August 7 marked the beginning of the academic year across much of Mississippi. In the midst of many happy first-day-of-school pictures, we started seeing very different and awful images of children not knowing where their parents were. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had chosen that day to hold their largest raids ever in central Mississippi. Over 680 people were arrested from seven poultry processing plants. This was just days following a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where the gunman said he was targeting Mexicans.
While ICE said they had been planning this raid for months, they failed to follow their own guidelines and had not made provisions for children. They released 300 people within a few days, but the remaining ones are still in detention centers, likely in Louisiana and south Mississippi.
On Friday evening following the raids, my partner Pat Miller said, “We could rent a van, fill it with food and supplies and drive it to Forest” -- the site of one of the raids. After a moment’s thought, I agreed. Sometimes it is just clear what we need to do. On Sunday, August 11, we announced our intention and invited contributions at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. We put the announcement on the congregation’s Facebook page and emailed it to a local progressive women’s list called Wise Women. From there it was shared with many, many caring people.
The food collection was Tuesday from 6:00pm to 7:30pm in the local Kroger parking lot. By 6:15, the van we had rented was half-filled. Shortly after that, we had received so many donations that we needed to accept a friend’s offer to provide and drive another van!
Even though it was the hottest evening of the year, people kept coming. They came with carts and bags and boxes of food and supplies for our downstate neighbors affected by these raids. Many came with tears in their eyes, and we felt their desperate need to ease the pain of those individuals and families. By the end, we had completely filled two vans and a car and had half-filled a third van. Over 110 people contributed food and supplies.
Some people provided monetary donations, and we used those to purchase diapers. After we explained to the dollar store clerk why we were buying two baskets full of them, she pulled money out of her pocket and gave to the cause, saying “It’s just not right!”
That Wednesday, one week after the raids, we drove one van and a car to the United Methodist Trinity Mission Center in Forest. The second van went to another community. When we arrived around noon, there was a gathering of people who very quickly helped us unload the van and car and helped fill the small room that was serving as a pantry and distribution center.
United Methodist Trinity Mission Center has been present in Forest, east of Jackson, for over two decades and is a lay-led religious community. Until the raids, the food pantry was open once every couple of weeks to distribute food. Once the raids happened, the Center became a natural gathering place and volunteers are now keeping the pantry open every day.
We stayed and helped organize supplies in a second room. When we were saying our goodbyes to the one person who spoke a little English, she said, “No, no! Stay for lunch!” A small Guatemalan business in town had provided a tray of taquitos and everyone present paused to eat. We gathered with about a dozen people to share the meal. It was wonderful that those most affected by the raids shared their food with us -- heart to heart, person to person.
The raids continue to impact local communities. When 800 people lose their jobs, it decimates whole towns -- business owners, schools, and most of all, families.
The trauma continues, as those most affected struggle to cope with bills as well as the awful uncertainties of not knowing where their loved ones are, and whether additional raids are coming. For those of us less affected, there are many ways to help, and we are hearing that at this point the biggest needs are for monetary donations to help with rent, bills and legal assistance. People interested in providing financial assistance can donate via one of the links below.
As the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of our UUA, said the day after the raids in a Facebook post, “Now is the time to raise our voices against these injustices and in solidarity with immigrants to affirm what we know to be truth: No one is disposable. Families belong together. Immigrant rights are human rights.”
Demand the release of these people in the detention centers! Demand that Congress create real change in immigration laws! Work with your local officials to insist that local police departments do not cooperate with ICE. Stand up to the lies and the culture of fear! Let’s live out our Unitarian Universalist principles by affirming and promoting “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”
Rev. Gail Stratton is a Community Unitarian Universalist minister affiliated with the UU Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi. She and her partner Pat Miller are both retired from teaching biology, Gail from the University of Mississippi and Pat from Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Legal aid is also possible through several organizations including MIRA (same link as above) and also Southeast Immigrant Rights Network (SEIRN). Both organizations are on Facebook.