Photo essay: Black and brown together in Mississippi

By David Bacon

Laurel, Mississippi is a town where many Mexican immigrants have arrived to work in poultry plants over the last decade, developing relations with African Americans who also work in the plants. La Veracruzana market and restaurant is named after the home state of many immigrants. Nearby, the Michoacana market sells religious statues. At the Veracruzana, Frank Curiel, an organiser for the Laborers Union and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, talks with owner Samuel Holguin. Down the street is.a motel where Mexican poultry workers live.

Jerry Ball is an African American poultry plant worker, and union steward at Pico Foods for the Laborer's Union. His hands suffer from carpal tunnel, and show the impact of 13 years on the line in the plant. Jim Evans, chair of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, is the head of the Black Caucus in the state legislature, and is the AFL-CIO representative for the state of Mississippi.

The photographs are part of a documentary project on the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. An article about MIRA was published in The American Prospect, available at

More photographs in the series are at

For more articles and images on immigration, see
See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US, Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)
See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)

David Bacon, photographs and stories

The American Prospect, March 2008

In Mississippi, African American leaders are the foremost champions of the
state's growing Latino immigrant population. Some day soon, they hope, the
new alliance will transform the state's politics.

In 1991, seeking to boost its never robust economy, the state of
Mississippi passed a law permitting casino gambling. In short order,
immigrant construction workers arrived from Florida to build the casinos,
and the casinos themselves began using contractors to supply immigrants to
meet their growing labor needs. Guest workers, eventually numbering in the
thousands, were brought under the H-2B program to fill many of the jobs
the developments created.

Throughout the 1990s more immigrants arrived looking for work. Some guest
workers overstayed their visas, while husbands brought wives, cousins, and
friends from home. Mexicans and Central Americans joined South and
Southeast Asians and began traveling north through the state, finding jobs
in rural poultry plants. There they met African Americans, many of whom
had fought hard campaigns to organize unions for chicken and catfish
workers over the preceding decade.

It was not easy for newcomers to fit in. Their union representatives
didn't speak their languages. When workers got pulled over by state
troopers they were not only cited for lacking driver's licenses but also
often handed over to the U.S. Border Patrol. Sometimes their children
weren't even allowed to enroll in school.

"We decided that the place to start was trying to get a bill passed
allowing everyone to get driver's licenses, regardless of who they were or
where they came from," says Jim Evans, the AFL-CIO's state organizer and
leader of the black caucus in the state legislature. In the fall of 2000,
labor, church, and civil-rights activists formed an impromptu coalition
and went to the legislature. At the core of the coalition were activists
who had organized Mississippi's state workers and a growing caucus of
black legislators sympathetic to labor. Evans, a former organizer for the
National Football League Players Association, headed the group on the
House side, while Sen. Alice Harden, who had led a state teachers' strike
in 1986, organized the vote in the Senate.

Harden's efforts bore fruit when the driver's license bill passed the
Senate unanimously in 2001. "But they saw us coming in the House and
killed it," says Bill Chandler, at the time political director for the
casino union, UNITE HERE. Nevertheless, the close fight convinced them
that a coalition supporting immigrants' rights had a wide potential base
of support and could help change the state's political landscape. In a
meeting that November, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA)
was born.

One day soon, that black-brown-labor coalition might just be able to
transform Mississippi's politics.

In big u.s. cities African Americans and immigrants, especially Latinos,
often are divided by fears that any gain in jobs or political clout by one
group can only come at the expense of the other. In Mississippi, African
American political leaders and immigrant organizers favor a different
calculation: Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power.

Since 2000, all three have cooperated in organizing one of the country's
most active immigrants' rights coalitions, the MIRA. "You will always find
folks reluctant to get involved, who say, it's not part of our mission,
that immigrants are taking our jobs," Evans says. "But we all have the
same rights and justice cause."

Evans, whose booming basso profundo comes straight out of the pulpit,
remembers his father riding shotgun for Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader
slain by racists in 1963. He believes organizing immigrants is a direct
continuation of Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Poor People's March on
Washington. "To get to peace and freedom," Evans says, "you must come
through the door of truth and justice."

