Questions Remain After 2005 Plant Raid

Questions Remain After 2005 Plant Raid

By JON GAMBRELL 07.27.07, 11:48 AM ET
Associated Press

The morning shift at the Petit Jean Inc. poultry plant began like the others in Servanda Jacinto's 13-year career there.

The early shift started at 6 a.m. in refrigerated 60-degree air. Workers, many Mexican immigrants to the small Arkansas city, began cutting away at the dead chickens, stripping meat from bones, wings from bodies.

Only this day, July 27, 2005, federal immigration agents stood ready to sweep through the plant. And as the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Jacinto and 118 others bound for deportation, her thoughts fell to her seven children.

“I'm a Christian. I think only of God's promise that if someone has faith in him, all things will turn out well,” Jacinto said in Spanish. “In him I put my faith and if he thinks the best for me would be to leave the country and leave my children behind, then there is not anything else that I can do.”

The raid ripped through a town with a growing Hispanic population filling jobs on the plant's two shifts and cleaning crew. Now, at the second anniversary of the raid, the plant operates near the level it did then, though residual anger and questions remain about what the raid accomplished.

Hispanic immigrants continue to fill rosters of poultry plants throughout the South, taking high-turnover jobs once held by farmers and the working poor. Beginning in the 1980s, the industry became the place where a recent immigrant could hold steady work and earn higher wages than those back home, said Carl Weinberg, a visiting history professor at Indiana's DePauw University.

The wages remain low compared to other industries. A worker at the Arkadelphia plant could earn between $9 and $10 an hour there starting out.

“The work itself is not hard. It's assembly line work. In a sense, it's a disassembly line,” said Ronnie Farnam, a manager at the Arkadelphia plant. “You'll hire 10 people and you'll get two to stay with you.”

For Jacinto, the poultry plant meant steady work for years after crossing the border with four of her children in September 1992. After two months in Texas, she moved to Arkadelphia – just another place on a map to a woman who left her parents behind in central Mexico several years earlier to find work.

Here she worked under a false identity. It wasn't until an Arkadelphia woman admitted selling identity documents and Social Security cards in February 2005 that the raid began to take shape.

That July day, agents herded Jacinto and others to buses for a trip to jail in Texarkana. The workers left behind the plant's 10 lines. Some nightshift employees stopped coming to work.

Beyond losing workers, the raid came as an embarrassment for Petit Jean, a privately owned company that runs two plants in Arkansas. After the raid, Petit Jean president Rick Millsap said “reporters and the government” wanted to paint the Danville-based company as a “bad guy” for employing illegal immigrants.

But Millsap said that wasn't the case at all. The plant vetted every worker through a federal database checking their citizenship and work status, leaving him at a loss to describe what could have failed in the process.

“If the government can pick them up and say this one's legal and this one is illegal, why can't they share that with industry? It's kind of ridiculous,” Millsap said. “You might as well be talking to a wall.”

Nearly all of those arrested faced a quick deportation after appearing before an immigration judge. The raid left more than 30 children without their parents – some of those including the infant children of Jacinto. However, she and several others challenged their deportation.

Jacinto returned to Arkadelphia to care for her children. Unable to work, her family relied on the earnings of her 24-year-old son, as well as donations from the community.

At the plant, Farnam said the company kept hiring new employees, hoping to find those who would stay in the position. After two years, the company has enough employees to run eight of the plant's 10 lines, meeting production goals and rebuilding its image in city.

The company continues to screen its employees, using the same federal database that Millsap criticized. Both Farnam and Millsap declined to allow a reporter to tour the Arkadelphia plant, citing safety concerns.

For Jacinto, the months after the raid saw court hearings and legal filing. But eight months ago, she received residency, allowing her to work in the country she lived in for more than a decade.

On a recent workday, Jacinto swept floors and cleaned cabinets at a Ouachita Baptist University dormitory. She acknowledged she hasn't talked to those who stayed behind to fight their deportation, saying she likely was the only one to receive her green card.

Jacinto knows she was lucky.

“God touched the heart of the judge,” she said, as the smell of industrial cleansers wafted past the dorm's cinderblock walls.