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Town's Migrant Workers Living and Leaving in Fear

Newcomers to Canton, Miss., are scattering after a slaying, firings and a roundup threat.

August 18, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

CANTON, Miss. — 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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