Both Evans, who chairs the MIRA, and Chandler, who is now its executive
director, believe social justice and political practicality converge in
the state's changing demographics. Long before World War II, Mississippi,
like most Southern states, began to lose its black population.
Out-migration reached its peak in the 1960s, when 66,614 African Americans
left between 1965 and 1970, while civil-rights activists were murdered,
hosed, and sent to jail. But in the following decades, as Midwestern
industrial jobs began to move overseas and the cost of living in Northern
cities skyrocketed, the flow began to reverse.

>From 1995 to 2000, the state capital, Jackson, gained 3,600 black
residents. In the 2000 census, African Americans made up more than 36
percent of Mississippi's 2.8 million residents-a percentage that is no
doubt higher today. And while immigrants were statistically insignificant
two decades ago, today they comprise more than 4.5 percent of
Mississippi's total population, according to news reports. "Immigrants are
always undercounted, but I think they're now about 130,000, and they'll be
10 percent of the population 10 years from now," Chandler predicts.

That's still less than in the four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico,
and Texas) and the District of Columbia where some combination of blacks,
Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans already make up the majority. But
MIRA activists see one other big advantage in Mississippi. "We have the
chance here to avoid the rivalry that plagues Los Angeles and build real
power," says Chandler, who left East L.A. and the farm workers' movement
decades ago to come to the South. "But we have to fight racism from the
beginning and recognize the leadership of the African American community."
Eric Fleming, an MIRA staff member and former state legislator who
recently filed for the Democratic nomination to replace Sen. Trent Lott,
believes, "We can stop Mississippi from making the same mistakes others
have made."

The same calculus can also apply across the South, which is now the entry
point for a third of all new immigrants into the U.S. Four decades ago,
President Richard Nixon brought the South's white power structure,
threatened by civil rights, into the Republican Party. President Ronald
Reagan celebrated that achievement at the Confederate monument at
Georgia's Stone Mountain. "[Progressive] funders and the Democratic Party
have written off much of the South since then," says Gerald Lenoir of
California's Black Alliance for Just Immigration. But MIRA-type alliances
could transform the region, he hopes, "and change the politics of this
country as a whole."

The MIRA is the fruit of strategic thinking among a diverse
group that reaches from African American workers on catfish
farms and immigrant union organizers in chicken plants to guest
workers and contract laborers on the Gulf Coast and,
ultimately, into the halls of the state legislature in Jackson.

Chandler, who had been organizing state employees for the
Communication Workers, went to work for the hotel union, UNITE HERE,
and helped win union recognition in three Mississippi casinos. In 2005
in Las Vegas, the union was renegotiating its contract covering
Harrah's Las Vegas operations. Harrah's also owned two Mississippi
casinos in Tunica and one that was destroyed and later rebuilt in
Gulfport. With the threat of a Nevada strike in the air, Harrah's
agreed to a card-check process for union recognition in Mississippi,
and eventually signed contracts covering the three casinos there at
the end of that year, although temporary, contract, and H-2B workers
were not covered.

To build a grassroots base, MIRA volunteers also went into chicken
plants to help recruit newly arrived immigrants into unions.
Mississippi is a right-to-work state, and union membership is not
mandatory in workplaces with union contracts. Frank Curiel, a
Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) representative
who worked with the United Farm Workers for many years, says, "MIRA
put the LIUNA business manager and a UFCW [United Food and Commercial
Workers] rep on the board because we wanted them to understand the
role of the union in representing Latinos-they had contracts in
chicken and fish plants." In one plant, Curiel signed up 80 percent of
the newly arrived immigrants, while in two others, an MIRA student
volunteer from the University of Texas signed up every Latino worker
in two weeks.

The unions' work wasn't confined to fighting grievances or
recruiting new members; immigrant workers had much bigger
problems. "There was a pretty repressive system in Laurel,
Collins, and Hattiesburg," Curiel recalls. "Plants had contracts
with temp agencies, and all the workers were undocumented. It was
very hard to get a new contract because of the surplus of Latino
labor and low membership." But by building a combined membership
of immigrant and African American workers, union negotiators in
one plant forced the company to get rid of the temp service and
hire employees directly. "That meant that African Americans gained
access to those jobs, too," Curiel emphasizes.

