On August 7 the poultry towns of central Mississippi suffered the largest workplace raid in the U.S. since 2006. Some 680 chicken-processing workers from seven factories were detained and incarcerated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Ten percent of the population in Morton, Mississippi, was either incarcerated or fired. Parents were detained the same day they had dropped their children off to their first day of school.
The raid instilled fear not only in Mississippi poultry plants but also among immigrants all over the country. Natalie Patrick-Knox of Jobs with Justice (JwJ) described the ripple effect: “workers feeling scared to report wage theft, dangerous work conditions, and other abuses.”
She said that fear “makes it easier for low-road employers to beat their competition by violating labor law.” Then all workers, regardless of immigration status, feel the effects.
Immigrant advocates say ICE targeted these plants because workers were organizing for better conditions. Many were already represented by the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
As soon as the raids were announced, labor and immigrant rights groups mobilized. The Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition representing 340,000 workers, raised thousands of dollars that it sent to the UFCW.
National Jobs with Justice took direction from the UFCW and two local immigrant rights organizations, Southeast Immigrant Rights Network (SEIRN) and Mississippi Resiste. JwJ recruited bilingual organizers and sent them to help these groups.
At the Pioneer Valley Workers Center in western Massachusetts and Massachusetts JwJ, we sent Cecilia Prado, one of our volunteer hotline responders, to join the team on the ground in Mississippi. There she volunteered as an organizer and case manager. “Most of us [volunteers] were Latinx and were familiar with the stress surrounding the immigration system,” she said, “so we were able to relate to the community and gain their trust.”
The organizers worked from early morning to late at night. “We would flyer in churches and communities and let people know about the resources,” Prado said. Churches housed legal clinics and distributed humanitarian aid.
In three weeks, the team working with Mississippi Resiste interviewed 468 family members to locate and identify those detained. Many who were not already in immigration proceedings or had no prior criminal charges were released. The 200 still detained are being moved among nine different prisons.
WORKERS PUSH BACK
“There was a lot of shame,” Prado said. “We talked about how this was not fair. We worked building confidence among the community, validating their experience, educating them on what their rights are, and empowering them to lead their own movements.
“Most people who were from the factories not represented by the union thought that because they are undocumented, they had no rights,” she said.
Besides the hundreds detained, hundreds more were fired. Those still working are afraid they might be next.
To push back, poultry workers have begun organizing committees in their towns—creating roles for each person, such as meeting planner, notetaker, treasurer, communicator, and fundraiser. In Morton, the local leaders organized a huge meeting about immigrant workers’ rights. More than 200 people participated.
Community members directly or indirectly affected by the raids have started to keep track of the labor violations they have experienced at these plants or elsewhere, such as wage theft or sexual harassment, and to seek out labor lawyers. UFCW is also collecting reports of labor violations against its members, offering them humanitarian aid, and putting together a legal team.
Just last year, one of the raided factories, Koch Foods, settled a class action lawsuit, paying out $3.75 million to workers over wage theft, discrimination against Latinos, and sexual harassment.
Supporters say it’s more evidence that ICE targets workplaces where workers organize to improve conditions. Poultry is one of the most dangerous industries in the country.
The overall food industry—including farmworkers, fast food workers, restaurant workers, supermarket workers, and meatpackers as well as poultry workers—is the largest sector in the U.S. economy. Yet the median wage for food workers is just $10 an hour. Wage theft is rampant.
The Food Chain Workers Alliance has used government data to show that about one in five food workers is an immigrant, though this number is probably an undercount.
Many of the families working in these plants were recruited from Mexico and Central America by employers. Hiring immigrant Latinos was a mechanism to halt the organizing by Black workers who won improvements in central Mississippi poultry plants between the 1970s and the 1990s.
But the immigrants hit by this summer’s raid received solidarity from Black organizations in Mississippi. The People’s Advocacy Institute, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, NAACP, and others stated: “The anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx, anti-Black, anti-human rights policies created by this administration shock the conscience of all reasonable people.”
The return of the workplace raid represents what many immigrant and worker rights organizations have feared would become the new face of enforcement in the Trump presidency.
Under President Obama there were more deportations than under any previous president, but enforcement relied more on I-9 audits and raids at homes.
We can only expect that these raids will keep coming. The more prepared we are with rapid response, the more potential there is to organize and create a united front to fight back.
Solidarity is key in these moments, and it’s best to build it ahead of time. JwJ and the AFL-CIO have published toolkits explaining how to set up a fund and roles in advance, so that folks can jump in immediately to help.
Know-your-rights workshops are also critical. It appears that in these raids ICE used a common tactic: agents walk into a workplace and yell, “Everyone with papers over here, and everyone without over there.”
Muscle memory is key in a crisis. Role-plays can help us prepare not to out ourselves or our co-workers.
Have every worker practice saying that they refuse to answer any questions: “I will not speak to anyone, answer any questions about my immigration status, respond to any accusations, waive my legal rights, or consent to a search of my person, papers, or property until I have first obtained the advice of an attorney.”
This story first appeared at Labor Notes.
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on October 3, 2019. Reprinted with permission.