By Marcelo Ballvé

New America Media

Oct 13, 2008

LAUREL, Miss. — Melvin Mack remembers the ugly days of Jim Crow when he witnessed the Ku Klux Klan march right past the downtown building where he now works as Laurel’s first black mayor.

“At one time there was a lot of racism in and around the city of Laurel, a lot of shooting in black people’s houses, a lot of cross burning, a lot of brutality,” he says.

Mack, elected in 2005, is a symbol of Laurel’s efforts to put this contentious history behind it. Of course, segregation’s scars haven’t healed completely. Poverty remains entrenched in the African-American community, pockets of prejudice persist. But Laurel has progressed enough so that when thousands of Latin American immigrants began arriving in the late 1990s, there was hardly any fuss at all.

“It didn’t really raise any eyebrows,” says Paul Barrett, publisher of The Review, a weekly newspaper in Laurel. “They were hard-working, they stayed to themselves.”

The newcomers, mostly undocumented Mexicans and Panamanians, rented homes and trailers and renewed vacant storefronts and buildings with their restaurants, shops and churches. They found work in pine plantations, in wood and poultry-processing, and at Howard Industries, a homegrown billion-dollar electronics manufacturer that is the town’s largest employer.

By all accounts, Laurel and surrounding Jones County had begun to piece together a civic coexistence, binding together black, white and immigrant.

Then, on Aug. 25, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rushed into a sprawling Howard Industries transformer plant just outside town, arresting 595 undocumented workers and exposing the extent to which local businesses had begun to tap immigrant labor. Some tensions that had built under the surface for a long while received a public airing — especially worries about whether illegal immigrants were taking jobs from poor locals.

Not surprisingly, immigration restrictionists, lately on the rise in Mississippi, extolled the raid.

State Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Jones County Republican, had co-authored a strict law that passed earlier this year. Among other disincentives to illegal immigration, it made it a felony for an undocumented worker to take a job in Mississippi. Shortly after the raid, McDaniel appeared on local NBC affiliate WDAM-TV news. “There’s no question in my mind that Americans will do those jobs,” said McDaniel, who is white. “I think it’s a good thing what the federal government did.”

McDaniel cited high unemployment in Jones County as a reason for welcoming the raid, although Jones has the fourth lowest unemployment rate among Mississippi’s 82 counties– 6.5 percent, according to state government statistics from July.

The same news spot also showed scores of people, mostly African Americans, but whites, too, lined up at Howard Industries hiring offices. An anchor said that now, instead of illegal immigrants, “honest to goodness Americans” were seeking jobs. In on-air interviews, some applicants complained bitterly they’d formerly been shut out of Howard jobs because of an unstated preference for illegal immigrants who work for less wages.

But many in Laurel disputed that contention.

“The ‘illegals are taking jobs away from American workers’ chant doesn’t ring true for me,” wrote Barrett, the newspaper publisher, in an editorial. It may be true in a theoretical sense, but practically speaking, many of those doing the chanting aren’t filling out the job applications.”

According to several community leaders, Howard had been advertising jobs at all levels of pay for months, not only in local newspapers but also on a large billboard over Laurel’s main drag, 16th Avenue, without achieving anything approaching what they described as a publicity-motivated post-raid response.

Rather than make it impossible for local workers to find jobs, what immigrants have done is removed some fluidity from the job market and made it more difficult for workers to exit and enter the labor force at will, switch jobs, and find work quickly, says Mack, the mayor.

“That did make people upset,” he says, but he dismisses as “hot air” speculation of a deep rift dividing the black and Hispanic communities.

Other than occasional prickliness between races, the Aug. 25 raid laid bare what may turn out to be the newcomers’ more lasting legacy: the surprisingly strong web of relationships that has woven immigrants deep into the town’s fabric, and begun to change it.

Some signs of this interweaving are visible: the local Wal Mart stocks Jarritos-brand Mexican soft drinks and jars of mole sauce. Good old boys don’t hesitate to recommend dinners at La Casita, one among the half-dozen or so Mexican restaurants that already outnumber barbecue spots. There’s even a taco joint in Sawmill Square, the local mall.

Over at Tienda Las Americas, an Anglo customer comes in everyday to buy a Mexican brand of chocolate he’s grown fond of.

Before the raid, the city sports complex hosted a 15-team soccer league, overwhelmingly composed of immigrants but with the participation of some locals.

The immigrant influx, more than just spurring economic renewal and injecting new diversity into Laurel, has clearly shaken up the town’s old pattern of residential segregation. In recent years, white flight from Laurel to the surrounding county had turned Jones County into a demographic “donut,” in the words of Barrett, the newspaper publisher.

Blacks concentrated in Laurel — giving them a slight majority — and whites bought up homes in the county’s formerly rural areas.

The arriving immigrants, as many as 10,000 by some counts, moved into the vacuum left behind by whites. In Laurel, some immigrants moved into the historic district and its tree-canopied streets lined by Queen Anne, colonial revival and craftsman style homes built by early 20th Century lumber barons, mill owners and railroad entrepreneurs.

Local builders, sensing an opportunity, also erected new apartment residences for the newcomers, such as the sprawling La Joya Apartments, which locals dubbed “Hispanic City,” located near the city’s traditionally black south side. One defunct church near downtown Laurel, abandoned by its formerly white congregation, became Peniel Christian Church, with a mostly immigrant membership, but also including white and black worshippers, according to Pastor Roberto Velez.

This year, Velez officiated at a marriage between a Hispanic immigrant woman and a Native American from the Choctaw Reservation in Sandersville, 11 miles to the north.