In the casinos, MIRA volunteers worked with UNITE HERE organizers.
In Jackson, the coalition got six bills passed the following year,
stopping schools from requiring Social Security numbers from
immigrant parents, and winning in-state tuition for any student
who had spent four years in a Mississippi high school. Then
Katrina hit the Gulf.

Vicky Cintra, a cuban american with a soft Southern accent, was the MIRA's
first full-time organizer and got her baptism of fire on the Gulf Coast.
After the hurricane blew through Biloxi and Gulfport, contractors began
pouring in to do reconstruction, bringing with them crews of workers.

Cintra handed out 10,000 flyers with the MIRA's phone number, and
the calls flooded in. Thirty-five workers abandoned by their
contractor in dilapidated trailers received blankets and food. When
two Red Cross shelters evicted Latinos, even putting a man in a
wheelchair onto the street, the national news media reported on
Cintra's efforts on behalf of the immigrants. "For the next year we
were just reacting to emergencies," she recalls. The MIRA fought
evictions and the cases of workers cheated by employers. "When we
threatened picket lines, the contractors would sometimes offer to
pay Latinos, but we said everyone had to be treated equally, and
got money for African Americans and whites, too."

The MIRA eventually recovered over a million dollars. "And this was
while the federal government had said it wouldn't enforce labor
standards, OSHA, Davis Bacon, or any other law protecting workers,"
Cintra says. "Really, it had been like this for years, but Katrina just
tore the veil away." The key to the MIRA's success, she believes, was
that "we engaged workers in direct action. Eventually the contractors
and companies settling in Mississippi got the idea that workers have
rights and were getting organized."

MIRA volunteers also began to hear that guest workers were being
recruited in India, not for reconstruction, but for the main industry
on the Gulf-ship building. Working in the shipyards has always been
dirty, dangerous, and segregated. Jaribu Hill, an MIRA board member,
accuses the yards of putting "hundreds of black women into the worst
cleaner jobs in the bottom of the ship. And when we get organized and
outspoken, the boss starts looking for people who are more grateful,
and more vulnerable."

In late 2006, 300 guest workers arrived at the Pascagoula yard of
Signal International, which makes huge floating oil rigs for the
offshore fields in the Gulf. They'd been hired in India by a labor
recruiter and given H-2B visas, good for 10 months. Signal charged the
workers $35 per day for the privilege of living in a labor camp located
within the shipyard.

"Twenty-four of us live in a small room, 12 feet by 18 feet, sleeping on
bunk beds," Joseph Jacob, one of the worker leaders, says. "There are two
toilets for all of us, and we have to get up at 3:30 in the morning to
have enough time to use the bathroom before going to work."

Signal put the Indian guest workers to work in the yard alongside U.S.
workers doing the same job, and claimed it paid them the same wages. The
guest workers say they were promised $18 an hour, but many were paid only
half that after the company said they were unqualified. Signal CEO Dick
Marler admits the company reclassified some workers after they had
arrived, from first- to second-class welders, and then reduced their
wages. Signal deemed six of the workers incapable and announced that it
would send them back to India-a move that portended financial ruin for the

The MIRA asked a Hindi-speaking organizer from the New Orleans
Workers' Center for Racial Justice, Sakhet Soni, to come to
Pascagoula. Together they helped workers organize Signal H-2B
Workers United. Jacob was fired "because I attended the meetings,"
he says. "That's what the company vice president told me." Marler
denies this.

On the day the six workers were discharged, company security guards
locked them in what they call the TV Room and wouldn't let them
leave. The MIRA went to the Pascagoula Police Department, and the
police went out to the yard and eventually freed the workers.
Outside the yard, dozens of workers and activists denounced the
firings and mistreatment. The MIRA organized picket lines, and its
attorney, Patricia Ice, started a legal defense campaign with the
Southern Poverty Law Center.

The company said it had used the H-2B system because it couldn't
find enough workers after the hurricane. Other contractors have
used the same rationale. "We've learned about case after case of
workers in Mississippi, Louisiana, and all along the Gulf in these
conditions," Chandler says. "There are thousands of guest workers
who have been brought in since Katrina and subjected to this same
treatment. Mexican guest workers in Amelia, Louisiana, were held
in the same way. They also got organized and came to Pascagoula to
support the workers here when they heard what happened."

