'No one is coming out': Ice raids leave Latino community paralyzed with fear

<span>Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP</span>
Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

Ovidio Miguel watched last week as business dried up at his grocery store in the wake of a large-scale immigration raid at the local poultry plant in Forest, Mississippi.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents arrested nearly 700 people on 7 August as part of a series of raids at worksites in Mississippi.

Those raids, conducted at the behest of the Trump administration, have left the small town’s sizable Latino community paralyzed with fear. Miguel’s grocery, Tienda Latino, is getting half as many customers as usual, he said.

“Hispanic people are scared to go out,” Miguel told the Guardian from across the counter of his store on a rainy Saturday. “They’re afraid Ice is still around. I’m worried about my business. It’s so slow. People came out. Now no one is coming out.”

Related: More major US immigration raids likely despite outcry – report

Tienda Latino is on a strip of road near fast-food chains such as Burger King and Sonic, where on that evening sat a crimson red Dodge Ram pickup truck decorated with Confederate flags on its front plate and rear window.

The franchises stand in contrast to the nearby historic Forest downtown, at the center of which is the Scott county courthouse. Painted stone roosters stand watch around corners of the courthouse, chests puffed out, symbolizing the pride the town takes in its flagship poultry plant.

Now, though, they also represent the horror that gripped residents when Ice stormed the Koch Foods plant, leading workers out with their arms bound in zip ties and loading them onto buses. Some workers that Ice agents initially grabbed were released after they demonstrated they had current work visas. Later that evening, the agency released 300 parents, but with ankle bracelets to monitor their movements while they await court dates.

Kimberly Padilla, who works at her immigrant family’s south side grocery store, La Moreliana, told the Guardian they have seen a significant drop in business since the raid. Not only are members of the community fearful to go out in public, she said, but they are afraid to use money.

“They don’t want to go anywhere and spend money because they don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Among those captured, Padilla said, was a woman who is friends with her boyfriend’s family. The government released the woman with an ankle bracelet on the evening after the raids, though, because she has a small child who she lives alone with.

Seven agricultural processing plants across Mississippi were targeted.
Seven agricultural processing plants across Mississippi were targeted. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

The Padillas worry business could slow dramatically in the coming weeks. For now, former Koch employees and their families are still getting paychecks. Soon, though, they will have no income – and getting a job won’t be an option.

“Some of the parents that have permission to work are going to stay and work, but the ones who don’t, they can’t do anything anymore,” Padilla said. “With the ankle bracelets, they’re basically tracked, and if Ice finds out they’re still working even after getting taken and processed, it’ll be worse for them in the end.”

Half a mile from La Moreliana, a “now hiring” sign hangs on the metal fence at the entrance of the Koch Foods plant, which has ceased operations because Ice took too many of its employees for it to continue operations. Train tracks delineate downtown Forest from the town’s largely Latino south side, where the chicken plant and the La Moreliana are.

Tony McGee, the superintendent of public education for Scott county, said business owners are also telling him that they are struggling. Other businesses who do jobs for Koch Foods, like bringing goods to them or receiving them, have also had to cease some operations.

“It does affect more than just the workers of the plant. It extends out into the entire community,” McGee saud as he cooked tuna at his home in Kosciusko.

The fallout even extends to Walmart, America’s largest brick-and-mortar supermarket chain. Locals entering the Forest store were not welcomed by the usual smiling greeter wearing a dark blue and yellow Walmart vest with the words “How may I help you?” on the back.

Instead, in the greeter’s place stood a stoic woman with a pistol on her hip.

Related: El Paso shooting: suspect confesses to targeting Mexicans, officials say

“Didn’t you hear about El Paso?” said one Walmart worker, who did not share his name, when asked about the armed guard.

He and another worker said the store had begun employing an armed guard after a white supremacist gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso last week. In a supposed “manifesto” posted online minutes before the shootings, the alleged gunman claimed he was doing it in response to a “Hispanic invasion” in the state, echoing Donald Trump’s repeated warnings over the past year about an “invasion” of immigrants and refugees from south of the US-Mexico border.

In Forest, though, a measure designed in part to set the local immigrant at ease instead set off a fresh wave of anxieties with some. Rumors spread that the guard was an Ice agent who checked IDs when people entered the store, Padilla said.

“So a lot of people are scared to be going to Walmart, and a lot of people have been warned not to go because of all the shootings,” she said.

Children scared to go to school

At the schools in Scott county, McGee told the Guardian, many children still have not come back. Chaos ensued as the raids unfolded on 7 August because Ice did not inform the school districts affected nor local Child Protective Services until after the raids had happened. With hundreds of parents in Ice custody, schools and daycares struggled to find relatives to care for children in the meantime.

The next day, on Thursday, 154 students in the Scott county public school district were out, McGee said. By Friday, 52 students still had not come back to school.

“Of course, right now, there’s still a lot of unease within our Hispanic community, as far as feeling like they can get out in the community, go to school, and go shopping, those types of things,” McGee said. “It’s just fear.”

The schools have put academics “on the back burner” for now, he said, to focus on the children’s wellbeing. Therapists from the University of Mississippi Medical Center have been in contact with the district and plan to come in to help the children deal with the trauma of the raids.

On Friday night, McGee said, school administrators loaded up on a bus and took 25 meals and care packages out to children in nearby Morton, Mississippi, another town in Scott county targeted by the Ice raids. The district, McGee said, plans to continue doing that for families affected by the raids, starting with children who have yet to return to school. He wants to help rebuild as much of a sense of trust and safety as possible.

“You definitely see [immigration issues] differently when it affects you and has a direct bearing on your children,” McGee said. “And you know, all those kids are our kids.”

Ashton Pittman is the state reporter for the Jackson Free Press. Twitter @ashtonpittman

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