Before and After
What happens when an immigration raid tears a family apart?
There was a man—call him Max, the name he went by at work, or Pancho, as he was known to his family and friends, or Francisco Garcia-Rodriguez, the name recorded on his birth certificate, or Sealed Defendant 3, the title under which he would eventually be indicted by a grand jury in Texarkana. He was 37 years old and lived in the East Texas town of Mount Pleasant. A father of five, he worked in the mornings and brought his kids to the park in the afternoons. He rooted for the Pumas, a Mexico City soccer team, and took an interest in politics and current events; he was a longtime Reader’s Digest subscriber and had recently plowed through the Spanish translation of Bill Clinton’s autobiography. His job was to load boxes of frozen chicken parts onto trailers at a chicken-processing plant owned by Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, a place locals would often just call Pilgrim’s. He’d worked there for nearly twenty years.
One morning last April, Francisco arrived at the plant, as usual, a little before seven a.m. Right away he sensed that something was amiss. There were very few trailers to load, and his supervisor had a somber look on his face. Fifteen minutes into his shift he was summoned by the superintendent and informed that there was a payroll problem. He would have to go to the human resources office to resolve it. Rather than let him make his own way across the plant complex, the superintendent told Francisco he would drive him.
The superintendent, a tall, skinny white man, said nothing as they walked to his truck. Once in the cab, he asked Francisco how his kids were doing. They’re doing well, Francisco said. Moments earlier, just after he’d opened the passenger door, it had occurred to him that he could make a break for it, but the impulse hadn’t traveled as far as his arms and legs. It was as if he’d gone into shock. He already feared—all but knew—what the trouble was. He was not in the country legally. Yet he reasoned that if people were to look at his record, they’d see that it was clean, that he’d been working at Pilgrim’s for many years, that he had a family to support. He didn’t realize how bad it was going to get.
Before dawn that morning, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had set up a base of operations in an old precinct barn on the edge of town and fanned out in a fleet of sport-utility vehicles. A detachment had established itself within the human resources office at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant, while squads of agents in black police vests, sidearms strapped to their legs, had ranged around Mount Pleasant searching for other workers, supported by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies. At a Victorian house on Third Street they rousted a young woman out of the shower with their banging and kicking, and when she declined to let them in because she was wearing only a towel, they told her to stand by her patio door while they spent the better part of an hour peering in the windows. At Productos Hernandez, a produce market, they trooped around the cartons of onions and chiles, checking the receiving area and the storage cooler and the restroom and the back office. They hit multiple houses on First Street. They surrounded a dingy little duplex at the corner of Arkansas and Lide. They questioned the owner of a Western-wear store as to the whereabouts of a Pilgrim’s employee who earlier, at the plant, had pushed his boss out of the way and fled.
The morning sunshine gave way to clouds. Parents pulled their kids from school. The priest at the Catholic church helped a parishioner’s sister-in-law sneak out the back of a house while agents cased two others on the same street. A mother and her four children took refuge with one of the kids’ science teachers. Other families hid at ranches in the country.
Francisco’s wife, Maria Garcia, was working her 2:30 a.m.-to-11 a.m. shift at a trucking company when her sister-in-law called and told her that ICE had picked up some of the workers at Pilgrim’s. Had Maria heard from her husband? She had not. She called his cell phone, but he didn’t answer. After work she picked up her three-year-old twins from school and went home.
Early in the afternoon, ten or so black-clad agents arrived at the door looking for someone she didn’t know, somebody named Cortez. She let them search the house. Maria was in the U.S. legally, so she didn’t fear for herself. Like many immigrant families, hers was composed of people with different legal statuses. Her husband was illegal, she had a temporary permit, and their children were all citizens—an ordinary enough situation that was about to make her life extraordinarily complicated.
Later on, through the open blinds on the living room window, Maria saw a friend of Francisco’s from work get out of a car holding a small black object—and knew immediately what that meant. Once the friend had left, she thumbed through the contents of her husband’s wallet—pictures of the kids, business cards, driver’s license, company lunch tickets—and then pressed it to her chest and cried. She felt half her body go numb. Still, she fixated on the notion that he might have somehow run away and gone into hiding, even after one of her sisters called and said Francisco had been on the five o’clock news, even after she drove over to her parents’ house and watched the segment on her brother’s computer. Not until Francisco called did she bury the hope that he’d escaped, along with many of the ideas she’d had about her family’s future. All that seemed to have come to an end, she would later recall: “On that day all our goals were shattered into pieces.”
For others in Mount Pleasant, the raid had registered only slightly. It was a handful of agents seen clustered in a parking lot, a spot on the news. Life went on: A tourist from Wales on a cross-country bike trip spent the night at the KOA campground, a school board president resigned, high school boys dressed up as cheerleaders for the annual powder-puff football game. The storm passed, leaving most houses intact and a few ripped apart.
