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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Consider this report an experiment that may help to answer a big question about immigration. The question gets asked a lot as Congress debates immigration rules. And this is the question: If you really crack down on illegal immigrants and they vanish from the workforce, who would do their jobs?

Still more, Georgia is looking for an answer. Last year authorities cracked down on illegal immigrants there and a poultry processing plant lost two-thirds of its workers. Of course the Crider plant wanted to stay open so NPR's Jennifer Ludden is tracking what happened next. She's in our studios. Jennifer, good morning.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Okay. Consider this a case history then. Where is this plant finding workers after the illegals went away?

LUDDEN: Well, very quickly Crider staged an aggressive series of job fairs. They offered transportation to some people - we're talking about a very rural area, and some people were recruited from quite a distance away.

The plant also contracted with Georgia's Department of Corrections. It brought in inmates on its production line. And in this unusual move, the officials there reached out to the people we'll hear from this morning.

INSKEEP: Who were they?

LUDDEN: Hmong refugees in Minnesota. Now, apparently someone at the plant had lived there and knew about this population. So today there are about two dozen Southeast Asian immigrants living in this swath of rural Georgia, and I found them at a place that's become something of a refuge for them down there, the Peking Super Chinese Buffet.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

LUDDEN: The spread features Southern-style overcooked vegetables and pizza next to the dumplings. Dao Moua says it's the closest he can find to home-style food, but even the Chinese lady who works here had no idea where the Hmong people were from. Moua explained and he told her.

Mr. DAMO MOUA (Employment Specialist, Hmong-American Association): You will see me more often. I will come here pretty much every day, and you will see anyone know me for now on.

LUDDEN: As two families chat to the back table, Moua says he's used to explaining himself. He came to America in 1979 after the U.S. granted refugee status to thousands of ethnic Hmong in Laos. They'd helped the CIA against the North Vietnamese.

Nearly three decades later, Moua was an employment specialist at the Hmong-American Association in Minneapolis when he got the call from Crider poultry plant. It turned out he'd already made up his mind to retire somewhere warmer. And though there appeared to be no other Hmong in this part of southern Georgia, Moua took a liking to the place.

Mr. MOUA: I love it. It's not much different from Laos. The weather is very cold and the grass, the trees, you know, they have bamboo.

LUDDEN: Bamboo plants may be comforting but daily life is lonely. Even the group's favorite Chinese restaurant is 20 miles away from the place they live and work.

(Soundbite of highway)

LUDDEN: I'm standing in the middle of Stillmore, which is a highway with the blinking yellow lights. There's a fire department, a town hall, which looks closed, a couple of gas stations. And I'm right in front of a Mexican food store, which I'm told is still open, although it's closed right now in the middle of the day.

Mr. ARIEL RODRIGUEZ (Baptist Pastor): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Baptist Pastor Ariel Rodriguez says this small strip used to bustle with the Mexican workers from the town's poultry plant. But since the immigration raid, Rodriguez says it's dead. He's tried to help a few dozen Hispanics who've stayed around.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) The employers around here are still afraid of hiring Hispanics. They're afraid that immigration agents will come back. The workers are going to disappear and they'll have to pay fines.

LUDDEN: Officials at Crider Poultry declined to give an interview or offer any information about plant productivity or their efforts to fill the jobs left vacant last year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Back at the Peking Buffet Restaurant, Dao Moua's wife, Tong, says when the family moved down in February, they rented the largest trailer U-Haul had. She stocked up on Asian spices and Jasmine rice - lots of it.

Ms. TONG MOUA (Wife of Dao Moua): More than 500 pounds.

LUDDEN: Five hundred pounds of Jasmine rice.

Ms. MOUA: Mmm-hmmm.

LUDDEN: Tong works at the plant checking labels on cans of chicken. She's taken homemade egg rolls to work and says her colleagues are friendly. She's even trying to pick up on the local Southern drawl.

Ms. MOUA: I say see y'all another day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOUA: My daughter, Tanya, she's say, Ma, you say it right.

LUDDEN: Dao Moua is recruiting more Hmongs and in recent weeks two families moved from California. Wang Soung helps operate a machine that plucks feathers from chickens. As he eats, Soung says he's eager to build a new community here in Georgia, but misses the large Hmong population he left.

Mr. WANG SOUNG: All my friends, my community, the Lao veterans. I was the leader of one group, but I just threw that away.

LUDDEN: Soung's 24-year-old son, Fong, sits sullenly. He says the work on the production line is hard, but worse, this place is boring.

Mr. FONG SOUNG: There's nothing to do around here. I play basketball sometimes. That's all I do - play basketball or watch movies and stuff.

LUDDEN: Not everyone in the Hmong community supports this new venture. One activist in Wisconsin worries his fellow Hmong will be taken advantage of - like he believes was the case with the illegal Mexican workers they replaced.

Economically, Dao Moua says it's a wash - the pay is lower in Georgia, but so is the cost of living. He says he doesn't push anyone to come.

Mr. DAO MOUA: This kind of company - somebody like it, somebody don't like it. It's not fit for everybody.

LUDDEN: Moua hopes more Hmong families will move down once the school year is over. Then, he says, they could get someone to open a decent Asian food store. But long-term success will depend on the younger generation.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

Mr. TONG MOUA: Well, fortunately, I'm not a big-city guy. I'm more like a countryside guy, where it's quiet.

LUDDEN: Twenty-two-year-old Tong Moua has gelled hair and wears a Bluetooth phone headset when he drives. He sits by a water fountain in the main square of Swainsboro - the largest nearby town, a place he rarely ventures, save to go to the 24-hour coin laundry. Life here so far for Tong and his brother is long hours at work and cooking for themselves. Both have wives and children back in Minnesota.

Mr. T. MOUA: It is a big move, but sometimes in life you have to take the risk in order to find out the result.

LUDDEN: Tong's family is waiting for word from him. If he likes the job at the processing plant, and life in Georgia, they say they will all join him, even Tong's father. So will he tell them to come?

Mr. T. MOUA: That I can't say. That I can't say. I don't know yet cause I'm just been here for three months.

LUDDEN: Like so many immigrants before him and so many Americans, Tong Moua and the others are taking a gamble for a better future.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Jennifer Ludden. She's reporting on a poultry processing plant that lost most of its workforce after a crackdown on illegal immigrants and the replacement workers included other immigrants, a story that matters because lawmakers are asking what a serious crackdown on illegal immigration would do in this country.

And Jennifer, what did they learned from real-life experiences like this?

LUDDEN: I think they're hearing from businesses how hard it is to fill jobs after an immigration raid. There's another meat processor - Swift and Company - that recently announced it had finally filled more than a thousand jobs left vacant by immigration raids at six of its plants in December.

Now this was tattered in some quarters as proof - Americans are willing to do these jobs. But I spoke with a Swift official who said that the turnover rate is also gone up, so this plant has found legal workers but some are not staying for long.

INSKEEP: Okay, NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thanks very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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