Sergio Voicila: Update from the ground in Mississippi

Sergio Voicila is a law student with a background in immigrant and labor rights. He became involved with JWJ in 2011 when he was a volunteer organizer with the Student Immigrant Movement and since then he has been a long term member supporter and volunteer.

Photo: Cecilia Prado

Photo: Cecilia Prado

On a Tuesday morning I flew out to Jackson Mississippi, I was expecting to do some interpreting  or maybe help out with some legal work. I got right in the mix at a legal clinic in Forrest MS. People started pouring in  to talk to a mixture of hastily assembled volunteers and lawyers. About 700 people were detained in raids at various chicken processing  plants and several communities were devastated in the process 

The raids were only the start, the people we talked to at the clinics had their entire lives  upturned: family members in detention, talking care of children alone, and struggling with bills and basic necessities. Some of the people who got caught  in the raids got released with ankle monitors, this made it impossible for them to work or find ways to provide for their families . Not that there were jobs in the are to begin with; the factories that were hit by the raids were some of the only serious sources of employment in the area and on top of the raids many of them fired the rest of the undocumented workers. In Morton the local plant , PH foods fired 100 workers in the aftermath of the raids. Between the community  who were detained and those who got fired, Morton lost about 10% of its jobs essentially overnight. 

 Laurel, Morton, Carthage, Canton and Forrest,  these were among the communities were affected by the raids and in all of them the impact reverberated throughout and left deep scars. I knew the details of the raids  and I’ve done this type of work before but even so it was shocking to see the damage that had been done to these communities. It was hard to hear young children casually  talk about how one of their parents was in detention while the other parent had to have an ankle bracelet , it was hard to see that some members of the community were afraid to leave  their houses. What I saw looked a lot like government sponsored terrorism.

At first I hesitated to write about this because there is tendency in mainstream  conversation( even in organizing circles) to think of these communities as helpless and defenseless communities  that need to be advocated for by privileged white people. That’s not all what I experienced in MS, or what I want to convey; In fact I write about the devastation to highlight the scope of the work  being done and the amazing resiliency of the communities in MS even in the worst possible situations. 

Photo: Giovanni Bravo Ruiz

Photo: Giovanni Bravo Ruiz

In Forrest  I saw the first sign of the resiliency and shared power that was being built in these communities. In the kitchen of a local church there was a small army  preparing and handing out food, the rest of the space was full of much needed necessities. The community was coming together and they were ready to respond.

Meeting the organizing team turned out  to be just as energizing . In the conference room of a Hampton Inn  I got to meet a wild bunch of overworked and overexcited organizers. There  were thirty people in the room and our nightly debrief ran for over three hours.  There was so much work to be done: legal clinics, people in detention, identifying and recruiting local leadership, trying to help gather materials and resources . The coalition called Mississippi Resiste was led by an amazing organization called South East Immigrant Rights Network(SEIRN) but most of the people in the room were volunteers ; even  the people who worked for an organization were volunteering their time and taking time away from their existing projects. It was grassroots organizing at its best, people who wanted to help were coming in from all over the place, not to take over but simply to help establish and support local leadership.

Jobs with Justice had one of the larger contingents ( big shout to central Florida Jobs with justice and Pioneer Valley Workers Center ) we worked on several different projects but one of our largest projects was organizing with works that had been fired  at a processing plant in Morton called PH Foods. Workers would come into this factory every day and would cut frozen chicken that came in 40 pound boxes. After the raid happened the remaining workers were fired , there were more than a 100 workers , some of them had worked there  for 20 plus years. Our goal in working with them was to accomplish two things get information about their working conditions so that we could establish a legal strategy for moving forward and to identify local leadership and help them to form a workers committee. We started doing labor  intakes to figure the details of what happened , needless to say we heard about all sorts of abuse. The very basic was that none of the workers had ever been paid overtime or vacation time, but it got much worse from there. The managers were abusive , they regularly threatened the workers and yelled , there  was sexual harassment of course, the workers were essentially made to feel like the were completely meaningless. In the process of talking to the workers we identified many great leaders and things took of really fast . One of my favorite highlights of my time in MS was a community meeting that workers set up , more than a 100 people were there meeting  at the house of one of the workers. Everyone came there to learn about their rights , to talk about what happens with people who get detained , they brought each other there because they wanted to fight together. The workers in Morton started a workers committee called Morton Avanza and organizing their own community and they’re not the only ones.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in these communities : those who are in detention will need to come out on bond  and continue with their cases; the workers in Morton will need to pursue legal action and continue to organize; in other communities  there’s a need for resources and money as people try to pay their bills and feed themselves and of course there is always a need for more organizers.

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