- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

LAUREL, Miss.

The work has always been stupefying and hard. Hour after hour standing on the line, soldering or welding or drilling in screws.

Even in today’s nightmare economy, most people wouldn’t want this daily grind that steals the soul in 12-hour shifts paying as little as $280 a week, before taxes.

But such labor prospers here in mostly rural Jones County, home to Laurel, where the area’s biggest employer, Howard Industries, maintains a sprawling factory that builds electrical transformers and other big equipment behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.

Assembly lines such as these offer tenuous lifelines to those desperate enough to toil on them. And sometimes, competition for these jobs pits have-nots against have-nots.

For a long time, Howard workers were poor blacks and whites in this town of 18,000, where an estimated 30 percent of the population lives in poverty. But in the past few years, newly arrived Hispanic immigrants have been applying for work on the Howard line and not complaining about long hours or menial labor.

A festering resentment began to take root in the hearts of some black and white residents, producing an odd alliance in a place that has seen decades of racism. Many blacks and whites claimed Hispanics were taking over their city and taking away jobs by not complaining about safety issues in a factory that faced $193,000 in fines last year from federal inspectors citing dangerous working conditions.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency swept in last summer and staged the nation’s largest single workplace raid. When nearly 600 Hispanics were herded past black and white Howard employees, jeers and applause and wide grins erupted.

“Bye-bye,” some trilled in falsetto, fingers wagging. “Go back where you came from.”

The assembly line rattles on. But now mostly blacks work it, with a smattering of whites, for the same wages paid to Hispanics. The plant, which has been working without a union contract since August, is mired in bitter negotiations over higher pay and safety issues.

Workplace raids reached an all-time high in 2008 with 6,287 arrests - a tenfold rise since 2003. Such raids have netted sweatshop workers in Massachusetts, kosher slaughterhouse employees in Iowa and federal courthouse janitors in Rhode Island. But the biggest roundup - 592 people arrested, mostly for illegally entering this country - was here in Laurel.

Since then, 414 Hispanics have been deported; 23 have left voluntarily and 27 were released on bond pending immigration hearings. One remains incarcerated at a federal detention center in Jena, La. Nine were charged with identity theft for using false identification.

More than 100, mostly women with children, were released pending the outcome of their cases. They wade through a long, confusing current of immigration hearings that will determine their futures. Many fear venturing out, lest they receive withering glances in the Wal-Mart aimed at the electronic monitoring devices on their ankles.

“We just want to work,” said Ismael Cabrera, a 37-year-old father of two, who paid a smuggler $2,000 to walk him across the desert into Arizona, then paid $1,000 more to get a ride to Laurel, where he first worked in a chicken slaughterhouse.

“It’s not that we took the jobs from other people,” he said in Spanish. “It’s that they don’t want to work them.”

He waits on a deportation hearing and weeps at the prospect of going back to his hometown near Mexico City, where he made little money. His 13-year-old son, Cesar, has few memories of that place. He left when he was 6.

Cesar, who interprets for his father in perfect English with a Mississippi drawl, is asked how he feels about going back to Mexico.

His gaze drops to his feet. His eyes brim with tears. He wipes his nose with the back of his wrist, sitting in Pentecostal church his family attends. “Bad,” he managed to get out. “It would feel bad.”

Mr. Cabrera wipes his own face with the sleeve of his shirt.

“Sometimes I ask myself if it was worth it to come here,” he said in a voice just above a whisper.

Local 1317 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had been making a special effort to sign up Hispanics, estimated by the union to be about 40 percent to 60 percent of the Howard work force. It had signed up about 150 before the raid, said the local’s president, Clarence Larkin, who is black.

Those new members are now gone, and with them, Mr. Larkin said, went a budding sense of solidarity. The turnover rate for non-Hispanics is 40 percent, he said. There was very little turnover among Hispanic workers, which deepened the divide between the groups.

“As long as you can keep people at odds with each other, that drives out the union,” Mr. Larkin said. “It’s divide and conquer. To be successful, you have to be united. And this made the union weaker.”

ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said the raid came after a union member called two years ago to complain about undocumented workers at the plant.

Last year, Mississippi passed the most restrictive law in the nation against undocumented workers, making it a felony for an illegal immigrant to hold a job. Republicans and Democrats have campaigned on anti-immigration platforms.

In 2007, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance sent a protest letter to national Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, saying Democratic candidates “are peddling racist lies against immigrants that violate the core of the party’s progressive agenda.”

“We do not need politicians whose only concern is getting elected,” it said.

More than 20 percent of Mississippi residents live in poverty - the highest rate in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Added to those rolls since the raid: Mr. Cabrera, his son Cesar and many others.

One is a woman named Mary, who didn’t want her last name used because she said she has cut a deal with federal prosecutors investigating whether Howard Industries knowingly hired illegal immigrants using false identification.

A spokeswoman for the company, which has not been formally accused of wrongdoing, declined to comment. Previously, Howard officials have said they never knowingly hired an undocumented worker.

Mr. Cabrera, now scraping by doing odd jobs such as cutting grass, also purchased forged ID cards. Sometimes the Social Security numbers are real and belong to real people. But Laurel’s factory raid targeted only illegal immigrants, not the people who sell them bogus documents costing anywhere from $60 to $200 a piece.

Angelica Olmedo, a 32-year-old single mother, has already decided to volunteer for deportation to Veracruz, where her parents grow sugar cane.

Her 13-year-old son, who was 5 when she paid for him to be smuggled to Mississippi, will return with her. After she was arrested in the Howard raid, she was released on “humanitarian” grounds because she was a single mother. She was outfitted with an electronic ankle bracelet and told not to leave the state.

“I feel like a dog,” she said, sitting in the doublewide trailer she shares with her sister, her brother-in-law, their two daughters and her son. “They told me I have to charge it every two hours, and I said, ‘What am I? A cell phone?’ ”

It took about two months for Miss Olmedo to realize that apparently no one was monitoring the devices. In time, the clumsy plastic device slipped off her foot. No one from ICE has said a word to her since.

“It’s to shame me,” she said. “That’s all it was, to shame me. To make me look like a criminal. But I am not a criminal, I was only working.”

At Howard Industries, where the day crew is just getting off, a freezing rain pelts workers walking to their cars, heads bowed to shield their faces. They are mostly black men. Some carry the stooped shoulders of the bone-weary. Others bound toward the employee parking lot with the glee of the newly freed.

Larry Jones, 24, sits in his car with the heater blasting, sucking the life out of a Swisher Sweets cigarillo. He has been on the job as a coil winder for two months.

He makes $8.20 an hour. And he is thankful for the raid.

“Now they got to hire us. The illegals will work for less than we will, and they’ll work more. They were getting jobs everywhere.”

He added: “I know they got to work, but it’s rough over here, too.”


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