Mount Pleasant is an odd place to try to get your bearings. It’s classified as a “micropolitan area,” meaning a population center too dense to qualify as rural and too small to qualify as urban; in other words, it’s neither here nor there. It promotes its bucolic celebrations—the Moonlight Jubilee and Outhouse Races, the county fair—its lakes and its bluebirds, and the fact that Radar, the world’s tallest living horse, is stabled nearby, but the feel of the place is less that of a small town than of an amalgam of town, suburb, and industrial park. Chili’s and OfficeMax are just down the road from the Pilgrim’s feed mill, its elaborate armature visible beyond the chain-store signs like the masts of a clipper ship in harbor. The traditionally black neighborhood is over by the chicken plant, Hispanics have moved into many of the older houses just east of downtown, and newer, whiter subdivisions lie north of the interstate. The business districts reflect this demographic mix: On the same block downtown are Guerrero’s Warrior Tax, the Pleasant Jamboree Opry House, El Ministerio El Monte de Sion, and Neenaw’s Gettin’ Place. All of it—the stores, the industrial plants, the little wood-frame houses and the select-a-floor-plan ones—peters out quickly, giving way to country lanes, pastures, and chicken houses.
Last spring’s raid was not the first time the immigration authorities had come to town. In December 2007, ICE agents had arrested 24 people, most of them Pilgrim’s employees, following a months-long investigation of a fraudulent ID ring. Still, the April 16 raid came as a shock. On that day, 47 Mount Pleasant workers were taken into custody. Relative to Titus County’s 30,306 inhabitants, or even relative to just the Hispanic population—36 percent of the county—the number of arrests had been small. Yet when I first visited Mount Pleasant, in June, members of the Hispanic community, made up largely of Mexican-born immigrants and their young children, spoke of the town as fundamentally altered. “Right now Mount Pleasant is a before-and-after place,” said Juan Ortiz, a naturalized citizen who until recently worked for Tribune Hoy, the monthly Spanish edition of the Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune. “ ‘Before raids’ and ‘after raids’ are two different things.”
Shortly after I arrived, I went to see a woman named Juanita Davila at her small storefront office downtown. The yellow sign on the door listed English instruction, notary public, translation, and citizenship and computer classes as among the services she offers, though much of her recent work had been providing logistical assistance to incarcerated ex-workers and their families. Inside, a heat-weary, midsummer stillness pervaded the office, made more palpable by the occasional whir of an air conditioner. Photographs of Davila’s three grown sons, two of whom serve in the military, hung near her desk, while other walls were decorated with English compositions on poster board. “This is a true story about a Mexican family” read one. “They thought in immigrating to the United States looking for a better life and make the true American dream.” Another began, “THEME: A family suffer for survive in the U.S.A.” A third was titled “STRUGGLE FOR THE PROGRESS.” There were also two pairs of used jeans for sale.
Davila is something of a rarity in Mount Pleasant: a Hispanic adult born in the U.S. She wears her hair down over her shoulders and favors delicate jewelry and dark eyeliner; her manner is generally stoic, with notes of amusement or isn’t-that-a-shame or sometimes both things at once, as when she told me about the way scammers will sometimes sell illegal immigrants implausible counterfeit documents. There was the homemade-looking driver’s license one young man once pulled out in her office. “I said, ‘Where did you get that?’ ” she recalled, laughing. “And he told me he paid ninety-seven dollars for it. I told him, ‘Put that away and don’t show it to anyone or you’re going to get in trouble.’ ”
The daughter of farmworkers, Davila grew up in the West Texas town of Levelland. She moved to East Texas with her husband and young sons in 1983, at a time when the Hispanic population was much smaller and less visible. “I expected to find Mexican restaurants, and I expected to find Mexican businesses, and there was nothing here,” Davila said. “Absolutely nothing. Businesses didn’t have any Hispanic people working. In the schools, there were hardly any Hispanic kids.” That began to change in the mid-eighties and through the nineties, as more immigrants came to work at the chicken plant in Mount Pleasant. When Davila started her business a few years ago, it only formalized a role she’d already taken on while working at the public library, that of an intermediary between the swelling immigrant community and the official world of forms and computers and citizenship exams.
Her recent spate of clients with raid-related problems reflected a nationwide phenomenon. In 2005 the Department of Homeland Security announced that ICE would intensify its “worksite enforcement” efforts, and subsequently the total number of workplace arrests jumped from 1,292 in 2005 to 4,437 in the first nine months of 2008. The April raid in Mount Pleasant was carried out as part of a coordinated action in which ICE arrested 311 people at five Pilgrim’s Pride plants in as many states. For illegal workers, it turns out, there are better and worse places to be caught in an ICE raid, and conservative East Texas was in the latter category. Workers arrested at plants in Tennessee and West Virginia were charged only with administrative immigration violations: They would go before an immigration judge but not face criminal prosecution. Yet those from Mount Pleasant were charged with federal crimes and would, in most cases, wind up with felony records.
