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The Town That Didn't Look Away

Immigration agents in Arkansas were still at the plant as neighbors spoke out. It's not justice served, they said, it's a community disrupted.

July 23, 2006|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

ARKADELPHIA, Ark. — 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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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