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Citizens line up for Mississippi jobs but fear the impact of ICE raids

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/14/2019 Jonnelle Marte
a large military truck parked on the side of a road: A truck loaded with chickens passes Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., last week following Wednesday's raid by U.S. immigration officials. The raids were part of a large-scale operation targeting plants operated by five companies. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) © Rogelio V. Solis/AP A truck loaded with chickens passes Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., last week following Wednesday's raid by U.S. immigration officials. The raids were part of a large-scale operation targeting plants operated by five companies. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

FOREST, Miss. — More than 100 workers attended a job fair Monday morning in this rural Mississippi town to apply for positions made available, in part, by the largest workplace immigration raid to hit a single state in U.S. history.

In a state where the poultry industry is one of the biggest drivers of the economy, some of the job applicants said they hoped the opportunities at Koch Foods, one of the meatpacking plants targeted by the raids, would improve their finances in both substantial and incremental ways.

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They arrived seeking a steadier paycheck. A slightly higher wage. A more accommodating schedule.

“It’s hard to move up around Forest,” said Octavius Noblin, who gets by working odd jobs in construction or hauling parts at a junkyard, often toiling outdoors in the sweltering Mississippi heat. “Jobs come and they go around here.”

Noblin, who is black and grew up in Mississippi, said he wants more stable work to help pay for the small house he and his wife bought four months ago. Monday was his fifth time applying for a job at Koch Foods this year. “I’m getting back in the process of really having money that I can really count on,” he said.

Even as many of the job hunters pondered the ways the chicken-processing jobs might bring them more stability, many of the workers — who were required to bring two forms of identification to the job fair — said they sympathized with the 680 employees whom U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said were undocumented immigrants and were arrested at seven work sites last Wednesday.

“I feel like it’s wrong to send them back because everybody deserves a second chance in life,” said Ralphtheia Nichols, 51, who has worked at several poultry plants over the years. As a mother of four who said she struggles to make ends meet, Nichols said she identifies with the people working to support their families. “These people have been living bad in their country for all these years. All they want is just a better place, a better living.”

Their sentiments challenge the narratives that typically drive the immigration debate in the United States, pitting undocumented workers against Americans seeking opportunity. The workers’ efforts to explore jobs at the meatpacking plants go against the notion that Americans have no interest in the gritty jobs often held by undocumented workers who till the nation’s farmland, slaughter and package meat, and care for the elderly.

But some of the workers disagree that the job market is a zero-sum game where a job held by a foreigner limits opportunities for Americans.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A handout photo made available by the US Department of Homeland Security shows immigration officers executing multiple federal search warrants at one of seven processing plants across Mississippi. The operation resulted in arrests of 680 workers. © Us Homeland Security/Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A handout photo made available by the US Department of Homeland Security shows immigration officers executing multiple federal search warrants at one of seven processing plants across Mississippi. The operation resulted in arrests of 680 workers.

The job hopefuls expressed skepticism that the poultry plants would be able to find enough workers to replace the jobs wiped out in the ICE raids. “There are 680 jobs that were lost, and there are not 680 people here,” said Hailey Brewer, 26.

Brewer already works as a manager at a chicken plant affected by the raids but went to Monday’s job fair to apply for a day shift that would allow her to spend more time with her daughter. She said many of her colleagues were standing outside in shock when she arrived for the night shift last Wednesday.

Brewer was grateful to return to work Friday, unlike one of her co-workers, who was released after being arrested so she could care for her two children. Few employees caught up in such raids are able to work while their cases are resolved.

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The jobs Koch Foods recruited for Monday spanned the production line, from the “live hang” line where chickens are killed to deboning and cutting, said Dianne Bell, communications director for the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which organized the job fair. Poultry plants frequently turn to the state for help advertising job openings for more specific needs, Bell said. But Monday’s fair, which was requested the day of the immigration raids, was more expansive than usual.

On a muggy August morning, black, white and Latino job applicants filed in and out of the Win job center, a nondescript office building where workers can apply for jobs and unemployment benefits. Some people had never worked at a chicken plant, and others were looking to return to the industry, drawn by hourly wages ranging from $9.20 to $12, well above the minimum wage of $7.25.

Nichols, the mother of four, described a Catch-22 faced by low-income workers in the area. The monthly paycheck earned from a minimum-wage job doesn’t cover basic living expenses. Yet the income is often just enough to disqualify workers from food stamps, which they rely on to feed their children.

“How are you supposed to do that? Take care of four kids, pay your light bill, water bill, get back and forth to work,” she said. “Then you have to buy groceries — you can’t do all that for $7.25 an hour.”

Work at a poultry plant can be messy and dangerous. Workers with past and current experience at meatpacking plants describe gruesome scenes from the “live hang” line, where chickens are slaughtered, of bird feces and blood splattering on their faces. Employees often have to work in frigid rooms, and mistakes with the slicing equipment can be fatal. But in a state where the poultry industry employs 25,000 people, many residents have held at least one job related to chicken production.

Some people think they are ready to work at a poultry plant, but after starting the job, they may last only a few weeks, said Andy Gipson, Mississippi’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce. “It’s a constant issue trying to find workers,” Gipson said. “Immigration labor is always going to be a key component of Mississippi’s agriculture workforce, but we want to make sure that companies are operating within the law."

Koch Foods said the plants affected by the raids were able to resume operations by the time the second shift started that evening. The company does not know how many workers it lost to the raids because immigration officials seized their labor records as a part of the investigation.

Koch Foods said it has been using E-Verify, a federal database, to confirm workers’ identities for more than a decade. “Koch hires its workers using strict hiring policies and procedures and trains its people regularly on such policies and procedures,” the statement said. (The chicken producer, based near Chicago and pronounced “cook,” has no relation to the conservative political donors Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries.)

Meanwhile, workers targeted by the raids are struggling to figure out how to support their families, including children born in the United States who are citizens. Some local churches, including the Trinity Mission Center, are collecting food, water and toiletries and distributing them to affected families.

Edwin Gonzalez, 43, has worked in forestry, landscaping, poultry farms and driving since he moved to Mississippi from Panama 22 years ago. Gonzalez, who is helping to distribute donations at the Trinity Mission Center, said the Hispanic community in the state is in a “panic” after the raids, with many workers staying home and avoiding public places out of fear that they will be rounded up next.

Many of the people who were arrested and released were told they can’t work while they wait for their immigration hearing, said Julia Solórzano, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal group that focuses on civil rights.

“It’s just not clear what the avenue is for those people to provide for their families,” said Solórzano, who traveled to Forest, Miss., from Atlanta so she could meet with parents and workers seeking legal guidance.

Because of the long backlog of immigration cases around the country, it could be months or years before some of them are resolved, she added. Even some workers not caught in the raids are scared to return to work. “This is going to have a huge ripple effect throughout this community and in this industry,” Solórzano said.

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