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The Town That Didn’t Look Away

Times Staff Writer

The immigration agents arrived at the Petit Jean Poultry plant just before the 7:30 breakfast break, armed and dressed in khaki uniforms. They went straight to the room where more than 100 Mexican workers in tan smocks were cutting up chicken, then shouted in Spanish for everyone to freeze.

Some workers started crying. A few made quick cellphone calls, alerting relatives to care for children who would soon be left behind. The plant manager watched as 119 workers -- half his day-shift crew -- were bound with plastic handcuffs and taken to a detention center, from which most would be deported to Mexico.

Immigration officials said they were cracking down on document fraud and illegal hiring. But what happened after the raid last July came as a surprise to many people in this conservative Bible Belt region: Instead of feeling reassured that immigration laws were being enforced, many felt that their community had been disrupted.

The Petit Jean workers had come to be more than low-wage poultry processors. They were church friends, classmates and teammates in the local softball league. And so some residents responded to the raid by helping workers fight deportation, driving them to court and writing to lawmakers for help. Others donated money, food and clothing to the families of workers detained or sent back to Mexico.

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Now, one year after agents arrived at the poultry plant, the Petit Jean crackdown shows the effects of an immigration raid can reach far beyond the illegal workers and businesses involved. Many residents say they feel sympathetic to undocumented workers and angry at the government.

The government’s critics include Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln and prominent Arkadelphia citizens. Even officials charged with enforcing the law in Arkadelphia have criticized the raid for removing people who belonged to their community.

“We take them into our public schools. We accept them into our churches. They play on our football, soccer teams,” said Troy Tucker, the county sheriff at the time of the raid. “And then one day Immigration comes in and sweeps them all away.”

The anger in this part of Arkansas comes amid new efforts by federal authorities to enforce laws against hiring illegal workers. There have been 2,100 people arrested in workplace raids nationwide during fiscal 2006, up from 1,145 in 2005 and 845 in 2004.

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The crackdown at Petit Jean also raises questions about the effectiveness of immigration raids. According to two community leaders, about 60% of the deported Petit Jean workers have returned to southwest Arkansas and are working again.

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Arkadelphia, a quiet city of 11,000 in a county where the sale of alcohol is forbidden, has been drawing Latino immigrants for about a decade. In time, some formed friendships with longtime residents, including prominent members of the community.

The first sign that immigration agents would face resistance came a few weeks before the raid, when they visited the county prosecutor, Henry Morgan. The agents knew that someone had sold Social Security cards to a number of Petit Jean workers, and they wanted Morgan to charge the workers with forgery, a step toward deportation.

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Sworn to uphold the law, Morgan was an unlikely advocate for undocumented workers. But a few years earlier, he had met the son of one of the immigrants at Petit Jean and had seen a bit of the world through their eyes.

Morgan met Oscar Hernandez while having dinner at a friend’s house. He liked the high school senior so much that he hired him to help harvest the muscadine grapes that Morgan grew near his home.

As they worked in Morgan’s lush garden, Hernandez talked about how his mother had fled an abusive husband in Mexico with her four children and was determined to provide for them by becoming one of the most productive workers at Petit Jean.

When the immigration agents paid their call, Morgan, a tall, trim man who is sympathetic to victims of domestic violence, remembered Hernandez and his mother.

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“So I’m thinking: You’re going to take a woman who’s been here 13 years, worked hard, paid taxes, raised a family -- and these kids don’t even know what Mexico’s like -- and you’re going to send them back?” he recalled recently. “Is that what we’re doing? Is that homeland security?”

Morgan told the agents he’d think about their request, which is Southern for no. Then he called Sheriff Tucker across town, who backed him up.

When the immigration agents, acting on their own, raided the plant two weeks later, they did not warn Morgan, the sheriff or other county officials.

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Arkadelphia residents Dr. Wesley Kluck, a pediatrician, and his wife, Debbie, had not thought much about the national immigration debate before the raid, she said. They didn’t even know that they knew an illegal immigrant. They simply knew Juanita Hernandez.

Thirteen years ago, the Klucks’ daughter was asked by her third-grade teacher to help a new girl in class, a recent arrival from Mexico. Because the girl’s family had no phone or car, Debbie Kluck started driving to their apartment, in a dilapidated brick housing complex across town, to pick up her daughter’s new friend so they could play or go to the pool. In time, Kluck befriended the girl’s single mother, Servanda “Juanita” Hernandez.

The Klucks invited the Hernandez family to their home for the holidays. They took some of the Hernandez children on vacations to San Francisco, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. Their daughter played on a softball team with two of the Hernandez girls. It was a team coached, coincidentally, by the Petit Jean plant manager.

After the oldest Hernandez daughter was admitted to Ouachita Baptist University, where Wesley Kluck recently became a vice president, the Klucks raised $20,000 to pay her tuition. They did the same for her younger sister.

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Debbie Kluck says she assumed Hernandez had immigrated legally. Now she does not want to mention the Hernandez children by name, afraid they might be deported.

The day Juanita Hernandez was arrested in the Petit Jean raid, her oldest daughter called the Klucks, frantic and worried that immigration agents would come after the rest of the family. Debbie Kluck told the girl to bring her family over.

Then, Debbie Kluck called Sheriff Tucker for help reaching Juanita, who had been taken to a detention center an hour south, in Texarkana. Dr. Kluck e-mailed the governor, a college classmate, who later sent a member of his staff to investigate.

Of the 119 detained workers, only Hernandez and six others were not deported. They were released without bail to await hearings before an immigration judge. The judge could grant Hernandez legal residency if she shows that, among other things, she has no criminal record, has children who are U.S. citizens and that they would suffer “extremely unusual hardship” if she is deported.