Trailer parks lining the access roads in and out of the city began to mix residents of all races.

Not surprisingly, among longtime Jones County residents, those who perhaps lived in closest contact with the newcomers were their landlords.

Harmon Sumrall, 65, the son of white sharecroppers, is now a property owner who rented out 10 rental homes, including apartments and trailers, to immigrant clients, who he says are the best tenants he’s ever had.

Now, five of his units are empty. The tenants, even if they were not arrested, picked up and fled in fear afterward, leaving behind couches, frozen turkeys, kids’ toys, cereal boxes, lawn ornaments and even DVD players.

“They were scared to death,” says Sumrall, showing a reporter the inside of one abandoned trailer.

He’s forgiven a month’s rent to five immigrant households in the hopes that with a little help they might get on their feet and stay.

“I hate to say ‘aliens’, they’re not aliens,” he says. “They’re immigrants. I mean we’re all immigrants, we’re all from somewhere …. If they get rid of all the illegal immigrants in Jones County, Jones County is going to suffer economically.”

Sumrall’s sympathy isn’t just self-interest. He and his wife Frankie, 62, have developed real ties with immigrant families. They sheltered them at their house during Hurricane Katrina, which peeled trailers’ roofs off, they’ve let tenants use their pool, and they’ve shared birthdays and barbecues.

Then there’s what immigrants did for them. Sumrall was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1996, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma last year. Tenants and former tenants helped with odd jobs, forgave Sumrall’s lapses, and fetched glasses of water when they spotted him on his tractor-mower in the sun.

“They knew I was sick, and they were loyal, just good, loyal people,” says Sumrall.

Bill Smith, 48, would agree. A year ago, he bought a motel and trailer park near to Sumrall’s with money he made as a major distributor of immigrants’ long distance phone cards.

In 2004, he married an undocumented Mexican woman. Now, they’re parents to a two-year-old, Smith speaks fluent Spanish, and he’s also helping tenants by offering free rent for a month, two if need be.

“We’re like a family,” he says. “I’ve been in business with the Hispanics for 10 years and I do anything I can for them. I think that’s at least fair, to help them out.”

No doubt, a good number of people in Jones County believe Howard Industries and the unauthorized workers got what they deserved.

But what surprised Jason Niblett, editor of the daily Laurel Leader-Call, was that he received so few letters or calls celebrating the raid or denouncing the company’s hiring of illegal immigrants. Most letters of that nature came in from out of town.

He attributes this in part to the popularity of the Howard family in Laurel, thanks to their charity giving and sponsorship of local sports teams and education (CEO Michael Howard declined to give an interview for this article). But Niblett also perceives a general tendency among all groups to get along in this working-class town, where he’s lived since 2001.

“Compared to when I lived in San Antonio, I think it’s better here” in terms of the tolerance toward Hispanics and the lack of divisions between groups, he says.

National media fanned the idea of a racial divide in Laurel when it reported that black workers at Howard Industries had clapped and cheered during the ICE raid, as Hispanic colleagues were arrested and led away.

Former employees say the transformer plant was by no means a multiracial workers’ utopia, but also was not irredeemably polarized along race lines, or over union membership. (Some media reports speculated there was tension because of immigrants’ relatively low union adherence amid a dispute with management over wages and benefits).

“I saw those people making fun of us,” says Angelica Olmedo Paz, a Mexican immigrant who was arrested in the raid. “But for everyone that clapped, there were people who let us know they were with us, who cried with us, who didn’t want us to leave.”

Immigrant workers interviewed said that as far as they knew they did not receive less pay or benefits than U.S. citizen workers. Olmedo, 32, says that in part immigrant workers succeeded at the plant due to their willingness to work jobs with high turnover.

Her role at the plant was to replace workers in the production line who were absent or quit. Not surprisingly, she often found herself completing the most unpleasant tasks, such as pumping a lubricating oil into the transformers, which once full, had to be covered and pushed forward on metal rollers. The oil often spilled.

“No one liked being there,” she says. “It was heavy, dirty work. I was always there, filling in for an Afro- or an Anglo-American, who’d last three weeks, a month at most. They’d leave, and again, I’d have to return until someone else came in.”

Cory Welch, 22, who is half black and half Filipino, quit his job at Howard four days before the raid and now works at an athletic shoe store at the local mall, where the flexible hours allow him to attend accounting classes at the University of Southern Mississippi. He says many black workers resented the immigrants, but that on an individual level, they established friendships with the newcomers. “Some of them gave love to this person or that person,” he says.

Olmedo, a single mother, was among the 106 detained workers, mostly female, who were released with an ankle bracelet device, so they can care for their children as they await court dates.

In order to save money, since she can’t work any longer, Olmedo moved with her 12-year-old son into a trailer rented by a family that wasn’t caught in the raid. Two of her friends, in her same predicament, did the same, and now they share a single room.

She shows a visitor a greetings card (“We miss you,” reads one line) sent to her by an African-American ex-colleague, as well as an envelope on which at least a dozen workers, of all three ethnicities, scrawled the amount they were contributing to a cash collection organized on her behalf.

Learning she’d be living in a friends’ home, they also gave her a cell phone as a gift.

The women with ankle bracelets realize they’ll most likely have to leave the country, either voluntarily or via deportation. But even with their departure and that of many friends, they doubt the raid at Howard Industries represents a final chapter in Jones County’s Hispanic community.

A good number of immigrants will hang on, and so will their children, many U.S.-born, who are already making their way through Jones County’s increasingly ethnically diverse schools.

At the Laurel School District spelling bee earlier this year, a black student won first place, a Hispanic student second, and a white student third.


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