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Ermelia is a single mother, who worked as a chicken cutter at the Pearl River Foods plant in Carthage, Mississippi: She was responsible for slicing the breasts into tenders. The faster she worked, the more she made — workers like her get paid by the pound, not by the hour, and she earned $11 for each 75-pound box she filled.
But less than an hour after Ermelia’s shift began last Tuesday, ICE agents stormed the plant and arrested the 30-year-old and dozens of her coworkers.
“I heard knives drop, boxes fall, and I saw a woman running — she fell on the ground, she slipped,” said Ermelia, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym to protect her identity. “I thought, ‘My God, what will happen to my son?’ I tried to run, but I couldn’t go anywhere.”
For Ermelia and the roughly 680 others arrested last week at seven chicken plants across central Mississippi, the trouble is just beginning. They don’t just have to fight to stay in the country. They also need to figure out how to afford rent, bills, and groceries for their families while they wait for their cases to be completed. That could take months or even years.
And the donations being gathered by the community only help so much, for as long as people are willing to give.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do now that I have this thing on my leg,” said Estela, a Guatemalan immigrant who was also arrested at the Pearl River plant. “Nothing is free: We pay for our groceries, our rent, our bills."
"I don’t know what we’re going to do now that I have this thing on my leg."
Estela has lived in the U.S. for 11 years, but now, she has to walk around her community with an ankle monitor and can no longer work. Though her husband is still employed at another plant, she’s worried about how they’ll be able to provide for their young son now that the family’s income has been cut in half — and she fears that ICE will come for her husband next.
“I’m afraid to leave my house now. I’m afraid that [ICE] will follow us when we get in the car,” she told VICE News at a barbecue for undocumented families set up by a local church.
“We brought rice, we brought black beans”
Shortly after the news of the arrests spread, Forest, a city of about 5,600 with a sizable Hispanic population, stepped up to help. One church, Trinity Methodist, has now become the defacto relief center for the hundreds of people arrested last Tuesday. There, parishioners began collecting donations — mainly food, hygienic supplies, and clothing — to distribute to families affected by the arrests.
“For us, in that exact moment, we thought, ‘Now what? What are we going to do with these families, our families?’” said Dorcas Matias, a spiritual leader at Trinity.
The center is organized chaos: One room is so full of the supplies people have donated that it resembles a warehouse. In an adjoining, smaller room, volunteers sort food, toiletries, and baby products into boxes. Yet another volunteer sits outside the rooms and handles intake. She asks to see families’ immigration paperwork to confirm they were affected by the raids and then asks what products they need.
Forest is by no means a wealthy city: The median household income is roughly $26,500, and more than one-third of its residents live below the federal poverty line. The first donations came from members of the community, including local business owners and religious leaders whose own families were caught up in the raids. But the help quickly began pouring in from elsewhere in the state, and eventually across state lines.
After hearing about the raids on NPR, Louisiana real estate broker Jak Kunstler decided to drive from Baton Rouge to Forest in a rented semi-truck full of supplies.
“I tossed and turned all night and thought, ‘Well, I can’t do anything politically, but I can do something to help these people and see that they have food,’” he told VICE News.
Kunstler contacted a Forest local who had posted about the donation drive on Facebook and asked what supplies were most needed. Then, he and a friend loaded the supplies onto the rented truck and made the drive to Forest, where a team of volunteers unloaded everything.
“We brought rice, we brought black beans, we brought tortillas, we brought sugar, we brought fruit drinks, cupcakes,” he said. I bought every corn tortilla that Sam's [Club] in Baton Rouge had,” Kuntsler said.
Silvia, a Guatemalan woman who has lived in Carthage for 11 years, is already worried about how she’ll be able to pay next month’s rent. The 36-year-old mother wasn’t arrested — she left her job at the Pearl River plant about three months ago because of a debilitating eye condition — but her husband was, and she has no idea when he’ll be released from ICE detention.
Trinity’s barbecue on Friday was an opportunity for Silvia to catch up with friends whose families had also been affected by the raids. She also grabbed a box of groceries and hygienic supplies, which she fears she’ll no longer be able to afford now that her husband is gone.
“He's the only one supporting us. He's paying our rent. I've been going to the doctor, and he's the one who drives me, since I can hardly drive anymore because of my eyes,” she told VICE News from her small living room, while her two children played on the tile floor and watched television.
The kids, especially Silvia’s 6-year-old son, won’t stop asking where their dad went. She met with lawyers who were volunteering at a Catholic church in Carthage to discuss his case, and though she’s hopeful that he’ll be released soon, she’s also afraid of what’s to come.
“There's a massive hole now,” she said. “It's like he's dead. It's not fair that immigration did this. It's like a kidnapping. They just took them all.”
The help will only last so long
Trinity is more than a center for donations: It’s become a gathering place for the community. During the week, half the church campus turns into a makeshift legal center, where lawyers from several nonprofits, including the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, provide assistance to people whose families were affected by the raids.
Volunteers provide lunch and dinner to those waiting to meet with lawyers — not just because they’re suddenly in need of food but so they feel like they aren’t alone.
The Scott County Baptist Association has also begun collecting supplies and, like Trinity, launched a fundraiser for the affected families. On Sunday, the association’s crisis center was a hub of activity, with about two dozen volunteers sorting donated food, diapers, and hygienic supplies to begin distributing the following day.
Hugo Villegas, the pastor of the Iglesia Buen Pastor, said the hardest part is figuring out how to manage donations in the long term. Approximately 20 members of his congregation were arrested, he said, and all but two of them have been released to their families. But like the donation center at Trinity, the Baptist Association’s resource center isn’t just gathering supplies for members of its congregation alone.
“We won't get this level of donations in a few months, obviously. Right now, the solidarity is strong,” Villegas told VICE News. “People will still have needs after a month, two months, three months — we don't know how long — so we need to administer the supplies well and distribute them slowly, over time.”
Cover image: Silvia, whose husband was arrested at the Pearl River Foods plant, and her two children, ages 1 and 6. (Gaby del Valle/VICE News)