‘You don’t replace those people that easily': Morton businesses still struggling six months after ICE raids

Updated: Feb. 5, 2020 at 11:10 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Almost six months ago to the day, Mississippi was in the world spotlight when several food processing companies in the state were hit by federal agents in a coordinated sting operation: Carthage, Canton, Walnut Grove, Pelahatchie, Forest and Morton.

By the time it was over, 680 immigrant workers, many discovered to be in the country working illegally, had been detained. Some of them still behind bars, others deported... families and friends left behind.

3 On Your Side went back to one of the hardest hit cities, Morton, for a look at life six months after the ICE raids, and there is a climate of fear with the ones who would talk to us, asking that their faces not be shown in some cases.

Patricia Noguera has lived in Morton for 24 years now. She worked in the B-C Rogers poultry plant and saved enough money to open her own business, El Mercadita. It’s a little grocery store and restaurant specializing in traditional Hispanic goods. She gets emotional thinking about the impact of what happened six months ago.

“It’s not good. Because I say, ‘Oh my God’. I think of my family, my daughters, my granddaughters," said Noguera.

Her business has dropped off significantly and, now, she says she must sell her goods in other cities to make ends meet. It’s a similar situation for shop owner, Betcayda Martinez.

She said, “The business is slow, real slow, yeah, some business, Latino business is closed.”

The bottom line Martinez said. “For the people working, the people buy. Now, no more working, the people don’t buy.”

Merchants here, especially Hispanic business owners say this stretch of Highway 80 used to be bustling with activity; people walking to and from the poultry plant taking care of business. But they say that’s not the case anymore and the reason why....fear.”

Patricia Noguera said, “Right now, all of them is different. Everything has changed. All of them have changed. All Hispanic people, not same.”

Rev. Sheila Cumbest said, “At first, I think, people were so afraid to even leave their homes.”

Sheila Cumbest had just become pastor of First United Methodist Church of Morton, weeks before the August 2019 ICE raids, and while it may not have been her original mission, she and others immediately jumped into action.

Sheila Cumbest said, “Well, when we opened the Food Pantry that week that the ICE raids happened, we assisted 236 families with food the first week. Now, we are assisting around 120-125 families still with food and utilities and housing. And that’s what we’ve done since the beginning.”

Donations of typically Hispanic staples, like black beans, rice, Maseca and more have been pouring in from across the country, as well as things like diapers and baby formula, but the cupboards are beginning to get bare.

Asked how long she thinks an effort like this can be sustained, Rev. Cumbest replied, “Well, we thought we couldn’t do it but about 6 months, but I think we will be able to continue until it’s not needed.”

Today is food distribution and bill paying assistance day in Morton. The families impacted by the raids, come to The Church of the King pantry and First United Methodist Church every other Monday for this vital life-line.

”Families are still in very much need since they’re unable to work, most of them, if they’re at home, and many are still in detention and many have had family members deported, so there are spouses left here with children." said Rev. Cumbest.

She continued, “So, we’re probably looking at $10,000 dollars or so, every two weeks that we’re paying for rent and utilities and then the continued food pantry which we’re trying to do food distribution every other week as well.”

It’s estimated Morton lost possibly a fourth of its tax base after the 2019 ICE raids: Tito Eshiburu, is a local bank executive who has lived in Morton since 1972.

He said, “They were doing all that business in town, therefore, when you don’t have, you know, 300-400 people, then the tax base the town gets when they purchase here in town, it’s gonna be minimized. That’s what’s happening, I mean, the grocery store, the drug store, gasoline station; they have all seen their business go down.”

And Eshiburu says the poultry plant, itself, is feeling the impact.

Tito Eshiburu said, ”You don’t replace those people that easily. Number one. Number two, it’s hard work. It’s really hard work. Most people cannot be there month after month, year after year doing that. For some reason, Hispanics have filled that void and they have worked there for years and so it’s been hard for them to replace them. So, as far as I can tell, from what I’ve been told, they still haven’t been able to replace those workers."

“I hate what happened, but as Morton we still doing good.” Morton native Lance Kincaid sees the impact a little differently; the raids, he said, opening up opportunities for the African American community.

Lance Kincaid said, “Yes, that’s mostly what you have at the plant now, you have a lot more African Americans."

Sheila Cumbest said, “So, the whole city in Morton has felt an impact of this, we don’t know what the future is going to be.”

Tito Eshiburu said,"Yes, it will have an impact for many years, because I don’t think Morton will, the number of people, I don’t think it will ever rise to the number of people that lived here until 5-6 months ago. i don’t think so."

Patricia Naguera is also concerned about Morton’s future:

She said. “What was the neighborhood like before all of this happened? More happy. More comfort. Making parties, because the Hispanic people like to make a party. You see now, nobody make a party for nothing. All the people stay in the house, you no go outside, only for needed stuff and come back to house and that’s it.”

Clearly, many of those impacted by the raids were in violation of the law, but it doesn’t make what happened 6 months ago, any less painful for people like Patricia Noguera.

Patricia Noguera said, “Not all of them is bad. I understand there’s too many people bad, but not all of them. Because when immigration coming in the chicken plant and taking people working, not criminals.”

The shelves are beginning to get a bit empty and there is still a need for money to help with bills until families can find another source of income.

Reverend Cumbest has vowed to continue to help until the need is no longer there.

If you’d like to help, click on this link www.catholiccharitiesjackson.org

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