Laurel, Miss., Mulls Immigration Raid Aftermath

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No one was happier than union members when federal immigration agents raided a Laurel, Miss., manufacturing plant in August. Six hundred workers were detained. Some of those workers say union members orchestrated the raid.


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. Last month, immigration agents detained nearly 600 undocumented workers employed by Howard Industries. It's the world's largest manufacturer of electrical transformers, and one of the biggest employers in Mississippi. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, no one seems more pleased about the raid than state union leaders.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: There's no love lost between union officials and the workers arrested at Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi, last month.

DAVID KNULL: Two thirds of the employees down there have always been illegals, Mexicans, you know, Latino-type people.

SANCHEZ: David Knull is president of the Building Trades Council of Mississippi, which represents the union at Howard Industries, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW.

KNULL: Mississippi workers have been shut out at Howard Industries because Howard is importing these illegals. It's the company breaking the law, because all these immigration laws nationally says that the company should be held responsible to make sure these guys are legal, not be exploiting them the way they've been doing.

SANCHEZ: Howard Industries, a private, family-owned company, would not comment for this story. But Knull says union members' resentment against undocumented workers in the company had been building for months, if not years. It came to a boil this summer after the Mississippi state legislature enacted one of the toughest anti-immigration laws in the country targeting undocumented workers and employers alike.

Union officials say in Mississippi, Howard, along with the poultry industry, casinos, saw mills, shipyards, all claim they cannot find workers in the U.S. But it's a claim that, at least in the Howard case, doesn't hold up, says Robert Shaffer, president of the AFL-CIO in Mississippi.

ROBERT SHAFFER: There were long lines of workers for two days putting in applications, and it got so out of hand that they started going through the Unemployment Security Commission.

SANCHEZ: After the raid, Shaffer says, about a thousand people applied for jobs: assemblers, electricians, coil-workers. The state employment office in Laurel cannot verify that number because the company quickly put an end to the long lines that were forming outside its plant. The unions' resentment towards Mexican workers in Laurel, of course, cuts both ways.

LIZETTER MAURA MUNOZ: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: It was union members who reported us to immigration authorities, says Lizette Maura Munoz. She and a handful of women have agreed to meet me after Mass at a small parish in Laurel, a town connected by strip malls strangely devoid of Mexican business or signs in Spanish, considering that Mexicans have been coming here since the mid-1990s.

These women, some with toddlers in tow, all work the morning shift at Howard Industries. All are Mexican. All were detained and released on the condition that they wear electronic ankle bracelets until they are deported. The 475 men who were caught in the raid are in a federal detention center in Jena, Louisiana. Among them, Munoz's husband.

MAURA MUNOZ: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: I feel like crying all over again, says Munoz. We never thought this would happen. Next to her, a middle-aged woman with bloodshot eyes, dressed entirely in black, says she'd been working at Howard Industries since 1998, back when the company hired Mexicans, no questions asked. Her name is Angelica Almira Paz(ph). She wants to talk about the union.

ANGELICA ALMIRA PAZ: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: We didn't join the union, she says, because it was always spreading lies about our pay getting cut unless we join the union. Plant managers at Howard, on the other hand, valued our work, she says.

ALMIRA PAZ: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: No one worked harder, especially the women, says Paz. The company grew and prospered, she says, because Mexicans were seldom absent or late and rarely complained about the tough working conditions. Those conditions, though, have repeatedly gotten Howard Industries in trouble with the U.S. Department of Labor, resulting in over $120,000 in fines this year alone for health and safety violations.

Safety was, in fact, one of the main sticking points between the union and the company when then began negotiations in early August. Days before the raid, those negotiations stalled. Union leaders were angry that so few Mexican workers, only about a hundred, had joined the union. So it was no coincidence, says Paz, that as soon as the contract negotiations hit a wall, the raid followed. Many people thought the union was behind it.

ALMIRA PAZ: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: Paz says black and white workers clapped and jeered as Mexican workers were let away with their hands tied behind their backs. Wetbacks, go back where you came from. All you've done is come and take our jobs, they screamed, says Paz. Deportation hearings for her and most of the 594 undocumented workers caught up in the raid began this week. Mississippi's attorney general, Jim Hood, meanwhile, says he's intent on showing that Howard Industries either made a good-faith effort to verify its employees' legal status, or it knowingly hired undocumented workers. Under Mississippi law, if found guilty, Howard could lose its state contracts for up to three years and the right to do any business in the state for a year. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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