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The Klucks are helping Hernandez to pay her legal fees and build her case. Debbie Kluck has reviewed her friend’s finances and says she can show that Hernandez has always paid income taxes.

Moreover, she found that some prominent people were willing to write letters to the court on behalf of Hernandez -- including Morgan, the prosecutor, and Tucker, who was the sheriff until earlier this year.

“To me, the raid was foolish,” Debbie Kluck said. “What was the purpose of the raid? It appears to be more of a political ploy to make people look like they’re doing a great job. For us, it kind of backfired.”

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The raid also shocked Krystle Williams -- so much that she helped a deported worker return to town and rebuild her life.Williams, a 23-year-old community college student, took action after her friend Dalia Vidal was arrested in the Petit Jean raid. While Vidal was sent to the detention center in Texarkana, Williams looked after her friend’s daughter, Kimberly, until relatives arrived that night. After Vidal was deported, Williams gave Kimberly clothes, took her to doctor’s appointments and bought her medicine.

A few days after the raid, Vidal called Williams from Mexico, saying she was determined to return to Arkadelphia. But she had only $40 in her pocket.

Williams insisted on sending money, which helped Vidal pay a smuggler’s fee of $1,800 to cross the border. Vidal said she also used money that was wired by immigrant friends in the U.S.

Now, Vidal, 28, lives in a rented trailer that Williams helped her find and furnish, in a neighborhood of tract houses. Pit bulls are chained in neighboring yards, near plastic lawn signs displaying the Ten Commandments.

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“She understands my problems,” Vidal said in Spanish, marveling that an American had become a part of her life.

On a visit to her friend’s trailer, Williams said she wanted lawmakers to create a guest worker program for people like Vidal.

“I think they were wrong,” Williams said of the agents who raided Petit Jean. “They should have just let them be.”

Latino leaders say Vidal is among dozens of Petit Jean workers who have returned to the Arkadelphia area. Blasa Hernandez, for example, a 45-year-old mother of five, was deported after living in the United States for five years. A month later, she returned and now works at a plant that makes plastic flowers.

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Martha Dixon does not understand why people would do so much to help illegal immigrants.

Dixon belongs to a Democratic women’s club that donated $1,000 to the Petit Jean workers. Her company, which makes uniforms and other apparel, counts Petit Jean as a customer. And yet Dixon has limited sympathy for the Petit Jean workers and other illegal immigrants, because she believes they lower wages for American workers.

People who help undocumented workers are undermining the law, she said.

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“You can’t straddle the fence, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do,” Dixon said.

Other Arkadelphia residents were pleased that federal officials had gone after illegal immigrants. “It’s turned into a problem now that’s almost unmanageable,” said Fred Swafford, 65, a retired plant manager, over breakfast at Andy’s, a restaurant just off Interstate 30. “We are a nation of laws, and you cannot ignore those basic laws.”

But Huckabee, the Republican governor, who may run for president in 2008, called for a White House investigation into why the Arkadelphia plant was targeted.

“Our first priority should be to secure our borders,” Huckabee said in an e-mail to The Times. “I’m less threatened by people who cross the line to make beds, pick tomatoes or pluck chickens” than by potential terrorists crossing the border.

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After the Petit Jean raid, Huckabee donated $1,000 to the workers’ families. Residents and businesses donated $12,000.

Some residents did more. Pentecostal Pastor Bill O’Connell 47, drove to the Texarkana detention center to visit workers whose families he had met at church.

Jon Capps, 29, who was renting homes and trailers to a few of the workers, gave them a break on rent. “I want them here,” he said. “They’re good renters.”

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At Petit Jean, these days, plant officials say employee turnover is high.

In the mornings, a dozen job applicants mill in the parking lot. But most of the hires don’t last, said Ronnie Farnam, the plant manager. Processing chicken is cold, damp work that leaves one smelling of raw meat. Workers must cut chicken into boneless breasts on seamless disassembly lines, each person processing 12,000 pounds of poultry a day.

Unable to find enough workers, Farnam said he had eliminated 88 of the 550 jobs that existed at the time of the raid, slashing production by 20%.

Some here contend that Farnam would draw capable American workers if the plant raised wages. Donald Beasly, 34, who started working at the plant soon after the raid, said immigrants were taking jobs that would otherwise go to residents. But he doesn’t blame the immigrants.

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“Mostly, these chicken plants, they need to pay more,” Beasly said as he stood outside the plant on his morning break.

Farnam, a barrel-chested man whose office is full of University of Arkansas sports memorabilia, said the average wage for Petit Jean workers was $8.50 to $9.50 an hour, but many immigrants said they were earning the starting wage of $6.

Farnam said he had checked workers’ identification cards and did not knowingly hire illegal immigrants. “If we were guilty of anything, we were guilty of trusting,” he said.

Since the raid, Farnam has been screening new hires through a federal program that checks whether workers have submitted valid Social Security numbers. However, the program cannot determine whether a Social Security number actually belongs to the worker. For instance, the system cannot catch illegal immigrants who bought documents belonging to U.S. citizens. Farnam has yet to catch an illegal worker.

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Juanita Hernandez, the woman who became close to the Klucks, says she misses her job at the plant and would like to return. But she is barred from working until her residency case is settled. Her next court date is in October.

Without a job, Hernandez has applied for federal food assistance and Medicaid for the three children she had since entering the United States. Local families are paying the rest of her monthly expenses.

Debbie Kluck hopes that after all the upheavals of the last year, Hernandez and her family can stay in Arkadelphia. She calls the family “beautiful people” with high moral standards.

“If I could pick and choose who could be U.S. citizens and who my tax dollars could support,” she said, “I would choose them.”

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