Jesus Acosta’s pre-recorded voice repeatedly boomed in Spanish from the megaphone that immigrants-rights organizer Max Gonzalez held and pointed out of the passenger’s side of the car. Acosta, the executive assistant for the Jaclson, Miss.-based Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity, was driving first through Third Avenue in Canton, Miss., on July 20, 2022, and then through other streets that constitute the Westside Trailer Park in the city just north of the capital city where many undocumented Hispanic immigrants reside.
“Atención, atención vecinos y vecinas. Hoy, hay una reunión en la traila 108. Por favor vecinos asistan a esta junta en la traila 108. Gracias,” Acosta’s voice rang out in Spanish. The message translates to “Attention, attention, neighbors. Today, there is a meeting at trailer 108. Please, neighbors, attend this meeting in trailer 108. Thank you.”
The trailer park consists of four streets—Third Avenue, Pace Street, West Side Drive and Circus Street—with scores of standalone trailers housing hundreds of undocumented immigrants, one of the residents estimated.
Immigrant Alliance for Justice Labor Organizer Noelia Zuñiga joined Acosta and Gonzalez on the 30-mile journey north Jackson for the weekly meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. The goal of the strategy meeting was to marshal a plan to convince authorities at the City of Canton to fix the trailer park roads.
Years of Neglect
Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity’s involvement with issues relating to the Westside Trailer Park began after a triple murder of Guatamalan immigrants—siblings Faustino Ramírez and Martina Ramírez and her unborn child—in a home on Canton’s Chestnut Alley in December 2020, Executive Director Lorena Quiroz told the Mississippi Free Press by phone on July 25, 2022.
“Three people were murdered in Canton, and the police and some leaders in Canton got together to talk about the dangers of what’s going on in their city, and particularly in the trailer-park area, with undocumented immigrants,” Quiroz said. Those murders, though in a house, brought attention to the mobile-home park’s conditions in a town known for its charming and pristine downtown where movies often film.
What soon became apparent was how unkempt Westside Trailer Park was. “There was so much filth because there was no garbage can,” Quiroz said. “So people would just have to leave their garbage outside their trailer, which would cause rodent problems, and then dogs—people would dump their dogs into the trailer park—so the dogs would break in, and you had filth outside of the trailer park. You had the smell, and then you had dogs walking in and out.”
After the community made demands, the City of Canton provided garbage cans, and the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity turned its attention to the lack of street lights, which creates conditions that increase the crime rate at the park.
“We heard stories that the trailer park was a space where people were constantly getting broken into, constantly getting shot at, constantly being abused,” Quiroz continued during the interview. “Some of the things that they were worried about were the status of the trailers, the lack of security, where people can just break in easily at the door, at the window.”
Quiroz said the community later raised almost $4,000 and, with additional contributions from her organization, fenced a portion of the trailer park and put up six street lights, but that was not enough. “So we built our own fence. And then after that, we bought our own light,” she added. “The community still felt that that wasn’t enough, because (they cover) only certain parts.”
Placing Ribbons on Poles
Labor Organizer Gonzalez, in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press after that July 20 meeting in Canton, Miss., recalled asking someone at the Canton Municipal Utilities, “So why can’t you guys fix the lights?”
“Oh no, it’s because we don’t have enough people to mark the poles, and they have to wait until the nighttime so we know which one we have to fix,” Gonzalez received as a response.
Gonzalez told the staff that the community will assume responsibility for marking the poles to fast-track the process.
“Why can they not come and fix them?” Gonzalez said in the interview. “Why can they not come and mark the light force themselves? Yes, we offer to help. But the only reason we offered was because we wanted everything to be fast.”
“We had between seven to 10 members of the community marking every single light pole that didn’t work, even kids, freaking kids,” Gonzalez added, explaining that they marked “maybe 10 or more” light poles on June 29, 2022.
After tying blue ribbons on those poles, the community waited one week, but the Canton Municipal Utilities did not take action to resolve the problem. So, they sent dozens of request letters from those living there after making repeated phone calls.
Gonzalez provided a sample to the Mississippi Free Press of a letter dated July 7, 2022, sent to the Canton Municipal Utilities that more than 30 residents signed. They indicated that their safety was jeopardized without the street lights.
“All the residents of the trailer park took on (the) task of marking the poles that do not work with blue (ribbons) last Wednesday, June 29, and to date none have been fixed,” the letter said. “Having no lights increases the chances of criminal and violent offenses to our neighbors, and has cost one of us our lives.” On May 29, 2021, a robbery at the trailer park led to the death of Emilio Garcia, WAPT reported at the time.
Quiroz told the Mississippi Free Press that days after the community put up the ribbons, the lights came on. “CMU came and turned on all the lights,” she said. “It was huge for the first time to see all those lights coming on. It had not happened in at least 10 years.”
‘We Sent Letters Out, and We Pushed’
After the July 20, 2022, meeting, Canton High School student Aleida Ortis told the Mississippi Free Press that not having the street clearly lit made her fearful. “We sent letters out, and we pushed to force them to pay more attention to what we wanted, and they noticed, and then they turned on the lights,” she added.
Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity Office Manager Isela Gonzalez said Madison County and the City of Canton had pointed the finger at one another over the years. “There was always a fight (regarding whether) the trailer (park’s land) belonged to Madison County or the City of Canton,” she told the Mississippi Free Press on July 25, 2022, over the phone in Spanish, as Quiroz interpreted. “For years, they would always (trade) blame.”
Police Chief Apologizes for Remarks
Canton Police Chief Otha Brown told the Mississippi Free Press on July 27, 2022, that the Madison County Sheriff’s Office used to patrol the trailer park before 2021. “The City petitioned to annex that area, and they were successful,” he said in the phone interview. “They went to court and all of that.”
After the City of Canton filed a lawsuit in February 2017, in May 2021, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the City could annex the part of Madison County that contains the trailer park.
“So that area is now inside the city limits,” Chief Brown added. “It was in the city limits, but it was patrolled by the Madison County Sheriff’s Department in the past.”
In July 2017, City of Canton Ward 4 Alderman Daphne Sims advocated for the annexation of Westside Trailer Park in a WJTV report. At the time, Sims described the park as being “riddled with crimes” and that “some people are living in deplorable conditions.”
The report indicated that the park was in Madison County, “but Sims wants the city to take over and restore the area,” WJTV noted.
In the interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Quiroz described “a history of the police not responding to immigrant workers” and said her organization took exception to what Chief Brown said at a press conference after the December 2020 murders.
“He said (that) they’re broken into, and they’re attacked because they carry cash in their pockets,” Quiroz recalled. “And this to the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity was very disturbing because he was blaming the victim, as if, ‘Well, they carry cash, so that’s why they’re the target.'”
In the interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Chief Brown said his statement was “taken out of context.”
“What I said was these criminals, they’re attacking the Hispanic community because they think they have a lot of money,” Brown added. “They know they (the Hispanic residents) can’t go to banks and all and make deposits, so they’re attacking them, thinking they have a lot of money.”
“Every time a Hispanic is attacked, it’s always about money; when they’re getting robbed, when there (are) home invasions, it’s always someone trying to find out: ‘Do they have any money?’” he added. “That’s what I said, and I apologize to the community when I said that statement (and) when they took it out of context.”
A Mobile Command Unit in the Trailer Park
Chief Brown denied the accusation of a lack of responsiveness and said that since about June 2021, when the City annexed the park and the security responsibility fell on the Canton Police Department, they had increased their security presence in the area. “We have put our mobile command post over in the trailer park since the City has taken over, and that has curbed down on all crime,” he said.
“We have cameras on our mobile command post, and where we believe that the intruder was coming through into the trailer park, we put our post right there so (that) we can try to catch some footage of an intruder coming to commit a crime or either leaving,” he said.
“That’s why we put our mobile command post in that area—because we believe they were coming through that pathway away from everyone and leaving back out of that pathway when they commit a crime. And since we have had that there, we haven’t had any crime.”
Max Gonzalez, however, disputes the effectiveness of the mobile unit. “It was all the way at the end, and it’s just one for the whole trailer park,” he told the Mississippi Free Press on the way back from the July 20, 2022, meeting in Canton, Miss.
Chief Brown told the Mississippi Free Press that his men responded on July 27, 2022, to a carjacking report. “I was working last night when we received a call from trailer 101 (from) a gentleman who couldn’t speak English very well, and we don’t have a bilingual person, but my dispatcher was able to make out that the young man needed the police.”
“So officers responded, and when they got there, the gentleman had a translator on his phone that translated to us that he had been held at gunpoint and someone took his car, which was a white Honda Civic, so we’ve been looking for the white Honda Civic,” Brown added.
The police chief noted that officers have looked at the camera recording from the mobile unit and have not gotten any information from it to help recover the car. “We looked back at the camera; we hadn’t seen anything,” he said, hinting that may be because the robber may not have gone “out by that camera.”
Chief Brown invited the trailer park community to call 601-859-2121 or 911 if they see any suspicious movement and said they do not have to leave their names and should come to his office to see him if they face any unpleasant treatment from the police. “I want to know why my people are not responding; I want to know, did they make the call?” he said. “Come to the police department and ask for Chief Brown, and I will sit down with them, and we’ll try to get to the bottom of it.”
“We’re here to safely secure all the citizens of Canton; we want them all to feel secure. They have a place here like everyone else does,” he said. He included undocumented immigrants in that statement, saying he wants to allay what he sees as a fear that his department might call the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement against them for deportation.
“They thought we were going to get the ICE unit and have them deported out of here,” he said, especially in the aftermath of the 2019 ICE raids in Mississippi. “But we weren’t doing that. We were trying to solve crimes.”
Gonzalez told the Mississippi Free Press after the July 20, 2022, meeting that the community plans to send letters to the City of Canton about the need to fix the roads.
“Now many, many of these community members are saying that all these potholes on these roads are messing up their cars, and it’s causing them a lot of hardship with that, because those roads are terrible,” Acosta said, chuckling sadly. “I’ve seen dirt roads that look better than that gravel road right there.”
“Our next step is to come together as a community once again and let the City know that these roads need repair because they’re undrivable,” he added. “And just like every other citizen in this town, they need roads to get around, to move about to their house, to work or wherever they need to shop at.”