On Aug. 25, federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided the Howard Industries electronics factory in Laurel, Miss., taking into custody 592 immigrant workers – the largest single workplace raid in U.S. history.
But as in Postville, Iowa, New Bedford, Mass. and other sites of recent massive workplace raids, local immigrants and advocates say the real story is only now unfolding, as the waves of fear unleashed by the raids ripple throughout the community.
The story of Maria Ramirez (not her real name) is sadly typical. On the morning of Aug. 25, Ramirez received a frenzied phone call from a friend, who informed her of the raid at Howard Industries, where her 18-year-old daughter “Ana” had been working for two weeks. Maria had come to the United States three years earlier, fleeing an abusive drug-addicted husband. She left Ana home in Vera Cruz to care for her two other children, a son who is now 11 and a daughter now eight.
“But Mexico is so poor, she couldn’t earn enough there to put food in their mouths, they needed money to buy things for school,” says Maria, who was sending money home from her job at a Mississippi office.
Ana pleaded with her mother to bring her to the United States for one year, so she could work and save money before returning to Mexico for college.
“She said, ‘I want to see you, I want to be with you,’” says Maria.
Maria paid coyotes $5,000 to take Ana across the desert and then to Mississippi, where Maria helped set Ana up with fake documents. Within a week, Ana had secured a job at Howard Industries, a leading manufacturer of electrical transformers.
Ana had ended her 12-hour night shift just before the raid by ICE agents, narrowly escaping the fate of hundreds of workers – from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil and even Germany – who were held in a room in the factory for up to 13 hours, according to workers, without being able to talk to their families.
ICE spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery disputes that charge, saying the agency made several efforts to insure families could communicate with the detained.
“ICE (myself included) contacted everyone from the Governor’s office, the Mayor’s office, all major community groups and NGOs while onsite that morning, to provide a toll free number to call for status and updates on individuals being detained and where they were being sent or held,” he says. “We spoke to church leaders and NGOs who came to the site to give them reassurances and direct them on what they needed to do. There should be no reason that any advocate group could state we did not explain or assist in providing continued updated information throughout the day and following days on the status of those being questioned or ultimately detained.”
Ultimately, eight people were charged with aggravated identity theft, which could mean up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and were turned over to U.S. marshals. Another 469 were charged with administrative violations and are being held in the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La. For humanitarian reasons, an additional 106 were not detained, released instead with electronic monitoring anklets pending court dates. Nine juveniles were turned over to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“Elena,” 40, is one of the workers at home with an anklet while she waits to learn her fate. She worked at Howard for two and a half years, and lost the tips of two fingers in an accident there. She believes she didn’t receive quality care because the doctor treating her accused her of being “illegal.”
“I’m here because of necessity,” she says. She sends money to her sick mother back in Mexico, and she is also the sole caregiver of her U.S.-born grandson, since her son is in jail. If Elena is deported back to Coahuila, Mexico, she is afraid she won’t be able to find a job because of her age and her hand injury.
“In Mexico there are no opportunities to get work, and for single women like me it is even harder,” she says. “At my age you can’t get work in Mexico. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Julia” is also confined with an anklet pending her Sept. 24 trial date, and was unable to seek medical care when she had an asthma attack. She thinks conditions in the factory aggravated her asthma.
“[The factory has] terrible working conditions,” she says. “It’s dirty work, heavy work, and so hot you start sweating the moment you walk in. Sometimes you can’t breath.”
She came to the United States from Pueblo, Mexico, four years ago to earn money to support four kids in Mexico and a two-year-old son here. She fears being deported because the father of her children is abusive; she still bears a scar by her eye from one of his attacks.
“The responsibility of all the women here is great, because we all have kids in Mexico,” she says. “That’s why we come here, out of necessity, not because we want to. We don’t want to make this our country, we just want to stay for a time and earn money.”
