MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Not too long ago, something startling happened in the town of Stillmore, Georgia. Almost all of the illegal immigrants disappeared. A chicken processing plant is the biggest employer in that tiny rural town, but after an investigation by federal immigration agents, the plant lost more than half its workforce. An immigration raid last month snared dozens more Mexican immigrants and has left those remaining worried about their future.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the story.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: When immigration agents descended on this ramshackle trailer park here one Sunday morning, they arrested the men and left their families behind. Ana Robinson watched the raid from a distance, then rushed into the park after agents left.
Ms. ANA ROBINSON: (Through translator) The women's eyes were swollen. They were crying and holding their children tight. It was sad.
LUDDEN: Robinson and others say in the days that followed, some of these women hid in the woods out of fear. One mother tearfully handed over her 2-year-old American born son to a local child care provider, then fled the state.
(Soundbite of chickens)
LUDDEN: Today, about the only thing moving in this sandy lot of trailers is a family of abandoned chickens roosting in a leafy tree. As dusk falls, there are lights from one trailer. At a knock on the door, they quickly go off. A moment later, eyes peek out a window, and the door cautiously opens.
Avalia and Fernando say they stayed with friends out of town for 10 days before venturing back. Behind them, two double beds are pushed together. Children's drawings are taped to the wall. The family prefers not to give their last name. Avalia and Fernando say they came here 10 years ago illegally from Vera Cruz, Mexico. She stays home with their three boys, all U.S. citizens. He clears fields for construction.
FERNANDO: (Through translator) Well, I feel safe in my job right now. I can't afford not to work, and I thought I'd lose it if we left the area for good. I'm also hoping immigration won't come back, but who knows?
AVALIA: (Through translator) We're torn. Sometimes I feel things are getting harder here, and it might be better to go back to Mexico on our own instead of waiting to be deported.
LUDDEN: In all, 126 illegal immigrants in Stillmore were arrested and many of them have already been deported to Mexico. The last time anyone remembers a raid like this around here was 1998 in the onion fields. But Georgia's politicians raised such a protest, the federal government backed down. Since then, hundreds of thousands of immigrants have moved to Georgia, the fastest growing Latino population in the country.
So the president of the Crider Chicken Processing Plant, David Purtle, may have been understandably surprised when immigration agents first contacted him last May.
Mr. DAVID PURTLE (Crider Chicken Processing Plant): They explained to us that they had uncovered two of our employees producing fraudulent documents and that they requested the I-9s on all of our employees.
LUDDEN: The I-9 is the form to verify someone's work eligibility. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, found nearly 700 Crider employees, well over half, had used fake documents and were illegal. Purtle says he was surprised.
Mr. PURTLE: Many of our employees that were not documented correctly had worked here for a long period of time and had actually kind of grown up in this area.
LUDDEN: The agency allowed Purtle to fire most of the illegal workers slowly over the summer before ICE agents showed up to arrest only the last bunch. At times, the entire Crider staff, Purtle included, pitched in to keep the operation going. Still, Crider's had to outsource 250 of its 1,000 jobs to a plant in Alabama.
(Soundbite of car engine)
LUDDEN: In the tiny cluster of gas stations and convenience stores that is Stillmore's downtown, retired electrical maintenance worker Bill Haskin has no problem with the layoffs and arrests.
Mr. BILL HASKIN: I don't have anything against the Spanish people, but I think the ones that are here legal need to stay. The ones who are not? I think they need to go back home.
LUDDEN: Haskin has no sympathy for Crider's insistence that officials did not know employees' documents were fake.
Mr. HASKIN: I don't want to get nasty, but they're full of condensed cow's milk. They're not checking. All you've got to do is go to a computer and you can find you or I and where we were born and how many teeth we've got and everything.
LUDDEN: Since the arrest, Crider Poultry has signed on to a federal computer program to verify new hires' legal status. As for those fired, residents say some boarded buses for Mexico. But others are still in the area, trying to get by. Baptist Pastor Ariel Rodriguez is in touch with them.
Pastor ARIEL RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) Right now, we are cooking meals for the families, but more importantly, we are helping them to find new jobs. These people not only need food, but they need money to pay the rent and stuff.
LUDDEN: Even as these immigrants seek new jobs, Crider Poultry is still scrambling to replace its lost workers. It's contracted with the Department of Corrections to bus in members of a halfway house. It's also boosted starting pay to seven dollars an hour and is advertising increased wages.
(Soundbite of crowd of people)
LUDDEN: At this Crider job fair in the nearby county seat of Swainsboro, Georgia, seVural dozen mainly young African Americans have come to fill out applications.
Unidentified Woman: Thank you.
LUDDEN: One woman says it's only fair the immigrant workers were arrested because they take jobs people like her should get. But outside, waiting for her interview, Analita Hampton disagrees.
Ms. ANALITA HAMPTON: They don't take jobs from Americans. You know, to me, it's up to the employer. They figure they can get these people in here and they can pay them less money, so that's what they do.
LUDDEN: Crider's president, David Purtle, denies taking any such advantage. He says the reason his plan ended up with so many Hispanic workers is because they're the ones who stayed while the white and African American employees always left for other jobs. That would include people like 29-year-old Deon Louis, who's here at the job fair, even though he admits he only lasted a week when he worked at Crider four years ago.
Mr. DEON LOUIS: It's just too nasty. I mean, you're working all day in blood, chicken guts and chicken heads and all that stuff. I mean, I just couldn't do it.
LUDDEN: So why apply again? Well, Louis says he's got two toddlers to support now, and he can't find any other job. He figures he's ready to give the dirty work of processing chicken another shot.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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