After 14 years working in construction, Joaquín García (not his real name) got tired of being outside exposed to the summer heat in Mississippi. He thought that working inside a poultry plant during the warm season of 2019 would be more comfortable, so he took a job in one of the Mississippi plants.
But it wasn’t like that.
He faced tremendous pressure working inside the poultry industry, and then he was arrested on Aug. 7, 2019, inside a Mississippi plant in one of the largest ICE workplace actions in history. He spent upcoming months in a facility in Winfield, La., where his fiancée and children could not visit him.
Nine months later, he was released from jail to face a new problem: COVID-19 had reached his family and killed some Hispanic workers in the meat-processing facilities around him.
‘Immigrants Are Vulnerable to Exploitation’
The air conditioning inside the poultry plant made Garcia feel more comfortable, he told the Mississippi Free Press, but he soon learned that the conveyer belt was moving too fast, and he needed to rush to do his job well.
“The machine gave me 46 chickens, and I had to cut them and be available to cut another 46 chickens every minute,” he says. “I think that anyone who wants to work in this must be very fast and trained to do the job; otherwise he could cut himself.”
He used to arrive at the plant at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m, and the only time he would stop working in nine hours and 30 minutes of workday was during his walks to the bathroom and his 30 minutes of lunch break.
What encouraged Garcia to stay on the production line was his family. Garcia would do anything for them, especially to provide financially for his fiancée, 35, his son, 13, and his daughter, 10.
García came alone to the U.S. from Guatemala, crossing the border as an undocumented immigrant in 2005 in search of a better future. The next year, he fell in love with Carmen Cifuentes (not her real name), now the mother of his children who is also an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala.
He worked at the poultry plant knowing he would be poorly paid. “Our undocumented status is the reason for this,” he says. “Poultry companies make a lot of money, while immigrants are paid terribly. Americans get about $15 an hour, and undocumented about $9 an hour, doing even more difficult work than locals.”
Angela Stuesse, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, explained the relationship between the poultry industry and undocumented immigrants in her 2016 book, “Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South.”
“As America’s voracious appetite for chicken has grown, so has the industry’s reliance on immigrant workers, whose structural position makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation,” she says.
Then Came Raid Day
García began working in a poultry plant located 10 minutes from Forest in March 2019. He was not going to stay more than six months there; he was planning to move back to the construction business once the weather was cooler. However, on Aug. 7, 2019, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him, along with 60 other undocumented immigrants who worked at the same plant.
Garcia remembers the day of the raid: “It was 8 in the morning; we just started working when the machines stopped, and the supervisor asked us to move to the dining room. We thought it was a training alarm, but after five minutes, about 60 ICE agents entered the plant and began to verify our immigration status.”
This raid included seven plants in Mississippi, where ICE agents arrested and processed more than 600 immigrants for working illegally in the U.S.
García says ICE agents were looking for immigrants with false identification, as a priority, but he had always used his real ID to work. “I was hired by a guy who doesn’t need more than my cellular number to put me in the production line; he is a contractor. I have always worked with my real ID,” he says.
ICE took García and his coworkers by bus to the Pearl, Miss., holding center for one night; next he was taken to Natchez, where he stayed for 20 days; and finally he ended up in Winfield, La., where he spent the next nine months.
In fiscal-year 2019, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations officers arrested around 143,000 immigrants and removed more than 267,000 from the U.S. ICE reports more than 86% of those had criminal convictions or pending charges.
Also, ICE removed more than 5,700 immigrants identified as family unit members, which represents a 110% increase in removal of family unit members compared to FY 2018.
‘From One Day to the Next, I Never Saw My Family Again’
Cifuentes was never able to visit García in jail because she was undocumented, and their children, although born in the U.S., were too young to go alone. The couple only talked on the phone, and the separation was worse once the coronavirus arrived.
“From one day to the next, I never saw my family again, and we were too anxious about our financial support as well,” García says. “We had some savings to use for a while, but we were very scared about the future, as long as I was locked up.”
His girlfriend was working in one Mississippi chicken company when ICE caught García in a different facility. She quit her job for fear that ICE would also take her away from home; however, five months after the raid, she had to return to work at the Morton plant to earn some money and solve their family’s financial needs.
This family spent their savings on food, rent, utilities and attorney bills. They paid the attorney $5,000 and soon regretted it. “This attorney let the process go too long just for getting more money,” García says.
After seven months of frustration with their lawyer, Cifuentes asked for help from Trinity Mission Methodist Church in Forest. She was lucky because this Church contacted her with the Mississippi Immigration Coalition, which eventually paid some utilities and rent bills for the family. They even gave Garcia a new lawyer.
A collaboration of organizations came together to form the Mississippi Immigration Coalition in reaction to the ICE raids in 2019. Its members include El Pueblo, MacArthur Justice Center, Mississippi Center for Justice, Catholic Charities, Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and Southeast Immigrant Rights Network.
Prison: ‘They Don’t Respect Us At All’
García angrily remembers that he had trouble sleeping in the Winfield facility every night because the guards were too loud. “Every half hour they yelled or hit metal. They got us up all night, and at 3 a.m., we had to stand up to take a shower,” he says. “And then the guards already wanted us all to be in bed again. We were not allowed to stay in the place where the television was. It seems to me that they don’t respect us at all.”
