Monday, December 11, 2006

Raid exposes ethnic fault lines
Town grapples with illegal immigrant crackdown

By Dahleen Glanton
Tribune national correspondent
Published December 11, 2006

STILLMORE, Ga. -- In this Southern town nestled amid pine trees and cotton fields, undocumented Mexican immigrants long supplied a stable workforce for a thriving poultry industry and for the onion fields in Vidalia a few miles away.

They lived in run-down trailers or paid up to $350 a month for a bunk bed in a dilapidated hotel or a room in an abandoned house, sometimes without toilets, electricity or running water. Some worked 12 or more hours a day for $6 an hour, on grimy jobs that most locals would not take.

Everyone knew hundreds of undocumented Mexicans were here, yet in many ways they were invisible. They went about their lives in an isolated, Spanish-only sphere they created for themselves, shopping, working and raising children with little or no interaction with citizens.

That changed the Friday before Labor Day, when federal immigration agents descended on Stillmore and surrounding areas just before midnight, entering homes and swarming the Crider chicken processing plant. Over three days, 125 undocumented workers were rounded up and deported, mostly men whose wives fled into the woods and hid for days with small children in tow.

In the aftermath of the raid, Stillmore provides a portrait of the problems communities across America face as they struggle with an influx of illegal immigrants and must pick up the pieces when their towns are on the front lines of the immigration battle.

For many of Stillmore's 730 residents, including some city officials, the raid was long overdue. The community, which holds bake sales to raise money for services, recently took out a loan for a new million-dollar sewer system because the population of illegal immigrants, estimated at more than 300 before the raid, overburdened the old one.

Some residents blame Crider Poultry owner Billy Crider for what has happened in Stillmore. The town has only three other businesses--a Mexican general store, a convenience store and a gas station--and a part-time police force of two.

"They came in here and preyed on us because we are just a small, sleepy town," said City Councilwoman Eddie Dean Allen, a lifelong resident, referring to Crider. "Not one thing has Billy Crider done to help this town, so we don't even consider him a part of the community."

Officials at Crider, one of the largest employers in Emanuel County, said the plant contributes much to the area, and helped Stillmore buy a new fire engine and build a new City Hall.

Others criticized what they called "Gestapo" tactics by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, saying anyone of Mexican descent, including U.S. citizens, was targeted.

Immigration officials said they were targeting known illegal immigrants.

As a new round of fighting over illegal immigration looms in Washington, battles are well under way in towns like Stillmore, where undocumented workers have spent a decade quietly integrating into the rural landscape.

While Congress failed to pass immigration reforms in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security embarked on a get-tough mission that has led to the deportation of 186,600 illegal immigrants this year.

Raids have taken place from California to rural Illinois and from upstate New York to Southern states such as Georgia, which has the fastest-growing illegal immigrant population in the U.S., according to government figures.

As a result, tiny towns once considered havens for immigrants have been disrupted.

Almost everyone here has an opinion about the raid, but there is one thing they all can agree on. The landscape of Stillmore has changed and life will never be the same, not for the longtime citizens who are trying to reclaim their town or the handful of Mexican immigrants left behind.