Complicating matters further, there were fewer resources for the workers and their families in East Texas. Last year, after the government detained more than three hundred workers at a leather-goods plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, lawyers and activists from around Boston mobilized to help, and the State of Massachusetts dispatched social workers to visit the jails in Texas where ICE was holding those who’d been arrested. In Mount Pleasant, where the arrested workers were more likely to be seen as lawbreakers than as candidates for social services, assistance was catch-as-catch-can.There were the churches, there were a few people from Dallas and Longview who came to offer what they could, and there was Davila.
The week of the raid she and Jose Sanchez, a Longview lawyer with a satellite office in Mount Pleasant, organized a meeting for family members. “We thought maybe fifteen people would show up, but there were over one hundred,” said Liz Cedillo, a Dallas immigration lawyer who attended. “There was just a lot of fear in people’s faces and eyes, and men were coming up with their kids, who had never been separated from their mothers, saying, ‘My wife is detained.’ ”
Yet for most of the people arrested, “unfortunately there was not going to be a remedy,” said Cedillo. They were stuck in jail in Longview awaiting their federal court date, after which they would be transferred to an immigration jail and most likely deported. Soon, Davila began to hear from family members who needed help taking care of their affairs before they returned to Mexico. She drove to Longview so that a man in jail could sign the title of the house he and his wife had put on the market; for another family preparing to go back, she typed up a packing list of household items, as required by Mexican customs authorities. In general, Davila said, the people she talked to were planning to leave the country. “Very few of them are going to stay—they’re not going to stay in the U.S. at all,” she said. “But the ones who have kids who are U.S. citizens, that family is going to have a big decision.”
The first time Francisco saw Maria was at a church in Mount Pleasant where she sang in the choir—or that’s the way she tells it. He says he saw her before that, at Wal-Mart. He was nineteen, one of a group of young guys from Mexico City who Maria thought were the coolest, cutest boys in town, and she was sixteen, a shy high school sophomore who didn’t know she was pretty. A year earlier, in 1989, she’d come from a small town in the state of Durango, in north-central Mexico. All her life her father had gone back and forth to the U.S. for work, until at last he brought over his wife, then Maria and her three younger sisters (two brothers would be born in the U.S.). Her parents both found jobs at the chicken plant—they still work there today—while Maria started ninth grade as one of a handful of foreign students. She’d loved her school in Mexico, and it was tough to adjust to the new one, as even some of the teachers made fun of her accent. She would often come home crying, but eventually she learned to speak the language perfectly.
Though Maria had a boyfriend, Francisco tracked down her number and called her again and again. “He sent me cards, he sent me letters,” Maria recalled. “He used to blow me kisses in the park when I was walking there with my boyfriend.” She thought he was too handsome for her—“I didn’t think he’d ever be for me,” she said, “but he chased me down.” Snapshots from those days show a demure girl with big limpid eyes alongside her triumphant suitor, posing back-to-back, in matching baseball caps, or sitting against the hood of his red Trans Am. They were soon engaged, over her mother’s objections.
After moving to the U.S., Maria had applied for a visa as a child of a legal resident. Eighteen years later, because of the State Department’s enormous backlog, her application was still pending, yet she’d received a temporary permit, renewable every two years. That piece of paperwork marked a difference between Francisco and Maria that would only grow more pronounced over time. Both had been bright kids who initially came to Texas without papers or facility in English, but because of a combination of circumstance and temperament, she had become fully bilingual, obtained a permit to live in the country, and joined the white-collar workforce, while he’d wound up loading trailers at the chicken plant under a false name. Although her father had been raised by a poor single mother and had begun working in the fields as a kid, Maria hoped to emulate her mother’s relatives, who were teachers and small-business owners in Mexico. Francisco’s family, on the other hand, was poor on both sides, and he had never been one for long-range planning. He’d first entered the country as a young teenager, crossing the border illegally with two friends in hopes of earning enough money to buy a motorcycle. And although he had a chance to apply for legal status during the 1986 amnesty, his family in Mexico didn’t send his birth certificate in time for him to submit the application. (His two friends are both now citizens.) Working on ranches and then at Pilgrim’s, he learned some English but never became comfortable in the language.
