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Town’s Migrant Workers Living and Leaving in Fear

Times Staff Writer

Even on good days, life is a trying affair for the migrant workers who crowd a settlement of dingy, sun-cooked mobile homes next to the plant where they cut up chickens.

These are not good days.

First, the fatal shooting in June of one of the trailer-park residents -- a Mexican man who worked at the poultry-processing plant -- jangled nerves around the migrant community. Then about 150 of the workers were fired by Peco Foods Inc. two weeks ago after the Social Security Administration noticed that their names and numbers did not match.

Adding to the tension, the sheriff here in Madison County stirred controversy by threatening a large-scale roundup of undocumented immigrants -- a category covering many of the hundreds of migrants from Mexico and Central America who have settled in central Mississippi in the last few years.

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The events have produced fear and uncertainty among the chicken workers. Many are already moving out of the shabby mobile homes for new jobs elsewhere, or returning home across the border.

“A lot of people have left for Mexico. They went to Mexico or Washington [state] or Tennessee,” said Juan Alejo, a 28-year-old Mexican who said he was among those fired.

On a recent afternoon, Alejo and his wife, Josefina Hernandez, also a poultry worker, said they were leaving by bus the next morning for their home in Veracruz, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. “We don’t have work -- we’re not going to wait,” Alejo said.

Activists assailed the remarks by Sheriff Toby Trowbridge Jr., who said he had sought the help of U.S. officials from what previously was known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

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“The majority of Hispanics in Canton are illegal. I’ve been working with INS so we can get them in here and round them up ... and deport them,” Trowbridge said in comments reported in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

Later in the week, the sheriff declined to be interviewed, referring questions to the district office of the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Orleans.

The sheriff’s remarks have prompted other Canton residents to look anew at the small but growing number of Spanish-speaking workers who settled in this rural county of 74,674, as Mexican migrants did in other parts of the South in the 1990s. The Latino population in Madison County was counted as 742 in the 2000 census, but migrants advocates say that tally is likely well below the actual number.

The workers here live jammed, 12 or more at a time, into the 100 or so barely furnished mobile homes next to the poultry plant and in shared homes around Canton. Besides cutting up chickens, the migrants have found work as handymen, restaurant hands and day laborers -- gaining the respect of many locals despite a language barrier that keeps conversation to a minimum.

At a paint store in downtown Canton, salesman Lynwood Vinson wavered between sympathy for the migrants and a staunch belief that immigration laws must be obeyed, particularly when the security of the nation’s border is a high priority.

“There’s a lot of Mexicans here and they’re good workers. I feel sorry that they’re caught up in that situation,” said Vinson, 62, mixing a bucket of paint. “But they must live under the code of laws we have adopted.”

His customer, painting contractor Emmett Bates, 65, agreed that immigration laws should be enforced. Still, he said, shaking his head, “I hate it to my heart that they would have to leave.”

At the trailer park, the sheriff’s tough words have floated about in the form of vague rumors that some kind of raid is impending. “May God come -- and not la migra,” said one migrant in Spanish, using the slang term for the U.S. Border Patrol.

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Alejo said he arrived in Canton three years ago after a three-day trek across the Arizona desert south of Tucson. Hernandez took the same route last year. Both acknowledged buying false Social Security documents.

This has been a jarring summer for the pair, even before the firings. They were sharing a mobile home with 43-year-old Juan Contreras when he was gunned down at the front door during an apparent robbery attempt. Alejo and Hernandez were sleeping in a rear bedroom when they heard gunfire. Four Canton teenagers have been charged in the slaying.

To some, the killing underscored the frequency with which migrants in Canton have been crime victims. The workers are especially vulnerable because many lack the documents to open bank accounts and therefor keep cash at home, said Father Bill Cullen, a Catholic priest whose parish holds Mass in Spanish twice a month and helps teach English and provide other services to the workers.

Though some of the mobile homes are now deserted, not everyone was leaving. A 21-year-old Guatemalan woman who lacks papers said she and her husband were staying until they received a Social Security card for their daughter, who was born in Mississippi two months ago.

The woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Carmen, out of fear of being arrested, said she held various jobs at the 850-worker plant, earning $8.55 an hour by the time she was dismissed. That was enough to cover rent -- $400 a month -- on the three-bedroom mobile home that she and her husband shared with five others, and to send $200 back to her family in Guatemala.

Migrant-rights activists say the company was not required to fire the workers just because it got word that their names and Social Security numbers did not match up.

“They shouldn’t have fired them,” said Bill Chandler, a union organizer who is president of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance. “Calling them all illegal and firing them is an atrocity.”

A Social Security spokesman said the discrepancies were discovered through a routine check. The notices sent to companies and employees advise that they are not meant to indicate attempted fraud or a worker’s immigration status.

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Peco officials said at the time that they fired workers who did not correct the discrepancies. The company declined to respond to written questions faxed to its headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

One of the newly unemployed, Sergio, a 26-year-old Mexican with a fresh haircut, stood glumly outside his mobile home, considering his next move. He said he had grown used to sending $300 to $700 home each month. Now he awaited word from friends on job prospects in Florida.

As he considered his options, a shiny white pickup pulled slowly through the trailer park. A man in back called out in Spanish for help removing trash from a nearby farm. From the sun-blanched mobile homes streamed a new day’s work force.


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