So far no charges have been filed against Howard Industries, where a spokesman declined to comment. Alvarez-Montgomery says ICE will gather evidence about the company’s practices based on interviews with immigrant detainees, and says that “if there is evidence against supervisors, owners, or the company in general, the information will be turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Jacksonville for consideration. It’s up to them at that point if they will pursue criminal charges against the employer.”
Alvarez-Montgomery disputes the charges of local and national immigrants’ advocacy groups that the raid involved excessive force and intimidation.
“The operation was carried out with the utmost professionalism, it was orderly and everyone complied to ICE directives onsite,” he says. “The length of time those had to wait to be questioned and processed was due to the large number detained. ICE takes the time to interview and discuss each person’s individual situation (to determine humanitarian concerns) and provide each individual with due process of the law. If we hurried through it, we would be criticized there too.”
Marie Thompson, director of the MPOWER Workers Center in Morton, Miss., notes that Howard seems an unusual site for an immigration raid, since they have typically occurred at slaughterhouses, poultry operations and other workplaces that employ a majority of immigrants. Howard, by contrast, employs many white people and African Americans along with Latino immigrants.
But Howard does share one trait with the factories in Postville, New Bedford and Butler County, Ohio, that also underwent major raids: Ongoing strife over working conditions, either in the form of union negotiations and organizing, or investigations into labor abuses.
Howard Industries is currently involved in contract negotiations with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1317 union, which has represented workers since 2000. (Since Mississippi is a “right to work state,” workers decide individually whether to join the union.) The local was demanding better pay and benefits. The federal government also fined Howard $123,000 in June for health and safety violations at the plant.
“It is an interesting pattern: Four of the last major raids had a similar situation where union negotiations were going on or workers rights violations were being investigated,” says Kristin Kumpf, assistant director of organizing at the Chicago-based national group Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). “Of course, a lot of these companies probably have workers rights violations being investigated at any given time, but from having had conversations with ICE officials about how they choose their priorities…I believe the correlation is real.”
Alvarez-Montgomery says the agency cannot disclose how it decides where to prioritize enforcement. He says the Howard Industries investigation was triggered by a call from a union member and other factors.
Workers claim there is much anti-immigrant sentiment at the plant. During the raid, African American workers were laughing, cheering and mocking them, Elena and Julia said.
“I felt like the most humiliated person in the world,” Elena says. “There are mostly good people here, but there are some who make sure we feel unwelcome.”
Julia says non-immigrants generally work shorter shifts and lighter jobs than the immigrants.
“There’s so much racism here,” she says. “It’s not just.”
Mississippi has a state law making working while undocumented a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It is not clear if that law will be invoked in the case of the Howard workers. Regardless, hundreds of those workers are likely to be sent back to their home countries or to jail and prison.
In the meantime, Ana and Maria Ramirez don’t know what they will do. They are terrified of going back to work or even leaving the all-Latino apartment complex where they live. They are the only providers for the two kids back in Vera Cruz, so Maria may soon go back to Mexico. But she is still afraid of her husband, who twice beat her so badly she was hospitalized.
“I was fleeing him when I came here,” she says. “He hit me, abused me sexually, I was always in tears. He will still look for me, he thinks he owns me. I’m afraid of immigration (agents) here, and back in Mexico I’m afraid of him.”
The Howard plant sits in the midst of a rural area drawing workers from dispersed surrounding communities. Unlike other towns subjected to raids with tight-knit local communities and advocacy groups, Howard workers have had little in the way of a support system other than local churches hard-pressed to meet the ongoing needs. The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) has arranged legal representation and other support for workers, but ots resources aren’t enough. Elena says MIRA is providing her a lawyer but she hadn’t talked to one yet. Julia had no lawyer, since she was told it would cost $1,500.
Thompson notes that the workers center and churches are scrambling for donations to help feed families and pay their utility bills. Many families have doubled and tripled up in houses, as they wait to learn the fates of their loved ones.
“No matter which side of the immigration issue you are on, we have a humanitarian emergency down here,” says Thompson. “There’s an entire state fearful of stepping out their doors.”