By the time she graduated from high school, Maria was already pregnant. She wanted to go on to college, but Francisco, who subscribed to certain old-fashioned notions about women, wasn’t keen on the idea. He didn’t mind her working, though, and after giving birth to a girl they named Annette, she found a job as a secretary in the human resources department at Pilgrim’s. They had another daughter, Yvette, and then a third, Odette. They bought a small white frame house with pale-red steps and a crape myrtle out front. They struggled over their differences: Maria was more driven—“We can’t both be losers!” she shouted in the middle of one of their arguments about her desire to go to college—while Francisco was more easygoing and tradition minded.
That conflict finally boiled over when Maria won an essay contest sponsored by Pilgrim’s. The prize was a scholarship, and Maria registered for classes at Northeast Texas Community College without telling Francisco, confessing just before the start of the term. So began the roughest stretch of their marriage—a topic she preferred not to discuss with me, except to say that ultimately Francisco had come around, had in essence chosen her over the machismo he’d grown up with, proving to her that “my husband loves me more than I can imagine.”
Her fourth pregnancy came as a surprise, and her initial reaction to the news that she was carrying twins fell well short of enthusiasm, but at 29 she was already used to seeing plans she’d drawn up for herself superseded by ones she ascribed to a sometimes bewildering higher power. After the arrest of her husband, she would contemplate this latest turn of events by saying, “That’s God’s plan for us, I guess,” with the emphasis on “guess.”
Francisco was, at least, spared the charge of aggravated identity theft, which has been brought against some illegal immigrants caught using another person’s Social Security number. Like most of the Mount Pleasant workers, Francisco pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of misuse of a Social Security number—which is nevertheless classified as a “crime of moral turpitude,” meaning that a foreign national with such a conviction would probably be deported and could be prosecuted if caught trying to sneak back into the country.
With Francisco in jail, Maria scrambled to find day care for the twins, Gabriel and Francisco Jr.; paid off the car loans and the credit cards by taking out a home equity loan; canceled cable TV and a cell phone; explained to the girls that they could no longer afford dance or art or cheerleading classes; and tried to figure out how she would keep the six of them afloat on her $30,000 salary. In the meantime, she continued to go to community college four nights a week.
“I’m in finals, and I just felt like I couldn’t do it,” she said. “But I passed the class, not like I wanted to, but I passed.” She took the girls to the jail, twice a week on visiting days. The boys begged to go too, but the one time she took them they banged on the window and caused a scene. “They were like, ‘Daddy, come out. Why are you in those clothes?’ When the fifteen minutes were over, I basically dragged them to the vehicle. They were just crying, ‘No! My daddy!’ I told them he would meet us at home, but they were like, ‘No, Mommy, he doesn’t have a car.’ Oh, it was a big, big drama. I never took them again.”
In Texarkana the guilty pleas were entered in batches, via a sort of legal assembly line. Francisco went to court June 5 and five days later called Maria from Mexico City, at wit’s end. “He said, ‘Now what?’ I don’t know. Plan B? I don’t have one,” Maria told me later that week. “He was just in tears. He said, ‘I don’t know what to do, where to start.’ And I don’t know what to tell him because I’m not there, and I’m like, ‘Just wait and see where the Lord takes us. See what he has for you. Keep searching and start from the very bottom, even if it’s picking flowers or something.’
“And so now we are looking into the possibility of moving to Mexico. But just to think about it, my stomach hurts. My kids, they don’t speak the Spanish they’re supposed to speak in Mexico.”
But what choice did they have? “We don’t know where we’re going. I mean, I know I have to move up there with him because he can’t move up here.” He’d been barred from reentering the United States for six years.
III. Further Processing
Several times I asked former Pilgrim’s workers or their family members where they’d bought their false documents. Their answers were vague. In the street. At the park. People often spoke in this same circumspect manner about how they’d originally come to Mount Pleasant—crossing the river—so that the vast distances and dangers and illicit transactions of their journeys were reduced to a kind of abbreviated folktale, in which a man or a woman or a family leaves the village, crosses the river, goes to the park, and then to the factory. Peel-greems.
Likewise, the reasons why they had come could be given in a phrase or two—a family member was already there, the chicken plant was hiring. But underlying these simple explanations was a story of the evolution of the American appetite. One version of this story might begin with Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, the founder and figurehead of Pilgrim’s Pride, who, like many of his plant’s own workers, was born into a large, poor, rural family. As a young man in the forties, he helped his older brother Aubrey run a feed and seed store in the town of Pittsburg, south of Mount Pleasant, and from there they launched themselves into the chicken business, initially selling chicks to farmers, then supplying birds to slaughterhouses, and eventually acquiring their own plants, starting with the one in Mount Pleasant. By the time Aubrey Pilgrim died, in 1966, leaving Bo in charge, the company saw to the hatching and dispatching of millions of chickens every year. Across the country, and particularly in the South, the poultry business was expanding along the same lines. What had been a farmyard concern became a proper industry.
