SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
August 7, 2019 changed the lives of many undocumented immigrants living and working in central Mississippi. That day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 680 people working at chicken processing plants there. It was one of the largest immigration raids in U.S. history. "Latino USA" host Maria Hinojosa has been reporting on the aftermath. She and producer Reynaldo Leanos Jr. recently returned to these Mississippi communities to report on the impact of the pandemic and the aftermath of these raids. They both join us now. Welcome.
MARIA HINOJOSA: Hey, thank you for having us on.
REYNALDO LEANOS JR: Thanks for having us.
MCCAMMON: Maria, I want to start by talking with you about the community of undocumented workers that you met in central Mississippi. First of all, where are they from originally, and when did you first meet them?
HINOJOSA: So I'm not really surprised by finding Latino and Latina communities everywhere in the United States. But the particularities of being in central Mississippi and having people from the Guatemalan Highlands who speak Mam or Kʼicheʼ - these are Indigenous languages - and that they, along with other folks from Mexico, here they are, living in these tiny towns. And these are the people who feed us every day because they're working in the chicken plants that never close - did not close during the pandemic, stayed open 24/7. And what we uncovered was that, you know, in 2019, they were all imminently deportable. They were taken from their jobs, and many of them were deported. Then the pandemic happens. We go back, and it's like, they're actually now essential.
MCCAMMON: And how did all of these people from Guatemala end up in Mississippi specifically?
HINOJOSA: Well, people are recruited. There are labor recruiters. They find people who are willing. And then suddenly, Mississippi - central Mississippi, working in a chicken plant, freezing, repetitive, low wages becomes your dream in the United States.
MCCAMMON: And you first visited this community about six months after the raid. So we're back in early 2020 now just before the pandemic hit. At that time, how were people dealing with the aftermath of the raids?
HINOJOSA: It was terrible. People were in a state of shock. You know, it's like an earthquake that doesn't stop. You know, it just keeps on going. And you're such a tight-knit community, and suddenly dads are gone. Moms are gone. Kids are suddenly without their parents. There is massive amounts of trauma. What also stays with me is the voices of the kids. We met a little boy named Miko, who is an American citizen. His dad was deported and taken from him.
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MIKO: I was getting really worried about my dad, like, not coming home anymore. Mostly my heart hurted (ph). Right here where the - on the center, my heart started hurting like in disasters (ph).
MCCAMMON: And how is that family doing now? It occurs to me they're dealing with emotional trauma. How have they worked through that?
HINOJOSA: The four of them are together. And so therefore they can take on anything. But the trauma is real. And so the family, at least they understand that they need to have therapy. They need to be talking about this because they all have and will have lingering post-traumatic stress.
MCCAMMON: And, Rey, as you report, these plants hired back many of the workers that they'd fired. Why did the chicken processing plants do this? And also, how - after being raided for hiring undocumented immigrants, how were they able to hire them back again?
LEANOS: Yeah. So, you know, this is something that we heard from Lorena Quiroz-Lewis. After the raids, one of the things that changed for her is that she began her own organization to help, you know, within the community. And some of the same people who were, you know, picked up during the raids, you know, some of those same people are back working at these chicken processing plants. This was very frustrating, you know, to Lorena.
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LORENA QUIROZ-LEWIS: Now we were essential workers. Now we were needed. Now, when people, you know, were going home and were getting sick or didn't even want to come and get exposed, we were asked to come in and take these jobs.
MCCAMMON: One of the things that your reporting brings to light is the fact that much of the hiring for these plants is outsourced, sort of a way to distance the plant from the hiring process, particularly if the people being hired are undocumented. How much does that happen, and how does that work?
HINOJOSA: It's happening everywhere. It's been happening not for years, but for decades. And it's a way in which people are able to basically wash their hands of knowing that they're involved with hiring undocumented people and paying them lesser wages. None of the contractors are ever basically held accountable. And it continues to happen because there is, again, this thirst for workers.
MCCAMMON: And have you gotten any indication from these plants about why they're continuing to do this?
LEANOS: Yeah, we actually did reach out to, you know, some of the chicken processing plants in the area. And we only heard back from one of them. You know, and they kind of just told us that they are in compliance, you know, with both local, state and federal law, and that when they do work with contractors that they make sure that they also do the same thing and comply with the law.
MCCAMMON: Maria, something you touched on a moment ago, but one of the tensions I kept hearing in these reports is this sense that while so many of these workers have suffered so tremendously in Mississippi, many say they want to stay there. They don't want to be anywhere else. What did people tell you about how they're thinking about their future?
HINOJOSA: They feel like the police are not necessarily protecting them. They feel like they're being attacked by immigration agents. There's a tremendous amount of general insecurity. And yet this is their home. These young people will be voting in the state of Mississippi. And they're like, we understand what happened, and we're not going to let this happen again. We're going to vote. And I actually heard that from little kids. And so this is what the future of Mississippi looks like.
MCCAMMON: We also hear in this report how these workers are both undocumented and essential. You know, they produce our food. Companies and communities depend on them. And the pandemic, of course, highlighted the critical role that they play. And yet, year after year, there does not seem to be the political will in this country to really make structural change to our immigration system so that these people don't have to live in such limbo and also so that employers can have more predictability about their workforce. How hopeful are you that this will change?
HINOJOSA: So in many ways, what happened with these raids in Mississippi, which did not happen under the Biden administration, provide the Biden administration with the perfect opening to actually do what he said he was going to do. The easiest thing for him to do is to do an executive order that says all essential workers in food processing industry, including farm workers, meat plants, et cetera, all have an expedited path to citizenship. The Biden administration has the ball in their court. And will it happen? You know, I can remain hopeful. But it's only going to happen because people continue to push.
MCCAMMON: That was "Latino USA's" Maria Hinojosa and Reynaldo Leanos Jr. talking about their audio documentary, "Mississippi Rising." Thank you very much for joining us.
HINOJOSA: Thank you.
LEANOS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.