Organizing guest workers is part of an effort to build an MIRA
membership among immigrants themselves. MIRA members get an ID card and
agree to come to demonstrations and help others. When the national
immigrant marches began in the spring of 2006, MIRA members and
volunteers mobilized thousands of people for a rally in Jackson and
even a march in Laurel, a poultry town of 18,881 people with a
progressive black mayor. "There's still a lot of anti-immigrant
sentiment here," Cintra says, "but when people give the police their ID
card they get treated with more respect, because they know their rights
and have some support." Curiel says the same thing: "In Kentucky,
outside of Louisville, Latinos are afraid to go out into the street. In
Mississippi it's different."

Not always that different, however. In Laurel and many other
Mississippi towns, police still set up roadblocks to trap immigrants
without licenses. "They take us away in handcuffs, and we have to pay
over $1000 to get out of jail and get our cars back," says chicken
plant worker Elisa Reyes. And the way the state's Council of
Conservative Citizens demonizes immigrants is reminiscent of the
language of its predecessor-the White Citizens' Councils. Its Web
site urges, "The CofCC not only fights for European rights, but also
for Confederate Heritage, fights against illegal immigration, fights
against gun control, fights against abortion, fights against gay
rights etc. ... so join up!!!" The state's chapter of the Federation
for Immigration Reform and Enforcement brought the Minutemen's Chris
Simcox out from California to recruit at anti-immigrant meetings.

During the 2007 Mississippi elections for governor and state
legislators, the Ku Klux Klan held a 500-person rally in front of
the Lee County Courthouse in Tupelo. They wore the old white hoods
and robes and carried signs saying, "Stop the Latino Invasion."
Their presence was so intimidating that Ricky Cummings, a generally
progressive Democrat running for re-election to the State House of
Representatives, voted for some of the anti-immigrant bills in the
legislature. When MIRA leaders challenged him, he told them that
Klan-generated calls had "worn out his cell phone."

The Klan's Web site says, "Its time to declare war on these
illegal mexican's. ... The racial war is among us, will you fight
with us for the future of our race and for our children? Or will
you sit on your ass and do nothing? Our blissful ignorance is
over. It is time to fight. Time for Mexico and Mexicans to get the
hell out!!!" The Web site also has links to the site of the
Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement
directed by Mike Lott, who sits in the state legislature, and the
state affiliate of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In 2007 Republicans introduced 21 anti-immigrant bills into the
Mississippi Legislature, including ones to impose state penalties
on employers who hire undocumented workers, English-only
requirements on state license and benefit applicants, to prohibit
undocumented students at state universities, and to require local
police to check immigration status. Mike Lott sponsored many of
these bills.

The MIRA, however, defeated all of the proposed laws. "The black caucus
stood behind us every time," Evans says proudly. There are no immigrant
or Latino legislators. Without the caucus, all 21 bills would have
passed in 2007, as would have 19 similar bills in 2006.

The caucus didn't just wage a "vote no" campaign. It also proposed a
series of pro-worker measures that would have abolished at-will
employment (the doctrine that says employers don't need any
justification for terminating workers), provided interpreters, and
established a state department of labor (Mississippi is the only
state without one). While these bills didn't pass, either, the
difference between the caucus' and the Republicans' agendas is as
clear as black and white, or perhaps, black/brown and white.

Although the political coalition in which the MIRA participates is
powerful enough to stop the worst proposals, it isn't yet powerful
enough to elect a legislative majority. Changing demographics is
one element of a strategy to change that political terrain, but
numbers alone aren't enough. Chandler describes three factions in
the state's Democratic party-the black caucus at one end, white
conservatives hanging on at the other, and "liberals who will do
whatever they have to do to get elected" in the middle.

After some Democratic candidates campaigned in 2007 on an
anti-immigrant platform, the MIRA wrote a letter in protest to
Howard Dean, national chair of the Democratic Party. Those tactics,
it said, were undermining the only strategy capable of changing the
state's politics. "The attacks on Latinos, initiated by Republican
Phil Bryant a year and a half ago, and joined by other Republicans,
are now being echoed by Democrats like John Arthur Eaves [the
party's gubernatorial candidate] and Jamie Franks [its candidate
for lieutenant governor]," the letter said. State party leaders who
"would go along to be accepted, rather than show the courage
necessary for positive change ... are peddling racist lies against
immigrants that violate the core of the party's progressive agenda.
We do not need politicians whose only concern is getting elected.
We need leaders who will represent the best interests of all the
working people of Mississippi."