The next major development in the chicken trade would be epitomized by a certain pellet of fried avian protein that McDonald’s debuted in 1983. Consumers had already been introduced to other “further processed” products, yet it was the McNugget that came to represent the transfiguration of chicken eating in the eighties. Bird meat that had traditionally been bought in a relatively unaltered state and cooked at home would now be chopped and ground up and reshaped and seasoned and fried and frozen and reheated and passed out of a drive-through window. All those extra steps required thousands of low-skill workers. Between 1980 and 2001 the average American’s annual consumption of chicken jumped from 33 pounds to 82 pounds. In the same time frame, the Hispanic population of Titus County increased from six hundred to almost eight thousand.
To the existing plant in Mount Pleasant, Pilgrim’s added a 75,000-square-foot prepared-foods facility in 1986, and soon the town went from the kind of place where the few Hispanic families were known by name to the rest of the community (the Guzmans, the Delgados, the Rochas) to the kind of place where the chamber of commerce directory was printed in two languages. Not every immigrant worked at Pilgrim’s, but the plant was the hub, where gossip and invitations to weekend barbecues circulated, where mothers sold cakes in the parking lot to raise money for children’s school trips, where men organized soccer teams according to work assignment: Equipo Linea 1 (“line 1 team”), Equipo Fry Line, or Equipo Los Lavaderos (“sanitation workers’ team”).
The plant also gave rise to ancillary businesses, including the trucking company where Maria works and a food-coatings plant owned by Newly Weds Foods. Another sort of offshoot was a brisk trade in fake IDs. A glimpse into this last enterprise is provided by a lengthy affidavit detailing the investigation that led up to the December 2007 arrests. Starting in the spring of 2007, undercover agents arranged to buy birth certificates and Social Security cards from two men, named Marcos and Chilango. They were charged $1,200 a pop for products with suitably pedestrian and functional code names: pantalones (“pants”) were men’s identification documents, faldas (“skirts”) were women’s. What emerges from the affidavit is a sort of low-rent chicken plant mafia—the salesmen, their suppliers, and their accomplices, including employees in the Pilgrim’s human resources department.
“With money, everything is possible,” Chilango told one undercover informant. Everything, that is, within the somewhat limited realm of possibilities experienced by immigrants in Mount Pleasant: a birth certificate, a little cocaine, a place on the sanitation crew. Like good salesmen, Marcos and Chilango offered discounts for referrals, as well as an exchange guarantee: If one identity didn’t get you hired at Pilgrim’s—if, for instance, that Social Security number was already in use at the plant—you were entitled to a free replacement. Such a guarantee depended on the complicity of someone inside the hiring office who would take a second look at a rejected applicant if he came back with better papers. For this, Marcos and Chilango relied upon Reyna Villarreal, a woman in her early thirties, who was also arrested last December.
Villarreal (who also happens to be an old friend of Maria’s) was the only white-collar employee from the Mount Pleasant plant arrested in either raid. She herself had begun working at Pilgrim’s in 2000 with someone else’s Social Security number. Then, in 2002, she resigned from the company, only to return the next day with a different number and a different last name. (The old number had belonged to Randy Mullis, a retired Air Force man in Tiffin, Ohio.) In October a supervisor who had facilitated Villarreal’s rehire was also arrested by ICE and indicted for fraud and identity theft.
Yet it seems disingenuous to single out individual employees or supervisors, since these sorts of dealings are the product of a de facto bargain struck years ago: Poor people from other countries will make our food under harsh conditions, enabling us to eat cheaply and conveniently. Few people want to spend much time contemplating this, so we tend to construe the fact that chicken is inexpensive as if it were a property of the meat itself, like calorie content, rather than the result of a particular economic arrangement situated in a legal and ethical gray area.
One evening in mid-July I sat with Maria in a park near her house and watched her twins clamber over the playscape. All those trips to the delivery room and the demands of parenting hadn’t sapped her of her youthful good looks, though she did have what I thought of as a mother’s air of simultaneous vigilance and surrender. A week and a half earlier, she’d shipped the girls off to visit their father, sending $2,300 with them, the last of the family’s savings. Francisco was living with his family outside Mexico City and had been hired by a brother-in-law who owned an auto shop. He was “really struggling,” she said, making just $30 on a good day. If at some point his brother-in-law couldn’t afford to keep him, she speculated, then, at best, he’d wind up working for minimum wage, which in Mexico is about $10 per day, and that wouldn’t begin to suffice in a city where the prices of clothes, not to mention apartments, were comparable to or higher than what such things cost in Mount Pleasant. Maria herself feared that entering Mexico might endanger her visa application and had decided to wait to go until next year, once the visa had been approved or denied. “I’m hoping when I go down there to find a very good job with a very good company and then pull him in. That’s my goal.”
