MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going back now to the raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at a handful of Mississippi chicken processing plants earlier this week, where nearly 700 people were detained. While many people were shocked by the timing of the raids on the opening days of school and just days after Latinos were targeted at a deadly mass shooting in Texas, others might have been puzzled at the location - the Deep South, far from a southern border city. Our next guest says that that should not have been a surprise. She says many poultry processing plants have been recruiting and have relied on Latino immigrant workers since the 1990s.
Angela Stuesse is an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has spent years studying immigrant labor in the Deep South, including research around the poultry plants like the ones that were targeted this week. Professor Stuesse, thanks so much for joining us.
ANGELA STUESSE: Happy to be with you.
MARTIN: You wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post this week about this. You said, the roots of this lie in two key events. You said, Americans developed a growing appetite for chicken, and African American people who worked in these plants started to organize because their workload was increasing greatly; their wages were not. So faced with this, you know, sort of organizing by these workers, the poultry industry started to do what? What did they do?
STUESSE: Well, they started thinking about where they could find a bigger supply of workers, both because they were producing more chicken and had vacancies on the line that they needed to fill and because African American workers who had been trying to organize unions over the '80s and '90s were starting to gain some traction. And the one chicken plant in particular in Morton, Miss., was facing the prospects of negotiating a contract with this union. And so they had the idea that they could go to South Florida in search of immigrant workers. And they had a contact in Miami or outside of Miami at a Cuban store who let them come advertise at the store. And they put advertisements in the local papers. And, yeah, they say that it took them just one week to fill a whole bus with people eager to try their hand at poultry processing in Mississippi.
MARTIN: One of the things you pointed out in your piece - you said that you - when you arrived to work in Mississippi's poultry communities along the Mississippi Poultry Workers' Center - this is in 2002. You said that over half of the country's quarter-million poultry workers were immigrants, most of them in the South. So that's a lot of people. So can we assume that people have put down roots there?
STUESSE: Absolutely. I mean, there's been a dramatic transformation of the South since the 1990s, and I attribute a lot of that to poultry processing across the region and their recruitment efforts. But people have been here for a quarter-century, and they've definitely put down roots. I live in North Carolina now. You drive through rural communities in North Carolina and Mississippi, Alabama, many other southern states. And you find Mexican food stores which weren't there before this. You find people playing pickup soccer on the street corners. There are Spanish-language churches. People have absolutely put down roots, and their children are in school and are as southern as anyone else.
MARTIN: You've spent a lot of time talking with poultry workers over the many years that you've been doing this research. What do some of them tell you about why they do this work, what it's like for them and why they stay, even though, as you point out, it's really hard?
STUESSE: Yeah, it's terribly hard and degrading on workers' bodies and demoralizing on their minds. People stay in this work because it's one of the few options that they have. The folks that I knew who put down roots in Mississippi - or who I know who've put down roots in Mississippi say that they have stayed in Mississippi, particularly, because it's a tranquil place to live and to raise children. They feel like it's calm compared to maybe more urban spaces that they've been. They've felt largely welcome and have been able to sort of live their lives under the radar, feed their families and hope to get ahead.
MARTIN: When you say it's degrading, demeaning, what are you talking about? Can you just describe what do you mean by that? Why do you say that?
STUESSE: So, certainly, it's a physically demanding, repetitive job. Workers make the same motion on the line up to 30,000 times in a shift, so bodies wear out, quickly, in the poultry plants. And, you know, African American workers have been on the lines for, now, three or four generations. And I had someone tell me, you know, they just use you up, and they reach back for your kids. So part of it is sort of the wasting on the body but I think beyond that partly because workers are so vulnerable and don't have a lot of other options in poultry, whether they be undocumented immigrants or African American workers or other working-class folks.
Chicken plants will do what they can to protect their bottom line. And so some of the stories that I heard working with the Mississippi Poultry Workers' Center - the biggest complaint that people would have is that they weren't allowed to take a break to use the bathroom. So people are using the bathroom in their clothes on the line, which is, you know, embarrassing, degrading, demoralizing.
MARTIN: You're saying that these raids have a ripple effect far beyond the immediate people affected. And there were, like, hundreds of people affected as we know. But what is that ripple effect in your view?
STUESSE: The local economy revolves around poultry and serving poultry workers, right? So the - you could think about the gas station around the corner, where people get gas, where people go to - on break to get food. You could think about the sort of more informal economies that spring up to support workers, maybe people selling food in the parking lots or watching their - watching the children of workers. I think folks who are not in the immigrant community or working in the plants necessarily are also feeling the effects of these raids.
MARTIN: That was Angela Stuesse. She's a cultural anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She's the author of "Scratching Out A Living: Latinos, Race, And Work In The Deep South." Thank you so much for talking with us.
STUESSE: Thank you.
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