Immigration raids make a ghost town in Georgia

Via CNN.com

STILLMORE, Georgia (AP) — Trailer parks lie abandoned. The
poultry plant is scrambling to replace more than half its workforce.
Business has dried up at stores where Mexican laborers once lined up to
buy food, beer and cigarettes just weeks ago.

This Georgia
community of about 1,000 people has become little more than a ghost
town since September 1, when federal agents began rounding up illegal
immigrants.

The sweep has had the unintended effect of underscoring just how vital the illegal immigrants were to the local economy.

More
than 120 illegal immigrants have been loaded onto buses bound for
immigration courts in Atlanta, 189 miles away. Hundreds more fled
Emanuel County. Residents say many scattered into the woods, camping
out for days. They worry some are still hiding without food.

At
least one child, born a U.S. citizen, was left behind by his Mexican
parents: 2-year-old Victor Perez-Lopez. The toddler’s mother, Rosa
Lopez, left her son with Julie Rodas when the raids began and fled the
state. The boy’s father was deported to Mexico.

“When his momma
brought this baby here and left him, tears rolled down her face and
mine too,” Rodas said. “She said, `Julie, will you please take care of
my son because I have no money, no way of paying rent?”‘

For five
years, Rodas has made a living watching the children of workers at the
Crider Inc. poultry plant, where the vast majority of employees were
Mexican immigrants. She learned Spanish, and considered many immigrants
among her closest friends. She threw parties for their children’s
birthdays and baptisms.

The only child in Rodas’ care now, besides her own son, is Victor. Her customers have disappeared.

Federal
agents also swarmed into a trailer park operated by David Robinson.
Illegal immigrants were handcuffed and taken away. Almost none have
returned. Robinson bought an American flag and posted it by the pond
out front — upside down, in protest.

“These people might not
have American rights, but they’ve damn sure got human rights,” Robinson
said. “There ain’t no reason to treat them like animals.”

The raids came during a fall election season in which immigration is a top issue.

Illegal immigrant population doubles

Last
month, the federal government reported that Georgia had the
fastest-growing illegal immigrant population in the country. The number
more than doubled from an estimated 220,000 in 2000 to 470,000 last
year. This year, state lawmakers passed some of the nation’s toughest
measures targeting illegal immigrants, and Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue
last week vowed a statewide crackdown on document fraud.

Other
than the Crider plant, there isn’t much in Stillmore. Four small
stores, a coin laundry and a Baptist church share downtown with City
Hall, the fire department and a post office. “We’re poor but proud,”
Mayor Marilyn Slater said, as if that is the town motto.

The 2000
Census put Stillmore’s population at 730, but Slater said uncounted
immigrants probably made it more than 1,000. Not anymore, with so many
homes abandoned and the streets practically empty.

“This reminds me of what I read about Nazi Germany, the Gestapo coming in and yanking people up,” Slater said.

Immigration
and Customs Enforcement spokesman Marc Raimondi would not discuss
details of the raids. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that these
people were here illegally,” Raimondi said.

Businesses may have to close

At
Sucursal Salina No. 2, a store stocked with Mexican fruit sodas and
snacks, cashier Alberto Gonzalez said Wednesday that the owner may
shutter the place. By midday, Gonzalez has had only six customers.
Normally, he would see 100.

The B&S convenience store, owned
by Keith and Regan Slater, the mayor’s son and grandson, has lost about
80 percent of its business.

“These people come over here to make
a better way of life, not to blow us up,” complained Keith Slater, who
keeps a portrait of Ronald Reagan on the wall. “I’m a die-hard
Republican, but I think we missed the boat with this one.”

Since
the mid-1990s, Stillmore has grown dependent on the paychecks of
Mexican workers who originally came for seasonal farm labor, picking
the area’s famous Vidalia onions. Many then took year-round jobs at the
Crider plant, with a workforce of about 900.

Crider President
David Purtle said the agents began inspecting the company’s employment
records in May. They found 700 suspected illegal immigrants, and
supervisors handed out letters over the summer ordering them to prove
they came to the U.S. legally or be fired. Only about 100 kept their
jobs.

The arrests started at the plant September 1. During the
Labor Day weekend, agents with guns and bulletproof vests converged on
workers’ homes after getting the addresses from Crider’s files.

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