A single mother called a neighbor on the morning of Aug. 7, as federal immigration agents stormed the rural Mississippi chicken plant where she worked: “Manuel,” he remembered her saying, “I can’t get out. I have faith, and I trust you to take care of my kids.” That afternoon, Manuel Ramirez watched TV with the boys, who are 12, 10, and 5, making excuses for their mother’s absence until the oldest child saw on Facebook that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had come to her plant. The child started to cry. “You’re a bad friend,” Ramirez recalled him saying. In the four days that followed, as the children’s mother sat in a Louisiana detention center, Ramirez tried to cheer the brothers with pizza and burritos, but he was struggling with the burden—and nervous. Like the boys’ mother, he is in the United States illegally. He might be rounded up too. And then what? He had already been ticketed for driving without a license earlier this year. “What am I going to do?” he asked rhetorically. “I can’t fly.”
As Ramirez, 38, recounted this story last Sunday afternoon in the annex of St. Michael’s Catholic Church here in Forest, he used the sleeves of his polo shirt to dry his tears. (Like several other undocumented immigrants in this story, I have changed his name because of his fears of deportation.) He wanted to know if I could help him get working papers. The other night he dreamed he was dressed all in white. “I asked Father Roberto, ‘What does it mean to be wearing all white clothes?’ And he said, ‘It means you are an angel, because they are not your children and you are watching after them.’ ”
Welcome to this city of babysitters, where the sudden disappearance of hundreds of working adults has pulled hundreds more into new and unfamiliar roles. A teacher spent the hours after school watching two girls, ages 4 and 7, who hadn’t seen their mother in a week. A woman arrived at the grocery store with 11 kids in tow, their mothers detained hundreds of miles away. A frantic father left his engine running in the school parking lot, afraid that in picking up his children he was driving into a trap. Latino parents kept more than 150 students home from school in central Mississippi’s Scott County, where Forest is the county seat, in the days after the raids.
Fresh crises are unfolding now. Husbands are trying to find (and pay) lawyers for their incarcerated wives, and vice versa. The economic consequences of mass job loss will soon come face to face with September rent payments. The fallout from the country’s largest workplace raids in years has blanketed the Hispanic community here in sadness, fear, and desperation. Their roots in these small towns north and east of the state capital—many arrived more than a decade ago—have permitted them to call upon extensive social support systems, from family to school to church. At the same time, as they navigate a legal process designed to encourage them to leave the country, they will face wrenching decisions about the houses they purchased with the savings from years of chicken work and what the future will hold for their U.S.-born children. [Continue reading…]