Try to imagine being born to an indigenous family in Guatemala. Your community has faced persecution and violence for years just for being alive. You desperately look for a safe place to raise your family and you think you’ve found a place you can call home—Mississippi. You legally cross the border seeking asylum. You find a job, settle with your family and start building a life. The problem? You don’t speak your employer’s language or even Spanish. Instead, you speak Mam, one of the indigenous Mayan languages of Guatemala. Therefore, you are an easy target for exploitation. You work long hours to provide for your family and are constantly mistreated by your employer. Twenty years later, you are accused of being in the country illegally and are stuck in a never-ending process of unjust bureaucracy. –
This is what happened to many immigrants in small communities in Mississippi.
In February, award-winning journalists and hosts of the podcast “IN THE THICK,” Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela recorded a live show on immigration and criminal justice reform at the historic Alamo Theater in downtown Jackson. The episode featured lead organizer and coordinator of the Mississippi Immigrant Coalition Lorena Quiroz-Lewis and attorney and founder of the People’s Advocacy Institute Rukia Lumumba. The crowd was filled with eager local immigration and criminal justice reform advocates and concerned Mississippians of all races.
“IN THE THICK” is a podcast for and about people of color that chronicles issues plaguing communities of color in the United States. The topic of this event: The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids of August 2019 and the aftermath experienced by the Latinx community in Mississippi.
On August 7, 2019, ICE agents conducted the largest workplace raid recorded in U.S. history. Approximately 700 immigrants working in chicken processing plants were rounded up, arrested and transported to detention centers while their children experienced their first day of school. Hundreds of children came home to no parents. Bus drivers noticed children not being able to get into their homes. House after house, these bus drivers circled their routes to take children back to schools or to local shelters. Children remained in shelters for days, not knowing if they’d see their parents again.
Quiroz discussed the history of Latinx immigrants in Mississippi who were recruited by poultry plants, fishing farms and the agricultural sector to work. She described how many of the workers entered the country legally, seeking asylum from persecution and other dangerous conditions in their home countries. She talked about how safe they felt in rural Mississippi, saying, “En Mississippi no pasa nada.” (“Nothing happens in Mississippi.”) They never imagined their lives would drastically change when ICE would raid the very places where they felt secure.
Lumumba related the events to Mississippi’s long history of dehumanization of people of color through the systems of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration. She said, “We [Black Mississippians] know what it’s like to be stripped away from our families. We know what it’s like to be incarcerated.” She discussed the conditions of the immigration detention centers in Louisiana describing migrants sleeping on the floor, eating one meal a day (usually a cold or frozen sandwich) and being treated like animals.
According to FWD.us, Mississippi has the third highest rate of mass incarceration in the country. Not surprisingly, mass incarceration overwhelmingly affects Black and brown communities in Mississippi.
One of the most alarming pieces of information the raids brought to light was the number of indigenous Latin Americans working in the plants and in other sectors in Mississippi who do not even speak Spanish. For some, Spanish is their second language. Many people assume that all Latinx immigrants are “Mexican” or they all speak Spanish, leaving the indigenous community that does not speak Spanish to live even more deeply in the shadows. These communities often lack resources or even translators who can explain to them what is happening. These groups were recruited to work in Mississippi and are largely victims of labor exploitation. According to Quiroz, they work 12- to 14-hour shifts and employers feel entitled to dispose of them. Many of the indigenous workers who were detained remain in detention facilities today.
This factor highlights Mississippi’s most horrendous history being repeated. European colonizers brought African slaves, who did not speak English, to Mississippi. The colonizers exploited, disposed of and dehumanized Black people and later passed these traditions down to their descendants who continue to build systems to keep Black and brown people in positions of inferiority.
Lumumba also shared that the prisons in which these migrants are detained are private prisons. Her suggestion to dismantling the system? “Shut them down! That’s not how we earn our living, not off of other people’s suffering.”
The Department of Homeland security maintains a bed quota for the number of immigrants in detention facilities. ICE provides contracts to private prisons serving as immigration detention facilities and offers incentives to those who can keep their detention facilities full.
Quiroz and Lumumba shared the importance of the Black and Latinx communities coming together despite the goal of white supremacists to “divide and conquer” these communities. Quiroz said the key to combating the repetition of these experiences is to educate communities, join together and share narratives.
We need to work together and there are practical ways to do so. There are people organizing in Mississippi who are looking for people to join the movement. Remember how you felt when you heard about the raids. Don’t sit by passively; find ways to get involved and take action.
There are still many needs. If you would like to get involved and help families who are still affected by the aftermath of the raids, please contact Mississippi Resiste.
 Indigenous in the context of Latin America refers to native communities in countries across Latin America that have maintained their pre-Spanish and Portuguese customs and culture. These communities speak various languages and often experience marginalization and discrimination in their own countries.