STARKVILLE – The Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Scott County and other Mississippi locales where there are large-scale poultry processing operations are more than headlines to me.
Two of my grandchildren attend the public schools in Scott County. I lived there for 27 years. I remember when the first large group of Hispanic laborers came to Forest to work in the five poultry plants there in that day.
As a newspaper publisher, I chronicled the plight of immigrants on many fronts – housing, education, the language barrier, early prejudices, and one particularly tragic case in which an immigrant was robbed and murdered in the street on his first day in town by a native Mississippian.
My ten-year-old granddaughter has a classmate named Guadalupe that she loves and speaks of often. Their relationship is untouched by politics or mistrust or fear. They are just friends without labels.
My experiences in watching immigration unfold in small town Mississippi over the course of almost 30 years have colored my views on the subject.
There is a disconnect between what some Americans and some Mississippians say they want in terms of immigration policy and what their behavior indicates they want.
In political discourse, many speak passionately of their desire for secure borders, the rule of law, the need for immigrants to our nation following the rules, and an orderly, sane immigration policy that reflects traditional American values.
Specifically, most Americans claim that they want us to actually live the rhetoric from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, New Colossus, written on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But do they?
In a state where there is an unacceptably high dropout rate that impacts K-12 educational attainment for the whole of Mississippi’s population and higher education attainment trails the national average by more than 8 percent, low educational attainment by the state’s rapidly growing Hispanic population has one inevitable outcome: a steady increase in competition for low-skill, low-wage jobs.
Growing Mississippi demand for Hispanic labor in the construction and agricultural sectors is undeniable. From the poultry and timber industries to row crop production like sweet potatoes to the service and hospitality industry, the influx of Hispanic labor over the last three decades has for many Mississippi counties been transformational.
Still, there is also widespread fear and prejudice of “immigrants coming over here and stealing our jobs” when the fact is that the preponderance of these fellow human beings toil in jobs that Americans simply refuse to do. In Mississippi, immigrants are willing to gut our chickens, plant our trees, process our catfish, harvest our sweet potatoes, perform the hardest construction labor, cook our food and wash our dishes in restaurants, and clean our rooms in our hotels.
The common denominator in most of that labor? First, most of those tasks are unpleasant, hot, cold, dirty, wet, and command low wages. Second, the person or company extending jobs to those immigrants are making profits from enterprises in which there is a solid demand for their labor.
Illegal immigration is just that, illegal. Breaking the law has consequences. But the reaction of many Scott County residents is like that of folks around the country who don’t see Hispanic laborers as “invaders” or “criminals” but as neighbors, friends, classmates, or fellow parishioners.
Failing to act with reason and compassion in public policy has consequences, too – unless we all want to go back to performing some of those unpleasant jobs that most of us were all too pleased to leave to immigrant laborers.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.