Immigrant Labor in the “New” Mississippi

I used to live in Los Angeles but now I live in a small town called Tupelo, Mississippi, a place in which everyone idolizes Elvis. I’m here because I racked up student loans, couldn’t find a full-time job in nice, warm Los Angeles and needed to be able to afford my basic necessities and help my family out. Moving here was like a slap in the face.

I had been heavily involved in activism in college and tried to at least maintain community ties and assist with community movements and events when I could after graduation. Social justice was and still is in my blood, but I wound up a slave to The Man. The Man to me is a company called ABC* Furniture Industries Inc. This place, like so many others in Mississippi and the rest of the South is wound up in corruption scandals beyond my wildest imagination.

The conditions for immigrants anywhere are difficult but they’re so different from what I’m used to seeing in Los Angeles that they really scare me sometimes. I’m used to jornaleros, and micas, getting sold in MacArthur Park. Mississippi and other areas in the South are different.

Here, E-Verify ensures that cronies steal identities and sell them to undocumented immigrants at elevated prices. Sadly, some of these cronies are Latinos who are bilingual, have their papeles and find immigrants to be a lucrative form of business. ABC Furniture Industries knows about these transactions. In fact, a lot of supervisors are involved in procuring these identities and selling them to undocumented immigrants and one of them (I will call him Ricardo*) went to jail for this. Ricardo is now a supervisor again. It turns out that he had a collaborator in Human Resources named J who would steal the information while Ricardo would make the fake I.D.s in his computer. Ricardo still sells information, he extorts employees every week and it’s like nothing ever happens. The employees he commits these crimes against are too afraid to talk. I have not reported him because he leaves no paper trail, and because the employees who were brave enough to explain how the scheme works requested that I don’t. And so I will not speak in their name because they are afraid, and I respect their wishes.

Working as a translator for Human Resources at ABC Furniture Industries (though I have been trying to find more a socially responsible job), the worst part of my job is having to tell people that their information mismatches the information on E-Verify. When this happens, the person’s job offer gets rescinded. I have seen people enter and try to get hired using two or three different names and it’s always sad to see them go. I know in my heart that if E-Verify didn’t exist, the people in question would not have to go through this. But keeping a job after the E-Verify process is over is no walk in the park either.

The furniture industry is full of very difficult jobs and the place I work in very fast-paced. There are dangerous machines everywhere and because this is the South, the factory I work in has employees who have a substandard education, a product of the racist/classist system at work, of course. The lack of certain skills makes it difficult for some people to understand the basic training manuals and safety guidelines. The place I work at is strictly anti-union and the management and HR reps are known to be corrupt, and they are known to treat people like garbage, so the employees often have no one they can turn to. Because I must feed my own family it is very hard for me to have my activist cap on at work, so I must keep it hidden in my heart. Many of the employees who have gotten to know that I am “different” are understanding enough to know that I can’t change anything for them using factory rules (and as someone who has to repress her socialist/anarchist views, I knew this anyway) and so the only thing I can do is patiently listen to their stories and write them out, then send them out to compassionate people like you who actually want to know what is going on.

The factory employees have truly educated me during their 10 minute breaks and during run-ins during lunch hour. They’d told me about how the police have taken away their entire week’s earnings because the factory I work in has a lot of clout, and if you work here, no one asks you to show I.D. in order for you to cash an ABC Furniture Industries check. Usually it happens like this: cops sit on a road in their car and wait for a Latino to drive by, they ask them to show a driver’s license and if the person doesn’t have one, they ask the person to take out their wallet, then the cop takes away the money or any payroll check and tells them they can go.

I have seen employees come into work with broken fingers, arms and legs, on wheelchairs, with knee injuries and on one occasion, I saw someone come in with an eye patch after a staple pierced her eye. This is something called “light duty” and for some reason I feel it’s not legal, but I was an art student and I know nothing about laws, so I’m stuck on this. A lot of the upholsterers have complained about arthritis and carpal tunnel, which is a direct result of the fast-paced, unsafe conditions at work. Because the employees here get paid based on production, the company also takes away a lot of their money and has terrible payroll practices.

Last week, one of the employees (I will call him Emilio) had an accident that I truly believe will stick with him for the rest of his life. Emilio was the fastest person in his assembly line. He broke his clavicle because he tripped on a cart full of wood (the carts where I work weigh 2500 pounds). He fell on the hard cement and all of his weight somehow fell on his shoulder. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be out. He is undocumented and hurt. I took a big risk in letting him know that I would try to find him a lawyer if he needs to but ONLY if he promises not to let anyone know I am helping him, and ONLY if any contact about this problem occurs outside of work. He agreed to these conditions and told me he’s afraid of speaking out because he has no documents, but that if his arm doesn’t get better, he said he will look for me because he’s sick and tired of the verbal abuse, fast pace, and pain he faces because of work.

I could tell you more, but then I would have to write a book. I hope someday I can speak about these things in front of crowds and let the world know. But most of all, I hope that someday all the exploited workers of the world and their allies can get together to truly end these conditions.

*Names have been changed for worker protection.

You may contact Tamar Libertad Ximénez at mividavaprohibida@gmail.com