Home » OPINION » Columns » BECKY GILLETTE — Immigration arrests at poultry plants were a disaster
Friends, coworkers and family watch as U.S. immigration officials raid the Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. U.S. immigration officials raided several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday and signaled that the early-morning strikes were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as employees. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

BECKY GILLETTE — Immigration arrests at poultry plants were a disaster

BECKY GILLETTE

This past week there were the kind of emergency food drives in Central Mississippi normally reserved for disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes. In this case, the disaster was immigration raids that resulted in the arrests of 680 people while they were at work at poultry processing plants in the area.

About 600 agents from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) armed to the teeth carried out that raids that had to be terrifying for workers. The acting secretary head of Homeland Security later said that the timing of the raids was “unfortunate” coming after the mass murders in El Paso targeting Hispanics staged by an anti-immigration killer.

Even though several hundred of the workers were quickly released, they now wear ankle bracelets and are not allowed to work. Many are single parents. The national spotlight was on the raid, said to be the largest such workplace raids in a decade, and in particular on how little attention was given to the fact that many of these workers had children at home left without someone to care for them.

What will happen to these families while the breadwinner’s case winds its way through the clogged immigration courts? How does it help the government to take these people off the payrolls onto the welfare rolls?

How many of these adults and children will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Rev. Mike O’Brien, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Canton, was quoted by AP as saying: “The people are all afraid. Their doors are locked, and they won’t answer their doors.”

There are a couple of more reason to call this a disaster. One, to arrest someone at work simply because they are trying to make a living is morally reprehensive. If you want to address the problem of undocumented workers, then meet with the owners of companies employing them, and give them a deadline to provide proper documentation of workers or start facing large fines.

You don’t have to be aggressive. These are workers, people who do a messy, tiring, difficult job most residents won’t do, a job that drives the entire poultry industry, which drives the entire economy of Mississippi. Poultry is the No. 1 commodity in Mississippi with an estimated value of $2.7 billion in 2017.

If you arrested every undocumented worker in the poultry industry in Mississippi, the entire industry could collapse. For what gain?

If someone is pushing drugs or robbing a store, by all means arrest and deport them. But these workers are usually just going home after work, taking care of their family, and making their own tortillas. They are generally thrifty, religious and very family-oriented. We are acting like they are sex traffickers.

The average person doesn’t understand the importance of these workers to industry. If you don’t have someone to process the chicken, what happens to the grower who can’t take new chicks because the grown chickens haven’t been shipped for processing? What happens to the farmer supplying the chicks? What happens to the feed processors? What happens to the farmers growing the feed? What happens to the truck drivers involved from start to finish? What happens to the banks making the loans? What happens to tax collections?

And we know what happens to a local economy when large numbers of people are arrested and put out of work in a small town. It has a chilling effect resulting in fewer sales for stores, car dealers, restaurants, etc.

Some comments on social media are that the chicken processing companies are using “slave labor.” In fact, most of these jobs earn $10 per hour in entry pay, and include benefits such as health insurance that raise the value of the job to $15 an hour. Workers are paying payroll taxes including Social Security taxes they are likely to never collect on.

Some other questions are there were reports that workers in at least one plant had their keys confiscated, and their vehicles were not returned when the workers were released. How is this right or fair?

Another troubling question is that many of those arrested have children born in the U.S. Are they going to be deported to a country they have never seen? What if one parent is a citizen and the other is not? What good does it do to take a mother away from his husband and children?

And the issue goes far beyond the poultry industry. Across the county, many jobs in construction, housekeeping, farming and other types of labor are being met by undocumented workers.

Yes, we need immigration reform. But the raids this past week are not the way to go about it. No wall will keep people out when they come from areas with crippling poverty and crime, and know that rich industries in the U.S. will employ them regardless of their citizenship status. If the workers are needed — which they are — give them a path to becoming a citizen.

» BECKY GILLETTE has been a contributing writer to the Mississippi Business for more than 20 years.

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About Becky Gillette