Meanwhile, eight-year-old Odette didn’t like the food in Mexico City, didn’t know enough Spanish to communicate with her grandmother, and wanted to come home. Yvette, the middle sister, had taken in a dog. Annette had dyed her hair red and had her nose pierced and was now talking about a tattoo, which Maria opposed. Maternal distress at Mexico’s lack of age restrictions on piercings and tattoos seemed to stand proxy for much broader fears about how the culture of a big Mexican city might influence her daughters, especially Annette, who at thirteen could have passed for fifteen or sixteen and, in snug T-shirts and spangly belts and eye makeup, was the type to turn heads. Maria wanted her girls to go to law school, not have kids young, the way she had. She’d been searching the Internet, trying to determine where there were good schools in and around Mexico City, but she hardly knew where to begin.
Her own courses that term were State and Local Government and Music Appreciation, two of the requirements for an associate’s degree in education. Generally speaking they’d been manageable, even enjoyable, though the day before, she’d found herself in an uncomfortable situation. “The teacher said that Hispanics would be the majority minority in 2030. Blacks are going to stay the same, and Anglo Americans are going to be the minority. In that class I am the only Hispanic out of seventeen students. So [the teacher] points to me and says, ‘See, we got only one. What’s going to happen in the future with them not getting an education?’
“I said, ‘Do you know why? Hispanics are turned down because they don’t have the papers.’ He’s telling the white students we don’t want to get an education, but most cannot.” Because noncitizen students do not qualify for most types of financial aid, Maria said, higher education is typically out of reach. “My husband has two Mexican-born nieces about to graduate from high school,” she said. “It’s over for them.”
Every so often one or the other of the twins would circle back to Maria, sweaty and shoeless, then return to the playscape’s slide and platforms. “Look,” she said, gesturing at the dozen or so other children around the playground. “Here’s just two white children playing in the middle of all these kids. Just me, I have five kids, when they choose to have one or two. That’s what angers them.”
The surrounding light poles beamed faint orbs onto the grass as the sun set behind us. She gathered a few pebbles from the ground and lined them up on her thigh. “I have this dream all the time that my husband doesn’t love me anymore. I see him—he came back to Mount Pleasant. He has long hair for some reason, and I try to go to him but he turns away. I had that dream last night.” Yet if in her dreams she feared that he wouldn’t return to her, in her waking hours she feared that he would. “Sometimes he talks about crossing the border. He says, ‘Nobody’s going to catch me.’ I say, ‘Don’t risk it.’ But he gets so desperate, and I’m scared he’ll just show up at the door one day. And then what kind of life is that? He’s just going to be hiding.”
While Francisco had returned to Mexico City, dozens of other chicken plant workers had all retreated to Xaltianguis, a village in southern Mexico that has served as something of a feeder town for the Pilgrim’s plant. No one knows exactly how many Xaltianguenses are living in Mount Pleasant, but it could be as many as two thousand. To learn what had become of the people who’d returned because of the raids, I flew to Acapulco in August and hired a Guatemalan guide named Sergio Balcárcel to drive me to and from the town in his Grand Marquis taxi.
“The problem is . . . ” he began, as we approached Xaltianguis for the third day in a row. The town is only about forty kilometers from Acapulco, but the journey takes an hour and a half on a rutted highway that leads away from the coast into lush, hilly country, past vendors of every sort of car component—car seats, car mirrors, windshields—as well as a hand-painted sign that reads “We Fix Broken Bones.” It was the kind of road that might occasion the need for all kinds of on-the-fly repairs. Balcárcel’s conclusion wasn’t subtle: “Here there is nothing.”
Of course, that wasn’t strictly the case. Here there were a tangle of erratically paved streets; houses in different states of completion—a brightly painted facade next to a concrete-and-rebar skeleton; almond and mango and palm trees; a clunker of a church painted sea-foam green; old ladies with single braids down their backs parading beneath parasols; and patio chairs in great abundance, iron-framed and plastic. Xaltianguis was a great town for patio chairs, which along with sizable entertainment centers seemed to constitute the primary type of furniture and which would be graciously dragged out or rearranged when a visitor appeared.
Yet Balcárcel was right—employment options were few in Xaltianguis. People found work cleaning houses or doing odd jobs or, in the best-case scenario, by opening a little drugstore or fruit stand, but there were no factories nearby, only fields. There were minimum-wage jobs in Acapulco, but it was $2 each way for the bus, which meant coming home with just $6 at the end of a long day.As in so many poor Mexican towns, this had driven people to migrate to the United States. Yet lately more of them were returning. “People have come back fleeing immigration. There’s a lot of fear now,” I was told by Antonia Juárez, a pharmacist. And those who sought the services of a coyote in order to cross the border were now paying in the neighborhood of $3,000, she said.
