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In Mississippi, Latinos Rebuild The Coast and Revitalize The Economy, But Are Still Targeted by Harsh Raids

Since 2005, Hispanics have been pouring into Mississippi, helping to rebuild the coast and comprising a vital force in the state's economy.
 
 
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 Editor's Note:Marcello Ballve's reporting series on Latino population growth across the country is a collaboration between New America Media and impreMedia's "The Future is Now" project about the U.S. census.

LAUREL, Mississippi - After the destruction caused to southern Mississippi by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hispanic workers helped the state rebuild itself. Though Hispanic immigrants had been arriving in Mississippi since the 1990s to work in pine plantations and poultry plants, it was after Katrina that Hispanics truly began to be a visible presence in many communities.

It wasn't only construction firms offering work. In Laurel, Mississippi, one of the state's largest employers, Howard Industries, a maker of electrical equipment, also experienced a surge of orders and turned to Hispanic labor. "After Katrina, a lot of Hispanics started at Howard," said Angelica Olmedo, a former employee.

The Census counts confirm there was an immigrant influx after the August 2005 hurricane. The number of Hispanics in Mississippi was 39,569 in 2000 and only slightly higher at 41,495 in 2004. But six years later in 2010 the number had jumped to 81,481, or 3% of Mississippi's population. Overall, the Hispanic population grew 106% between 2000 and 2010.

"With every passing day there were more and more of us," remembered Elisa Reyes, a former poultry worker in Laurel.

Mayor Melvin Mack said that thanks to the newcomers Laurel enjoyed growth in tax revenues, seeing more sales taxes from the local Wal-Mart and new Hispanic markets like La Michoacana.

Despite their significant role in many local economies, many Hispanics earn low wages. A University of Georgia study based on the Census Bureau's 2004 American Community Survey said 68% of Mississippi's Mexican immigrants earned less than $30,000 annually.

The county with the most Latinos in Mississippi is Harrison County on the Gulf Coast surrounding Gulfport, with 9,937, followed by DeSoto County in the north near Memphis with 8,086. But Jackson County near Biloxi, also on the coast, and Hinds and Rankin counties around the capital city Jackson also have significant Latino populations.

So do counties surrounding smaller towns like Laurel (Jones County around Laurel had 3,199 Hispanics) and Canton, which have major poultry plants.

According to a Pew Hispanic Center report, 25,000 undocumented immigrants worked in Mississippi in 2008, with jobs in small industry, construction, services, and poultry processing.

Notwithstanding the contributions of Hispanics to Mississippi's economy, they are often made to feel unwelcome. At the start of 2011, state lawmakers almost passed SB 2179, a bill that like Arizona's SB 1070 criminalizes undocumented immigrants.

The bill was only defeated at the last minute when Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on a final version after similar bills had passed both houses.

The bill would have required Mississippi law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of people detained in any "stop, arrest, or detention" and would have created a state offense for failure to carry "an alien registration document."

Advocates point out that despite the anti-immigrant climate, immigrants of all types are becoming more integrated in Mississippi. A full eighty-five percent of children in the state's immigrant families are U.S. citizens, according to a 2007 study by the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the University of Albany.

Besides the state-level anti-immigrant policies there have also been large ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids, like the 2008 raid at Howard Industries in Laurel that led to the arrest of almost 600 undocumented immigrants. This year, there were raids on Ash Wednesday in several towns, including Pearl, Carthage, Canton and Raymond.

Some Mississippi locals ask whether it's fair to target Hispanic immigrants with raids and harsh laws when they did so much to help the state recover after the hurricane.

"They built the coast back," said Mary "Frankie" Sumrall, a resident of Ellisville near Laurel. "They helped Mississippi in so many ways. And then when we get through with them [we] kick them in the butt."

Marcelo Ballvé was born in Buenos Aires and currently divides his time between New York City and Latin America. He blogs on arts and literature at Sancho’s Panza and cofounded the community newspaper El Sol de San Telmo.