Hispanic City, Mississippi: Between Jobs & Threats

Hispanic City, Mississippi: Between Jobs & Threats

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Editor's Note: Marcello Ballve's reporting series on Latino population growth across the country is a collaboration between New America Media and impreMedia's "The Future is Now" project about the U.S. census.

LAUREL, Mississippi - Residents of this small town know it as "Hispanic City."

It is a collection of trailer parks and brightly painted rental apartments on the edge of town.

Hispanic City's residents are overwhelmingly Mexican and Central American immigrants— among the thousands who have come to Mississippi in recent years in search of jobs. They found them— at nearby poultry plants, assembly lines and pine plantations.

Silverio Atriano, who has lived in Laurel for 9 years, is one of those who have followed jobs to Mississippi. He has been relatively lucky since arriving here. Since he arrived in September 2002 he has never been without a job or a paycheck.

Atriano's path to Laurel began in Texas, in 2002. That year, Atriano, who lived in Mexico, was shopping in the border city of McCallen, Texas, and came across an advertisement that offered jobs at a poultry plant in Mississippi, with transportation and two weeks rent given free to those workers willing to make the trip.

"They always need people here, Hispanic labor," he said.

He accepted the offer, and ended up at a poultry processing facility near Laurel. In 2005, he quit poultry processing and landed a higher-paying job at a Howard Industries electronics plant near Hispanic City.

Atriano, a 48-year-old man who lives alone, is like many of the Mexican immigrants in Mississippi, who work for their families in Mexico or elsewhere, yet return south rarely, if at all.

Atriano knows that life for Hispanics in Mississippi is never free of threats. On August 25, 2008, he witnessed the massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweep at the Howard Industries transformer plant where he works, less than a mile away. On that day, ICE agents swept into the plant and arrested 592 workers.

"Some people started running, they tried to hide," said Atriano. "There was a helicopter flying overhead."

Undocumented immigrants— some of them heads of family— were whisked into deportation proceedings.

"I felt bad for them," said Atriano. "They weren't doing anything wrong. I know what it's like to not have papers."

Atriano, who operates a crane with a metal hook to remove defective electrical transformers from the assembly line, was himself handcuffed until he was able to produce his green card, and prove his status as a legal U.S. resident.

With 592 arrests, it is believed the immigration raid on Howard Industries was the largest single-site workplace in U.S. history. The raid upended the lives of hundreds of immigrant families, and showed the extent to which Laurel, Mississippi relied on immigrant labor. However, unlike, the 45,000 undocumented immigrants estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center to be living in Mississippi in 2010, Atriano has the advantage of legal residence.

"I'm not afraid of anything, I feel calm," he said. "Although I don't know much English, because I have papers, I feel like the doors are open for me."