I saw numerous signs of the town’s ties to Mount Pleasant: a wall painted with the name “Apache 16,” a band whose recent performance I’d heard advertised on La Explosiva, a radio station that broadcasts out of the office of a Mount Pleasant self-storage business; a license plate frame from “Auto World Mount Pleasant TX”; a man in a blue Pilgrim’s Pride T-shirt. I was told that Xaltianguis hosts an annual basketball tournament and that the previous year’s title had been won by “a team of blacks” recruited at Pilgrim’s. It was not difficult to find ex-employees of the plant. On my first morning in town I met Juventino Alvarado and his wife, Judith, both of whom had worked at Pilgrim’s for ten years and fled following the raid. They and their three children were living at Judith’s mother’s house, along with her mother and four more relatives, ten people in two rooms plus a storage area where they laid out mattresses at night. Juventino was the one who’d pushed his supervisor and run out of the plant on the morning of the raid, and he’d returned to Mexico almost immediately. Judith and the children had stayed a couple more months to tie up loose ends. She’d sold their house, toward which they’d paid $32,000 so far, netting only $10,000. It was on that $10,000 they were living now, supplemented by the proceeds of their nightly efforts to sell sandwiches and milk shakes from the patio where we were sitting.
More than the loss of the house she’d hoped to grow old in, more than the prospects of fifteen-year-old Ricardo, who would have been a sophomore at Mount Pleasant High School and wanted to be a doctor, Judith was preoccupied by her middle child, Vladimir, a scrawny eight-year-old who was playing nearby in Spider-Man pajamas. Born with a cleft palate, he’d been treated by surgeons in Dallas and speech therapists in Mount Vernon; in Xaltianguis there were no such specialists. He was due for another surgery in February, but how would he get there? Who would take him?
When we’d finished talking, Juventino led us past a shop window where multitiered, ornately frosted, sagging cakes listed behind the glass; then down a narrow passage that overlooked a pigsty; and then into a low-ceilinged breezeway, part devoted to laundry and part to the raising of quail in cages. There we found another ring of patio chairs, one of them occupied by a man who’d been arrested in the December raid and had only been deported the week before. That man accompanied us to the next house, where I met an older man who’d fled Mount Pleasant after working at Pilgrim’s for eleven years. Juventino left us but was soon replaced by Judith’s brother David, a slight, soft-spoken man who’d lived in Mount Pleasant for a couple years and worked at Pilgrim’s. He had been deported, he said, after being arrested for fishing without a license at a lake near the plant.
The conversation turned to the unusual situation of a woman from Xaltianguis named Floriberta Beltran, whom I had recently interviewed at the Titus County jail. Her brother, Pablo, had been sought in the raid; two weeks later, in the course of looking for him, police had arrested Floriberta and her husband, who were also in the country illegally. Their three kids had gone to live with an aunt and uncle. By the time I interviewed her in July, she was more than eight months pregnant, a small woman with a giant bulge beneath her orange jail scrubs who started to cry when she talked about the baby girl she was expecting.
But there had been good news in Floriberta’s case. Her lawyer had convinced the judge to let her out on a personal-recognizance bond the week before my trip to Mexico, and immigration officials had decided not to take her back into custody. Word had quickly traveled to Xaltianguis. In the men’s shared telling she had to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and would be returned to jail after the baby was born, both of which facts turned out not to be true. A story that did turn out to be true was that when she was let out of the Titus County jail, her four-year-old had run to her and attached himself to her leg and refused to let go, even for a few seconds. Her husband was still in jail, and the prospect of deportation still hung over the family, but for now she and the boys were back in their trailer house in Winfield, a little community of beer barns and shrimp shacks and old double-wides, eight miles west of Mount Pleasant.
That bit of news was tonic, if only slightly so, in a town beset by reversals and misfortunes. I met two women, former Pilgrim’s workers, one arrested in December and one in April, who’d left their American-born kids behind in Mount Pleasant, figuring that their prospects would be better in Texas. They hoped the kids would be able to visit during the Christmas holidays. And in addition to those who’d come back because of the raid, there were all the ones who’d come back for other reasons: the man who’d run a red light and been arrested and deported, as well as people arrested for DWIs and more-serious offenses. There was talk of a man who’d married a deaf woman with a way of yelling and moaning that had led to his being arrested for spousal abuse and deported. Another man who’d been living legally in the U.S. had lost his vision due to nerve degeneration and moved from Texas to California. He’d come to Mexico to visit, and when he tried to return to the U.S., he learned that his visa had been revoked.Perhaps, he speculated, he’d missed some piece of official correspondence. Now he wore dark glasses and was led around town by his mother and wondered whether there was any way to be allowed back into the country where his children lived.