The uncertainty about the duration of his process and the stillness in prison were driving García crazy. He remembers that he felt a special discouragement and despair once when someone from the Winfield staff said to a bunch of them: “You are the ones in the raids; here you can spend up to two or three years.”
García was also discouraged by what the inmates shared about their experiences. He learned from them that it was hard to get out of jail. Some of them had been struggling to leave the facility for more than a year and a half, and they still had no idea how much longer they would be inside Winfield.
However, García’s anguish eased once his second attorney took care of him after eight months of uncertainty in jail. He seemed to be more effective and within a month had secured a bond for García, so he was able to leave Winfield after paying a $ 2,000 bond. Now, this attorney is also working on helping Garcia stay legally inside the U.S. to work.
‘ICE Continues to Visit Companies’
Garcia says the poultry industry has never stopped employing undocumented immigrants after the 2019 raid. “Hispanics have been busier than normal inside those plants because they were considered essential workers during the COVID-19 quarantine.” However, he says, poultry plants have recently laid off immigrants who don’t have the proper documentation to work in this country. Even his wife was fired a month ago from a plant because of that.
Yolanda Soto, a social worker at El Pueblo, says 25 undocumented immigrants have been fired from a plant in Forest in the past two months. Soto knows very well those undocumented immigrants who work in the poultry industry around Forest; she has lived in this town with them for 20 years.
She says that after being released from prison, some of the undocumented immigrants caught up in the 2019 ICE raid in Forest went back to work at chicken plants, while others changed jobs and are now doing things like mowing the lawn, cleaning houses or picking fruit.
“Some of them have electronic devices installed on their bodies, and they went to work in poultry plants again, but they couldn’t hide those devices on their feet too long, so they were fired,” she says.
Soto says one of the reasons for these layoffs is that ICE continued visits to the plants after the raids. “ICE continued to go to the plants no longer to make arrests but to review the documentation of the employees, and that is what has motivated the dismissals.”
COVID-19 Strikes the Plants
García and Cifuentes say the coronavirus arrived at the poultry plant where they worked in April 2020 and spread quickly among some of its workers.
A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that by May 8, 2020, it had identified 4,913 cases of COVID-19 at 115 meat and poultry-processing facilities in the U.S., and specified that twenty workers had died because of the pandemic.
Monica Soto, a spokeswoman for El Pueblo in Forest, says three Hispanic workers at these poultry plants in Mississippi have died in recent months from COVID-19.
“Some Hispanics affected by the raid just were recovering from paying bills without having a job when they had to face quarantine and deaths because of the virus,” she says. “Right now, we are helping 40 families in four poultry plants in Mississippi, families infected by coronavirus. We take groceries to their doors.”
García’s fiancée saw her coworkers get sick from COVID-19 before she tested positive herself. They had worked beside her without showing symptoms for a while. “More than 30 immigrants tested positive at the processing facility during April and May. We work very close to each other, which facilitates the rapid spread of the virus,” she says.
García was released from jail on May 7, 2020, after nine months detained. A friend of the family picked him up at Winfield and took him home to Forest. He was so excited to see his family again, even knowing the risk of approaching them because his wife had been recovering for two weeks from COVID-19.
Cifuentes has no idea who brought the virus to her workplace. Once she became infected in April, she was isolated in her home. She had no serious symptoms, just headaches and fever. She took his children to his sister’s house while she was in quarantine.
“The company does not pay the days undocumented immigrants are off for sick. They just tested them and sent them to deal with this virus at home when they are positive,” she says.
Deportations and Other Obstacles
Yolando Soto does not know if any undocumented immigrant who was arrested in the 2019 raid is still in jail. She only says that most of them posted bail and were released; others were deported, and the rest returned to their villages in Mississippi with the hope of recovering their lives, but this has not been the case.
She remembers three mothers that ICE agents removed from their families in Forest, and now they are in another country. They were arrested in a plant close to Forest when the raid happened in 2019, they were taken to jail, and all of them were deported after a lengthy legal process.
“One of those mothers was separated from her son when the baby was only 3 months old. Now the father of this family is trying to support three children alone. This mother was accused of using false documentation to work and deported to Mexico.”
“Many undocumented people use the papers of legal persons to work inside the plants. Immigrants pay for those identifications,” Soto says.
Due to the danger of getting COVID-19, in recent months chicken plants in Mississippi have increased hourly pay to their essential workers.
Soto does not believe that this increase in wages has benefited all undocumented immigrants working in the poultry industry. “What is happening lately is that immigrants without legal IDs are being fired from the poultry plants in Mississippi,” she says.
García and his girlfriend were lucky; other immigrants like them were deported. However, García has not found a job since he was released from prison, and his financial anguish increased when his girlfriend also lost her job.
For now, this couple is trying to go through an immigration process while continuing to raise their two children in the middle of the pandemic and without having a job.
Correction: In the original version of this story, Yolanda Soto’s last name was incorrect. It is corrected in the above story. We apologize for the error.