Crackdown on immigrants empties a town and hardens views

In Stillmore, Ga., more than 120 illegal migrants were arrested last month.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Department of Homeland Security agents in black SUVs tooled up and down the dirt avenues of Stillmore, Ga., hundreds of undocumented people scattered into the woods like "flushed quail," one witness said.

Many of those who weren't arrested fled, some to Kentucky. One family hid for two nights in a tree. As night sets now, a sprinkling of solitary lights glow from once-crowded trailer parks. Since the Labor Day raid, Stillmore, where the wishful sign at the city limit reads "A town that is still growing," has shrunk by at least a third after more than 120 people were arrested and perhaps as many as 300 others disappeared.

"It's a ghost town," says resident Bennett Byrd.

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As federal, state, and local officials crack down on illegal immigrants across the country, attitudes continue to harden among those who want them to stay and those who want them to go. In places like Stillmore, Ga., Arkadelphia, Ark., and Charlotte, N.C., raids and crackdowns have uncorked a phenomenon for those left behind: a sense of moral confusion about mass roundups and midnight raids.

"There's a tension between working alongside these people, understanding their impact on the economy, and then some of the issues of a community being able or not able to sustain this kind of immigration," says Allan Burns, an anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "People are divided."

In Stillmore, the Crider plant does everything from poultry processing to packing M&Ms for the military to grilling the ribs for restaurant franchises, employees say. In a town of about 1,000 people, more than half of them were working there. The plant's success was driven by a hardworking labor supply that began arriving about four years ago.

Workers had "very good" fake documentation that fooled managers, a Crider plant spokesperson says.

In the town, few complained about the immigration status of the workers as Stillmore, once a thriving train depot, again became a destination. "People got along. The town was growing," says Don Hadden, a local carpenter.

Then, earlier this year, an investigation began by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). ICE agents arrested a Stillmore man in the spring, accusing him of supplying counterfeit documents to workers. The man's records were then used to identify other workers. For 10 weeks, ICE trained company managers to spot forgeries and check Social Security numbers. About 30 people who had not been weeded out by the company were arrested at the plant in an orderly fashion over Labor Day weekend, according to a plant spokesperson.

ICE agents also raided several homes in town. Witnesses say agents popped up through floor boards and broke windows.

"Everything we did [in this investigation] was in accordance with the immigration laws of this country," says Marc Raimondi, DHS spokesman.

But some, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have voiced concerns about the searches.

"Hispanics came to Stillmore and opened up stores that had been closed for years, and now there's a sadness in how they were treated," says Father Vic Subb, who worked for a Catholic ministry in town for six years.

Proponents of immigration law enforcement say the government has a right to get tough on illegal immigrants and those who employ them. Led by Gov. Sonny Perdue, Georgia lawmakers say they will go after people who have broken immigration laws. Georgia has the fastest growing population of illegal immigrants, estimated at 470,000.

"I firmly believe that we [as a nation] are taking in more immigrants than we have the capacity to feed, educate or employ," says D.A. King, president of Dustin Inman Society in Marietta, Ga., which opposes illegal migration of workers across the border.

This year, ICE has rounded up 2,100 people in workplace raids nationwide compared with 1,145 in 2005.

Meanwhile, more communities are signing agreements to work with ICE to undertake deportation proceedings for scofflaws and prisoners. In Charlotte, more than 600 people have been deported through hearings initiated by local officials.

It's a debate that's galvanized Congress. Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas said immigration reform should consider the community impact of enforcement, noting a 2005 raid in Arkadelphia that detained 119 people and left 30 children behind. But last week, Rep. Russell Pearce (R) of Arizona argued for reviving Operation Wetback, the controversial 1950s-era deportation program. To deal with illegal immigration, Congress has so far approved a border fence project.

The law-and-order tack is heightening tensions, experts say.

"Because of [stepped-up raids], you're going to see more pro-immigrant activity, and anti-immigrant folks are going to want even more enforcement," says Bill Hing, an immigration law professor at the University of California, Davis.

In Stillmore, the raids forced Americans to confront their own beliefs. Residents such as Larry Hadden saw friendly and "clean" people invigorating the town's economy. To see them chased "like rabbits" through the underbrush troubled him, as did watching as women and children were left behind without resources.

Others, including resident Carolyn Byrd, see the ICE roundup as justified. Her son, Bennett, was a manager of the Crider plant for years. He said that Hispanics worked harder than anyone else. But they also took jobs, including his.

Now the plant is paying a dollar more an hour than before the raid, to draw new workers from neighboring counties. "With the illegals gone, Americans have a chance to make more money," says Mr. Byrd.

Still, there's a feeling among some that, as the undocumented go, so does the town of Stillmore. "It was very good here, but now I am too sad I can't find a good job," says Samuel Villalobos, an undocumented worker who hid out with his family in his trailer during the raid. "The trailer parks are empty, people leave very, very worried, no income, no money. It's too hard over here. Stillmore is too quiet."

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