On my last day I met Floriberta Beltran’s sister-in-law, Carmela Flores Vargas, who had been arrested and deported. She and her husband had already planned on returning to Xaltianguis later in the year to open a vegetable stand; now, though, they didn’t have the money to open the business and, like so many others, didn’t know what they were going to do. She took us to the house Floriberta had bought for her father. The door opened onto a long, bare cement hallway with rubber hoses running from the ceiling to a drain in the floor and a scruffy, pointy-eared animal I couldn’t identify (an opossum?) in a cage that gave off a faint urine odor. Floriberta’s father, old and thin and weathered, had greeted us out front. I’d been reluctant to accept a Coca-Cola from a man who didn’t look as if he could afford to give one away, yet I did, and patio chairs appeared. As he had very few teeth and spoke gruffly, I struggled to understand him, meanwhile eyeing the strange animal in its cage, and whereas the attractions of an old trailer house in Winfield had been somewhat abstract to me beforehand, now they were obvious, viscerally so.
V. In Between
Days I was in Mount Pleasant, I would keep the car radio tuned to La Explosiva, which meant that I listened to a lot of norteño ballads. I’d never really cottoned to those mournful polkas, with their often sad subjects countered by accordions and relentless bass lines, but over time they began to make a little more sense. “If you leave [oompah, oompah], I’m going to die.” “It’d be easier to ascend to the sky [oompah, oompah], than to melt your heart of ice.” Et cetera. There was much to bemoan; still, the two-four beat would go on.
Reality lacked that steady rhythm. “There’s a sadness,” a woman who owns a local piñata business told me, “because no one wants to do anything now. No one has a project or a plan for the future anymore, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s not any more ‘tonight,’ there’s not any more ‘in the morning’ or ‘next week’ or ‘next month.’ You’re just in between. This is not our community anymore, not the one we used to have before all these things.”
Maria was a planner by nature, but her plans kept shifting, the day she might next see her husband receding into the future. By next year she would finish her degree, which she thought would give her a better shot at the visa. Meanwhile Annette, who would turn fifteen in October 2009, wanted to have her quinceañera in Mount Pleasant. Maybe after that they would move to Mexico. Maria had stopped trying to research schools and neighborhoods in Mexico City; it could wait. She’d looked into assistant teaching jobs, which would provide necessary experience before she could be hired as a salaried teacher, and was disheartened to learn that they paid about $10 an hour. It was hard to see how she could manage on a little more than half of what she was currently making.
Already she’d applied for Medicaid for her kids, after having always eschewed public assistance. Following her release, Floriberta Beltran had also sought Medicaid for the first time, as well as food stamps. This seemed to complete an unfortunate cycle: It used to be that Mexican workers came to the U.S. seasonally to support their families, who remained at home; after border enforcement became stricter and people began to fear for their ability to go back and forth with ease, they brought their families to live with them; now families are being left behind to support themselves, in some cases seeking public assistance.
One night I was at Maria’s house when she dialed Francisco and set the phone on the coffee table, on speaker. Next to it, her address book was open to a doodled-on page containing her name and her husband’s and a big heart between them. The twins ran toward the phone—“Papi! Papi!”
“Gabriel hit me with this control,” Francisco Jr. said in Spanish, waving the television’s remote control at the phone. “Will you buy us candy?”
“Yes, lots of candies,” came his father’s voice.
In their excitement, the boys knocked the phone over, then crouched over it in alarm, as if their father himself might have been injured in the fall. Maria shooed them away so that I could speak with Francisco. He talked about his old job at Pilgrim’s, of his arrest and time in jail, but declined to reminisce about his old life in Mount Pleasant. “It’ll make me cry,” he said, and Maria’s eyes welled up.
He’d hoped the girls would like Mexico, but they hadn’t really—except for Yvette, whom everyone in the family knew to be “daddy’s girl” and who’d wanted to stay there with him. While we talked, she was sitting on the sofa with her sketch pad, composing a long letter to the president to argue that her father should be let back in the country. As for Francisco himself, he said he would rather the family live in Mexico than in the United States, if only there were jobs to be found.
Later on, after the call had ended and I was about to leave, Maria stood in the doorway, looking off toward the unlit street and wondering how long they could wait it out as a couple. “I tell him, if you see someone else, just tell me, and it’s over,” she said. “That’s our main worry. I tell him I’ve got the kids and I’m too busy for anything like that.”
The night was warm and black, and she spoke over a refrain of crickets. Maybe she would enroll the kids in school in Mexico next year, then fly back for Annette’s quinceañera—but she stopped herself.
“No, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “If we make plans, it’s probably not going to happen that way anyway, so let’s just wait, and we’ll see.”