and sustained local businesses. “If they removed every illegal in town, we’d be in big trouble,” Martha Rogers, the 76-year-old CEO of the Bank of Morton, told me earlier in the day, as she contemplated what might result from last week’s raids. “I’m for limiting who can come into this country. But people who are already here, who have jobs and are contributing? There should be some avenue for them to be legal.” She praised the outreach efforts of the local churches and charities, who were now helping the families whose breadwinners had once supported them. “I don’t understand how they think that’s better,” she said, of that role reversal. “Who is that better for?”

Later that afternoon, the fired workers from PH Food assembled in the plant’s parking lot and decided to stage an impromptu rally at Farris Park in Morton. Families gathered, and children—most of whom have never set foot in the countries where the U.S. government wants to send their parents—drew up signs in English: “Our parents are not criminals.” “We are all brothers and sisters here. We are humans.”

Mario Salazar, an immigrant from Chiapas, Mexico, and one of the rally organizers, had been arrested by ICE last Wednesday after 15 years spent in the United States. His son Emmanuel, 13, said he saw a classmate crying at school and heard that immigration enforcement had come to his dad’s plant. He was worried. “When I got home, I found my mom crying because she said they took my dad,” Emmanuel told me. “But they waited for us to get home, not to cry at school. I started crying at home because I didn’t know where he was.”

Salazar was released early Thursday morning with a grillete—the ankle bracelet that makes future employment in the United States all but impossible.

Then, on Tuesday, Salazar’s wife—who worked the afternoon shift at PH Food—lost her job in the mass firing. “It’s something that we never expected, for all of us to be out of work,” Salazar said. “All of a sudden for them to tell us there is no work. The thing is, we have family, we have kids, we had a future we built here, and we don’t know what will happen to the life we built for our kids. We don’t know. And that is the whole family’s fear right now.”

Mario Salazar, second from left, with his family.
Mario, second from left, with his family. He and his wife are undocumented; his children are U.S. citizens. Henry Grabar

After the rally, workers and their families packed into the restaurant at Hondumex, a grocery-baker-butcher in downtown Morton. Earlier in the week, I had stood in the empty storefront as Juan Garcia, the 46-year-old Mexican American who opened the business in 2010, told me he was thinking about shutting it down. The 680 people arrested last week were only the beginning, he reasoned. Others would be too scared to work; still others would be fired. He tore at a piece of paper in his hands as we spoke. It was a ticket to the weekend’s Luna Bros. Big Top Circus in Morton, with bilingual text: “BOLETO GRATIS PARA NIÑOS.” It came from a stack that lay untouched on the counter.

Now, as the storm clouds cleared outside, the out-of-commission restaurant—which Garcia had outfitted with colorful ponchos, Mexican ceramics, and faux-adobe brown-painted arches—had sprung suddenly to life. Miguel Reyes, a laid-off worker with curly hair spilling out from under his backward baseball cap, addressed the crowd, urging them to stick together. “Don’t change your phone numbers!” Salazar added.

Organizers from the Fair Immigration Reform Movement told the workers what to do if ICE knocked on the door, and William Foner, a volunteer from Tennessee, made the worried parents laugh with his portrayal of a bumbling ICE agent, trying to barge through the saloon doors from the kitchen.

The immediate task at hand? Getting paid for the work they had already done this week. Reyes wasn’t sure who would have their back.

For Salazar and his family, it would only be a small respite. With Mom undocumented and unemployed and Dad in an ankle bracelet, they don’t know how they’ll make ends meet.