The Mississippi ICE Raids: A Portrait of Systemic Exploitation and Inequality

By Aisa Villarosa, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy

Image for post
Image for post

On August 7, the first day of school for many, U.S. immigration officials stormed seven food plants in Morton, Mississippi, targeting 680 mostly Latinx workers. The raids and subsequent arrests unlocked chaos. Dozens of children ended the school day to learn of their parents’ disappearance, leaning on neighbors and local charities for food and shelter. As hundreds still face deportation proceedings and imprisonment, employers, neighborhoods and industry sectors must grapple with the loss of a crucial — and yet, invisibilized and exploited — community.

This is how a country unravels, by casting out the very souls who hold it together.

The largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in U.S. history, the Mississippi raid is part of a nationwide initiative by the Trump administration to detain and, in the President’s words, “take out” undocumented immigrants and families. Several other raids in at least ten major cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, are being planned or executed.

Earlier this year, Insight led a Latinx focus group in the Mississippi Gulf to ask about job conditions and opportunities for work. Over a humid evening, moms, dads, and children, most of whom were undocumented, allowed us to glimpse into their fight for survival — to navigate a state-sponsored culture of hatred and pervasive policing.

Natalia*, one of the participants, fled to the U.S. with her children to escape death threats in Guatemala. She maintains several part-time and seasonal jobs to make ends meet for her family. Each day, she races from a stock position at her local market to one of the Gulf’s casinos, where she cleans toilets, polishes floors, and prepares rooms for guests.

Natalia and her coworkers are the backbone of Mississippi’s coastal entertainment and tourism industry, and for that, they are paid a minimum wage and endure persistent emotional, physical, and sexual harassment by supervisors — often men, and almost always white.

As night falls, Natalia heads to her church’s recreation room, where she helps take care of her neighbors’ kids while they are on their night shifts. Leaning on family and friends is the only childcare option available for Mississippi’s tight-knit Latinx community, and they do their best to make it work. They make it work because they have escaped the unthinkable to exist here. In her most trying moments, Natalia recalls the joy and relief of coming home to her children, a momentary pause in her day that lasts just long enough to reassure her that this is all worth it.

It has been several months since I met Natalia, and due to the anonymity and protections that my organization affords focus group participants, I have not spoken to her since. I talk about Natalia in the present tense because I want to believe that this is, in fact, her reality. That she is still here, working to build a better life for herself and her family. But the truth is that Natalia or her loved ones might have been caught up in the wave of recent government raids.

Privilege creates the illusion of distance from terms like “ICE” and “deportation.” But let’s not mince words: For Natalia and many others who seek sanctuary here, deportation is a death sentence. And in a democracy, we all bear responsibility for our government’s decisions, including measures that will result in lost liberty and life for untold numbers of individuals and families.

Now, weeks after the Morton raids yielded the arrest, detention, and firing of no less than 10 percent of a town’s population, destruction echoes throughout the tight-knit community. Children remain without one or both parents. Hundreds are still detained, and it could take weeks to appear before a judge for bond hearings due to a slow-moving and over-burdened legal system. The added cruelty of a decision to pursue the raids mere days after the Gilroy and El Paso shootings — acts fueled by the same xenophobic and racist ideologies powering the immigration raids — is unfathomable.

Justifying the Mississippi detainments, Southern District U.S. Attorney Mike Hurt stated, “While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that, we are first and foremost a nation of laws.” To the extent that laws and policies have enslaved, dehumanized, and criminalized people of color for centuries, Hurt has a point.

White supremacy and terror realized through law and policy is nothing new.

From the decimation of Native lands and people to the continued exploitation of Black and Brown workers, America’s economy and identity were built with the blood and sweat of those deemed, in the eyes of the law and society, less than human. Time and time again, immigrants have rightfully sought economic opportunities — in many cases, responding to the specific recruiting calls by large industries, akin to the tactics used by employers in Morton — only to find themselves cheated out of a fair chance to live and work, to remain in their homes and communities without threat of family separation or incarceration. The message? We want your labor, but not your entire selves. What is more dehumanizing than that?

Nationwide, the average white household has nearly 10 times the wealth of the average Black household. Latinx households have less than one-sixth of the wealth of white families. This growing wealth gap is the accumulation of injustice and income inequality over time, the failure of the American Dream seen in dollars and data. In Mississippi, for example, the three most common jobs (cashiers, salespersons, and freight laborers) earn an average of $10 an hour; the majority of these positions are filled by people of color, with women of color enduring lower wages for the same work as their male colleagues.

The bottom line is this: While the raids themselves demand anger and action, they belong to a larger cycle of abuse and inequity that must be called out and destroyed.

There is hope. Throughout history, inhumane policies have been taken down by fierce opposition — by coalitions refusing to let the “Land of the Free” be fueled by those in chains. Both then and now, dismantling a framework and legacy of exploitation must start by acknowledging that our systems are set up to continue the attacks on and degradation of Black and Brown communities. We must challenge rising corporate forces, which put profits over people, and take action to equip workers with protections and power on the job and in their communities.

Across industries and sectors, Natalia and her colleagues have given so much to a country that still, relentlessly, takes so much away. If we are to survive as a nation, we owe it to her, and to ourselves, to embrace a new economic model of equity, safety, and dignity for all, regardless of race or immigration status.

*Name has been changed.

Written by

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store