The Mississippi immigration raids began at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, August 7. The ICE raids hit seven workplace sites in six towns in central Mississippi, netting 680 workers in the largest mass immigration roundup in US history. Chicken processing plants in Canton, Morton, Walnut Grove, and other small towns were all targets. Hundreds of children lost parents to the raids while they sat in their first day of school.
I answered a call for legal volunteers and that Saturday found myself in Canton in a Catholic church that looked like a hurricane response center. Pallets of food, water and diapers were stacked everywhere. The overwhelming majority of the volunteers were young, female, and racially diverse. As a white guy and as a former Republican, I felt like a defector from the other side.
I was deployed to Walnut Grove, and during the hour-long drive I was reminded of philosophy reading from long ago. Aristotle taught that humans basically undertake three kinds of activities: theoria (thinking); poiesis (making), and praxis (doing). Subsequent thinkers built on this idea and explored different notions of what it means to engage in praxis, in doing, in taking actions that improve our society.
The raids are themselves a form of praxis, in the sense that they effectuate a theory: we must exclude people from America due to our scarce resources and jobs, and people who violate those exclusions should be excluded by force, even if they are peacefully contributing to society.
A darker version of this theory goes further: excluding people from America is vital because they will contaminate us. Deporting them by force not only advances national self-defense but also shoves these inferior peoples’ faces back into the dirt where they belong.
But suppose instead your theory is that American children have a right to live with their parents. If so, the raids are wrong-headed, or even evil. How is this not obvious to anyone who looks?
My team of four quickly become a Due Process squad behind folding tables inside a gymnasium. Ginny Kramer, who runs a one-woman law firm, arrives with authority and an eye for helping people who need it. J.C. Diaz translates for all the applicants at Ginny’s table. Max Harmon has half the local activists on speed-dial and converts my stuttering legalese into Spanish. Before we know it, the walls are lined up with families uncertain, angry, scared, and desperate for answers.
A 15-year-old boy sits in a folding chair and tells us his mother is in custody. He doesn’t know which detention facility she is in. She has diabetes. She can’t take shots; her doctor has prescribed a particular pill. The shots have already been tried and are harmful. ICE is nevertheless giving her shots. “We have a doctor and don’t need the medical history,” ICE told her, so that’s the end of that argument. She will probably be eligible for bond when they get around to hearings in over a month. We finish the intake form. He thanks us for our dedication and he yields his spot to the next applicant.
Another woman sits. She’s lived here since 2002 and has never had an encounter with law enforcement. She’s crying because her husband is their breadwinner and she has no idea what she’s going to do. Nobody knows where her husband is, and ICE isn’t telling. I have to tell her that her husband won’t have a bond hearing for anywhere from three to six weeks, and he will be in detention for all of that time, and we don’t know where he will be — possibly next door in Natchez, possibly Jena in Louisiana, and possibly farther away than that after a week or so.
A man comes and sits at our table. His cousin has been detained in the raid. She’s been deported four times before, including three times trying to cross the border a decade ago. Now she has a child. There’s a very strong possibility that the kid is never touching her mother’s face again inside the United States, if ever. The ex-Republican in me is ablaze, yelling that this is the consequence of breaking the law, that this is irresponsible parenting, and the mom deserves it.
And then I see the seven-year-old girl sitting there and think, is this outcome the best available evil? Can I fault a young person for deciding that if they’re going to have a child they’re going to give her American citizenship? Is sending this mother back to Guatemala actually advancing the national interest? I honestly don’t know.
The next morning we start far earlier, joined by lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Hours pass. We fly right past lunch, uneaten, until finally the gym is cleared of applicants at 3 p.m. I am hunched over the table, catching up notes on the forms, when Max brings me chicken. Of course it would be chicken — deboning and processing this damned bird is what these workers were doing when they were arrested in the first place.
I think about the young, childless citizen of Guatemala who sees the world around him and decides he wants to — has to — get to a place where he can earn a decent living. He communicates with a shady fellow who can get him a fake social security number. The employer has a veneer of deniability but knows the new employee is almost certainly here illegally. But it’s all upside to him — low wages, quiet work staff, and higher profits.
We’re done. The squad dissolves to say its goodbyes, but we have a stack of intake forms that now have to be entered into the database. And there are still loads of applicants in need at the site where these are collected. The rest of the crew dissipates to go home and I redeploy to another Catholic church in Forest, Mississippi.
The entire place is a madhouse. Parking has overflowed. Every square foot of the church has been commandeered by the legal and humanitarian relief effort. The sanctuary is the legal screening zone. We have to move church pews out of the way to make room for lawyers and interpreters to sit at tables. Five junior attorneys with sharp and ambitious and dedicated legal minds are huddled around a table covered with laptops and paper and a power strip, doing data entry of the giant stacks of forms into a Google Sheet.
Detainees released with ankle bracelets sit next to husbands scared they may never see their wives again. Outside, dozens of children play soccer and try very hard to shut everything out. Their uncles or cousins or older sisters are inside to find out what the future may hold for the kids’ parents who are all still in ICE custody God knows where. It is now Sunday night, and some of the detainees have not been heard from at all since the raids; others have been able to call for two minutes, just long enough to say “I love you, and here is the Alien Number I have been assigned.”
I have spent a weekend walking dozens of families through their probable legal outcomes. Tomorrow, in my day job, I am expected to process non-disclosure agreements and cost proposals. Here in Mississippi, a manmade disaster has ruined a community and traumatized children. But back home, tomorrow will be a normal day. As I drive home I’m tempted to say it will be a new normal in Canton and Walnut Grove and Forest and all the other communities that have just been traumatized by this event. But that framing is facile. The trauma isn’t over; it’s going to be prolonged as children and parents struggle to reunite. ICE has created conditions that no child should have to endure. And that is the point: to make children and their parents afraid to stay in or come to the United States.
The Government’s praxis is to inflict trauma on children so that parents in other countries will be deterred from coming. Setting aside the ethics, it simply won’t work, because the theory it advances is not a sound one. The occasional deportation in Mississippi, even of 680 people, will not change the choices in front of a parent in Guatemala with no job prospects, street violence, and a corrupt police force. As they perceive it, they must leave. America is going to be the best option because the probability of being deported is very low unless raids occur on a scale never before seen. Some in the White House may favor that outcome. They should come to Mississippi to explain that to these children, none of whom will need an English translator.