Despite their anti- immigrant rhetoric, both Eaves' and Franks'
campaigns were unsuccessful. Conservative Republican Haley Barbour
was returned to the governor's mansion and Phil Bryant was elected
lieutenant governor. Democrat Jim Hood, however, was re-elected
attorney general, with a higher vote total than either Eaves or
Franks. He was the only Democratic statewide candidate who did not
mount an anti-immigrant campaign and who had earlier been convinced
by the AFL-CIO's Jim Evans not to support anti-immigrant bills in
the legislature.

In December 2007, Trent Lott suddenly resigned his U.S. Senate seat only a
year after being re-elected to a fourth term. Barbour appointed
conservative Republican Rep. Roger Wicker to fill the vacancy, and set the
vote to choose a permanent replacement for the November 2008 general

"We can't rely just on the demographic shift to win," says MIRA's
Fleming, who plans to run for the seat. He notes that a winning
majority in Mississippi would require about 80 percent of the African
American vote, 20 percent to 25 percent of the white vote, and all of
the growing vote of immigrants and other people of color. "But
demographics makes it a viable race. We live in a conservative state
where people don't accept new ideas easily, so the challenge for
progressives is that we have to campaign and educate people at the
same time. If we want people to move out of their comfort zone, we
need a powerful message."

In Mississippi, that message focuses on jobs, health care,
affordable housing, and the basic economic issues affecting
working people in a state with one of the nation's lowest
standards of living and lowest levels of social services.
Immigration issues, Fleming says, are not some toxic topic to be
avoided at all costs. "If we talk about it in the context of
protecting jobs, wages, and rights for everyone, it's something
that can bring us together."

Finding common ground among immigrants, African Americans, and labor is
the pillar of the MIRA's long-term strategy. Jaribu Hill of the MIRA
and executive director of the Mississippi's Workers' Center, has
launched her own bid for election to the legislature as a Democrat and
argues that winning in the South requires open discussion of race and
civil rights, even if it makes established institutions-including
unions-uncomfortable. Before she can start any campaign in the fish
plants where the workers' center is active, she says, "we have to talk
about racism. The union focuses on the contract, but skin color issues
are also on the table."

To organize a multiracial workforce, the divisions between African
Americans and immigrants need to be recognized and discussed, Hill
insists. "We're coming together like a marriage, working across our
divides," she says. Rhetoric calling the current immigrant-rights
movement the "new civil-rights movement" doesn't describe those
relations accurately, however. "Our conditions as African Americans are
the direct result of slavery. Immigrants have come here looking for
better lives-we came in chains," Hill says. "Today Frito Lay wages in
Mississippi are still much lower than [in] Illinois-$8.75 to $13.75 an
hour. This is the evolution of a historical oppression."

Immigrants, when they, too, are paid that lower wage, are entering
an economic system that reproduces discrimination and tiers of
inequality originally established to control and profit from black
labor. They inherit a second-class status that developed before
they arrived.

Jean Damu, a writer and member of the Black Alliance for Just
Immigration, also warns that drawing a parallel between the
situations of blacks and immigrants has its limits. "After all, who
would want to claim that deporting someone to Mexico is the same as
returning them to slavery?" he asks. "But the similarities are
powerful enough to convince many African Americans that it is in
their best self-interest to support those who struggle against black
people's historic enemies."

For all the differences, Hill still sees a common ground of
experience. "We're both victims of colonialism, we're both
second-class citizens denied our rights. If people could see how
African American people live here, they'd see it's like Bolivia or
Jamaica. On the other hand, it's important for African Americans
to understand why people come here-because of what's happening in
the countries they come from. If people had a choice, if they
could live like human beings, they wouldn't have to risk their
lives to get here. I don't believe any human being can be

© 2008 by The American Prospect, Inc.

David Bacon is a California writer and photographer. His new book, Illegal
People: How Globalization Causes Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,
will be published by Beacon Press this fall. To preorder, call:


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