Georgia Pastor Loses Flock to Immigration Raid

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Pastor Ariel Rodriguez i

Baptist Pastor Ariel Rodriguez holds a weekly service for the few dozen Hispanics who still live in Stillmore, Ga. Jennifer Ludden, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jennifer Ludden, NPR
Pastor Ariel Rodriguez

Baptist Pastor Ariel Rodriguez holds a weekly service for the few dozen Hispanics who still live in Stillmore, Ga.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR

Stillmore, Ga., is barely a stop on the highway. It has a couple of gas stations, a town hall and fire department. At midday, it feels like a ghost town. But Pastor Ariel Rodriguez remembers how vibrant it once was.

"Before the raid, lots of people would stroll along here," he says in Spanish. "They'd come to chat and have a drink. They'd come to the laundromat, or to play billiards, or just chill."

That was before immigration officials targeted a poultry processing plant that had attracted hundreds of Hispanic workers. Nearly all the employees were arrested or deported —- or left Stillmore on their own.

Rodriguez, a Baptist minister who moved to Georgia from Mexico three years ago, is doing what he can for the few dozen Hispanics who remain.

As he walks along the town's small main strip, one Mexican goods store is boarded up and another limps along with half-empty shelves.

Rodriguez says the owner of the remaining store opens up just a few hours each afternoon or on weekends. Posters in the store window advertising a Latino music concert and regular bus trips to Mexico might as well be relics from another era.

In the days after last September's raids, some Hispanics hid out in nearby woods. Rodriguez would bring them food, then help them find work elsewhere. Some who fled to nearby states have ventured back.

"They've found work in the cotton fields, or I've helped them find jobs raising pigs or harvesting pine trees," Rodriguez says. "Others are working in the onion fields."

Rodriguez is something of an informal labor broker — helping to translate or make contacts. He says people constantly ask if he knows when there might be another immigration raid. So he tries to keep up with the contentious debate in Washington, to sense which way things are headed.

Inside the church social room, Rodriguez says he used to sponsor English classes. But since the immigration raid there aren't enough people.

There is still one class taking place here: A dozen or so children in the community are most comfortable speaking English. But their parents need them to speak Spanish, so the church offers lessons.

Back outside, on the parched lawn, Rodriguez laments that the immigration raids tore apart families. He says one man arrested last fall has been waiting all this time just over the border in Mexico, where agents dropped him off, penniless.

Rodriguez says the man called his wife here and said he didn't even have enough money to get back to their home village. So she continued working, saving up for the journey. Just the week before, she and the couple's young son said good-bye to Rodriguez, returning to Mexico and leaving Stillmore's lonely Hispanic population smaller still.



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