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Recent major raids against undocumented workers led many to fear evacuation during hurricane Gustav

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to The Real News Network. Tonight we’re talking about Hurricane Gustav, the Gulf Coast. And joining us now on the line from Jackson, Mississippi, is Bill Chandler. Bill is the executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. Thank you for joining us, Bill.


JAY: Bill, some stories have been surfacing in Louisiana, in Mississippi, of undocumented workers and families being afraid to evacuate onto buses and other forms of transportation because they’re afraid that the immigration service is likely to catch them. We’ve been told that, at least in Louisiana, there’s been a lot of messaging telling people that nobody’s ID will be checked. What’s the situation in Mississippi?

CHANDLER: We received yesterday an email from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying that they weren’t going to do that, but I think that has little effect on the fear that immigrants have here in Mississippi, particularly in light of the raid that took place on Monday.

JAY: And [inaudible] raids?

CHANDLER: What happened was that large manufacturing plants here that manufacture transformers and other electrical equipment for electrical systems, public electrical systems, was raided by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, and they arrested almost 600 workers who they allege were undocumented, and a small number of them were alleged to have been involved in some sort of document fraud. And really it created a tremendous atmosphere of terror in the Latino communities, particularly in the Latino communities, and particularly in southern Mississippi along the Gulf Coast and in the Hattiesburg and Laurel area where the raids occurred. There were a couple of smaller raids that were conducted on the Gulf Coast in days following the big raid in Laurel, Mississippi. It has, you know, certainly created an atmosphere of terror in the community, and people have been reluctant to leave.

JAY: And why now for these raids? And how many people are still in jail?

CHANDLER: Well, virtually all of them except for about a hundred are in jail, but the hundred that are out are basically under house arrest with those ankle-bracelet monitoring systems that they use here in the United States.

JAY: Now, we heard that it was mostly the women were let out with ankle bracelets. Is that true? And the men are mostly still in?

CHANDLER: That’s correct. And about 17 of the women were pregnant, and they did not put the ankle bracelets on them, at least for now.

JAY: Now, to some extent Mississippi dodged a bullet here, I guess. If this had been a Katrina-style storm that hit full force, the destruction would have been much worse. But if that had been the situation, would people still not have evacuated? I mean, one way or the other, people knew what happened in Katrina and New Orleans.

CHANDLER: Well, one of the things the state of Mississippi advertised—in English, mind you—[was] about buses that were available for people that did not have transportation, and hundreds of people were bussed away from the coast, if not thousands. But to my knowledge not one immigrant got on the bus. Most of the people stayed home, stayed in their homes. A number of people did drive by car in different directions, to Alabama and up this way to Jackson. You know, we’re about 150 miles from the coast, and, you know, we’re taking refuge up here, but it was apparent that the majority of people stayed on the coast. And because of that, we put on a campaign to get Mississippi Public Broadcasting, which is the main public radio system and disaster system, which broadcasts only in English, to get them to put Spanish and Vietnamese language.

JAY: And what happened with those guys?

CHANDLER: Well, they were reluctant. Of course, the first person I talked to said, well, they couldn’t do it, because it would alienate their listenership. But eventually they started putting the Spanish-language announcements on. And then, to his credit, the only local TV station on the Gulf Coast really helped a lot by putting regular messages in both Vietnamese and Spanish out for people. So people knew what was going on because of the TV station.

JAY: During the raid, the big raid where 481 workers were arrested, did they arrest the management of the company for hiring undocumented workers?

CHANDLER: Well, they haven’t done that, and, you know, as always, under the so-called employer sanction laws that we have here in the United States, they really have not done that in any significant way. I remember before the big marches on May 1, 2006 they had arrested some of the executives of IFCO, a major pallet manufacturer, where they had simultaneous raids all over the country that we believe were designed to dampen the enthusiasm of the marchers on May 1 of that year.

JAY: Now, what was the attitude of the unions towards these arrests? ‘Cause, just to inform people, the big plant that we’re talking about in fact was a unionized plant.

CHANDLER: Yeah, there was a union—or there is a union inside Howard Industries. It’s the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And they were totally unprepared for the raid. However, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Laborers Union, which represent about 50 percent of the food processing industry in Mississippi, was very prepared and had been cooperating with us for a long, long time in educating immigrants to their rights, and particularly undocumented workers about their rights should they encounter ICE or border patrol agents.

JAY: Now, it does not take one to be a rocket scientist or a weather expert to know the storm season is coming, and just a few days ago everyone knew big storms were on the way. Was this just a non-factor for the people doing these raids?

CHANDLER: I don’t think the storm was any part of the decision to raid Howard. However, what I think was part of the decision was the reality that our organization, which is half immigrant and half African-American, has been aggressively working to connect the community, so that they can take advantage of the fact that very shortly Mississippi is going to become a majority-of-people-of-color state. We have between 35 to 40 percent African-American population, and in the next ten years we expect the immigrant population, particularly Latinos, to pass 10 percent of the population. And the powers-that-be here have seen that coming, and much like the previous raids in other states, they’re trying to head off, I think, a combination of, in our state, you know, the coalition building that has been going on between African-Americans and Latinos in particular, but also the fact that this plant’s workers were preparing for contract negotiations. And like Swift in the Midwest, and the Postville, Iowa, raid, and the raid in Massachusetts, and the raids that have taken place in North Carolina, all of them have been focused on plants where either there’s a strong union or a union coming back to life, or where workers are organizing unions. And I think that has a lot to do with what was going on. And then I think the timing was designed to coincide with the Democratic Convention that was going on last week.

JAY: Alright, Bill. Well, we hope to talk to you again, particularly on this whole issue of union organizing in Mississippi. And Bill Chandler is the executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, and he joins us from Jackson, Mississippi. Thanks a lot for joining us, Bill.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Bill Chandler, Founding Executive Director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) and a long time labour organizer.