Here in Mississippi, Trump's Brutal Immigration Raids Sting of the Past | Opinion

In 1927, record-breaking heavy rains submerged part of Mississippi in water. The historic flooding of the Mississippi River ravaged homes and destroyed businesses, especially farmland. Farmers who had enjoyed decades of success faced utter destruction by an act of God. And in their time of desperation, black people were their saving grace.

These workers were the linchpin of Mississippi's cotton industry. They were sharecroppers, carpenters, blacksmiths and other hired workers who worked for far less money than their white counterparts would accept. While slavery had long been outlawed, the unjust treatment of black people and exploitation of their labor persisted. Resentment grew among poor white people, who simultaneously benefited and were hindered by their white skin privilege, which prevented them from being exploited in the same ways as black people, but also made them less attractive for labor use and jobs.

Now, the flood threatened to destroy the wealth white landowners had built on cheap labor and racial intimidation. So they found a way for the black workers to reclaim their wealth by forcing them to build the levee that would save their land and restore the economy.

For this back-breaking, grueling labor, the workers were forced to live in concentration camps on the levee and paid $1 per day. An inequitable account would argue that black workers enjoyed the paying jobs and free housing, but, in actuality, they suffered subhuman living conditions and were forced at gunpoint to remain in the Mississippi Delta.

The history of Mississippi is awash with the deep and deliberate labor exploitation of black people and other ethnic minorities, such as Mexican and Chinese migrant workers. Dishonest narrative manipulation paints a picture of black and brown people stealing lucrative jobs, while working-class whites suffered unemployment and poverty. In truth, the employment minorities were able to obtain was neither lucrative nor desirable. Over the course of history, black and brown bodies have been decimated for the economic gain of the elite few. And once industry advancements negated their usefulness, many of these workers were discarded or criminalized. This has always been our story.

So the work site Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids that swept Mississippi beginning on August 7 are painfully reminiscent of the trauma this state has endured for centuries. On the first day of the school year for primary and secondary schools, over 600 of our Hispanic immigrant neighbors were targeted while they performed honest work for which they are paid far too little. They were apprehended and detained while building the wealth of those who care only for their bottom line.

The headlines across the nation immediately focused on the immigrant status of those who were seized from the targeted seven chicken processing plants. While those alarming reports generated tremendous focus on the heinous nature of these raids and horrific separation of parents from their children, they ignored the critical role of the company owners.

Much like the planters who manipulated the fears and debased social status of black people during the 1927 flood, these corporations deliberately seek to employ immigrant workers for less than livable wages, deny those workers support in gaining citizenship and intimidate them from demanding suitable working conditions. The laws levied against our immigrant neighbors preyed on their vulnerability and exploited their status in the same manner as their employers.
While ICE exists as a branch of Homeland Security, the inhumane nature of the raids, which left children without parents to receive them after school and a community in paralyzing fear of losing loved ones, does nothing to increase the safety of anyone in Mississippi.

Instead, people who contribute to the economy of our state and nation were criminalized and left without a means to gain the citizenship they so desperately seek to keep their families safe. ICE officials have attempted to quell the community outcry against their cruelty by claiming that approximately 300 of the originally detained people were released to provide children with at least one parent. However, many of those who remain detained are simply afraid to reveal that they have kids for fear they will be taken away.

To date, no corporation has been reprimanded for its hiring practices, and no legislation has been generated to provide a means for immigrants to secure work visas to legally perform low-skill jobs, like those in chicken processing plants.
Meanwhile, federal indictments are raining down on the immigrants, and the department that is charged with securing the nation is steadily decreasing community trust in law enforcement.

ICE raid Mississippi
Homeland Security Investigations officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement look on after executing search warrants and making arrests at an agricultural processing facility in Canton, Mississippi, on August 7. Courtesy of

Some of my fellow Mississippians have championed the recent raids, lamenting that an immigrant workforce decreases access to jobs for citizens. This faulty logic is also reminiscent of the sentiments of many working-class whites during slavery and well into the early 19th century in this state. The only people who have lost their jobs are those who were ripped from their workplace and denied a way to legally perform them.

As we hear the echoes of a chant to make America great again, one thing is apparent as it pertains to labor practices and policies in this country: America has not gone wrong; it has not ever been right.

While some may chastise and even threaten me for this honest critique, I love my community. I love Mississippi. If you love something enough, you must challenge it to be the best version of itself. We must honestly look at the labor practices of this nation and challenge oppression on every front. Our fight must always be to secure human rights for human beings. We operate with the protection of being correct.

Chokwe A. Lumumba is the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.