On Wednesday people across the United States were shocked by the news that ICE raids at a handful of Mississippi chicken plants had resulted in the largest single-state immigration enforcement action in U.S. history, with nearly 700 people detained. As surprising as the news was, coming on the heels of a deadly mass shooting that targeted Latinos, perhaps just as surprising was the location of the raids in the deep, rural South.
The prominence of Latinos in Mississippi’s chicken plants and communities today was not accidental. It was calculated, strategic and intimately related to deeply rooted structures of labor exploitation in the region. Beginning in the 1990s, Latin American immigrants were recruited to the state by the poultry industry, where they arrived to work in some of the lowest-paid and most dangerous jobs in the country. This week’s raids target deeply rooted workers and families and leave behind a devastated community, while also terrorizing many others across the country.
The roots of the heavily Latino workforces in Southern poultry plants lie in the growing American appetite for chicken during the 1990s, and the stirrings of a labor movement by African American plant workers. As poultry production expanded, workers’ pay and opportunities remained stagnant. As a result, labor organizing among the plants’ predominantly African American workforce began to gain traction.
Facing the prospect of its first union contract negotiations and in search of more “flexible” (read: exploitable and expendable) workers, in 1994 a chicken plant in Morton, Miss., headed to Miami in search of immigrant labor.
Advertising in Cuban stores and local papers, it took the poultry processor just one week to fill a Greyhound bus of immigrants eager for work. This experiment marked the beginning of the plant’s formal Hispanic Project, which included not just recruitment and transportation from Florida but also the provision of housing — mostly in dilapidated and overcrowded trailers — as well as local transportation and leisure activities, all for fees deducted from workers’ paychecks that often reduced their meager earnings to below minimum wage.
In its roughly four years of operation, the Hispanic Project recruited nearly 5,000 workers to two Mississippi towns with a combined population of less than 10,000. Not everyone stayed, but this scheme caught on, and other plants began recruiting Latinx immigrant workers from Florida, Texas and even farther afield.
Getting creative, one poultry processor offered its workers $600 for each new employee they recruited who stayed at least three months. Entrepreneurial individuals took full advantage of this incentive to recruit family, friends and others in their social networks in the United States and in their home countries. Once these connections were made, the plants no longer had to leave the state to recruit foreign workers. In the words of the architect of the Hispanic Project, “They were right here.”
By the time I arrived to work in Mississippi’s poultry communities alongside the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center in 2002, over half of the country’s quarter-million poultry workers were immigrants, most of them in the South. A mapping of poultry production and Latino population growth shows that poultry has been a major driving force of a demographic transformation in the region. In Mississippi, it was the driving force, increasing the Latino population in some poultry towns by over 1000 percent in the 1990s.
And this transformation of the poultry workforce has only continued over time. Today's Mississippi poultry workers are from nearly every part of the continent, hailing from Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras, Venezuela and other Latin American and Caribbean countries. They are doing work that is hazardous, painful and often degrading. They work long hours for low pay, scratching out a living so that the rest of us can buy cheap chicken.
And they do so because they were literally invited, recruited and incentivized to come. For ICE to be conducting raids in Mississippi ignores this history and ignores how the poultry workers recruited to these towns a quarter century ago have laid down roots. They have made Mississippi home and raised families.
Though industry leaders didn’t predict it at the time, the Hispanic Project changed the landscape of Mississippi and the rural South. In poultry towns across the region, today you can find authentic Mexican food, pickup soccer games, an abundance of Spanish-language churches, and schools brimming with bright and eager young Latinx Americans, U.S. citizens who are growing up as Southern as their peers.
Rooted members of the community, regardless of immigration status, deserve better than to be ripped away from their jobs and loved ones. Although neighbors and community organizations like the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance are working to support affected children and families, these raids ripple through communities, devastating individuals and families, and the most vulnerable people pay the highest price. As the alt-right celebrates this wreckage as another win for white nationalists, let us keep in view that these immigrants are here because 25 years ago one Mississippi poultry executive conceived an inventive idea, to flood the processing lines with eager and compliant immigrant workers.
And while they come at enormous costs to thriving, vibrant communities, these raids do little to affect immigration trends; people continue to migrate to the United States to survive. What they do affect is the working conditions for everyone. With the threat of family separation, detention and deportation hanging over people’s heads, immigrant workers are less likely to organize and less likely to speak out against poor conditions — and employers are more likely to take advantage of them. This ripples through the economy, depressing wages for U.S.-born workers, as well. The mounting threat of deportation and rising xenophobia help keep workers compliant, serving owners’ interests and consumers’ pocketbooks — but harming the people who prepare our food.