You have probably seen her by now: the 11-year-old girl pleading through her tears:
“The governments—Government, please put your heart! Let my parents be free and everybody else. Please don’t leave the child with cryingness and everything.”
The government responds, “This is business as usual for us.”
Business as usual means swooping into six small Mississippi towns and scooping up 680 immigrant workers. The workers came over the past quarter century, drawn by poultry plant recruiting efforts that began in the 1990s with “the Hispanic Project.” The plants recruited and used immigrant labor as a union-busting tool. They calculated that, unlike African American workers who had begun to join unions, immigrants would not dare to organize or demand better pay or treatment.
Recruiting efforts continued over the decades, sometimes offering transportation to Mississippi, housing, and even bonuses for workers who brought in new recruits. Across the country, more than half of all workers in poultry processing plants are Latino: citizens and immigrants, documented or undocumented.
“These Hispanic people aren’t doing nothing bad. They’re not stealing nothing,” Magdalena sobs.
“Get in line,” say unsympathetic voices. “Come in legally or not at all.”
They don’t know, or don’t care, that there is no line.
Doesn’t matter how honest Magdalena’s dad is, how hard he worked, how many years he has been in the United States, how many family members depend on him. If he doesn’t have permission to be here—permission that is impossible for a poultry worker to get—he will be deported.
Immigrant workers produce and process the food we eat, not just in poultry plants, not just in Mississippi, but across the country. In Minnesota, non-citizens comprise 7.3 percent of the agricultural work force.
Some agricultural workers can get temporary visas, though these are scarce and hard to get. Temporary visas don’t work for poultry plant workers or dairy farm workers or any others who have year-around jobs. There are no visas for poultry plant workers, no visa for Magdalena’s father.
“I’m not gonna have nothing for the first day of school,” Magdalena says. “The rent. I don’t know where I am going to eat. I don’t know what I’m going to do right now. I need my dad.”
Almost half of those taken away by ICE agents were released. We do not know whether Magdalena’s father was among them.
“Released” doesn’t convey the reality of their still-precarious situation. Every mother or father who was “released” still faces deportation proceedings. They do not have permission to work, so no income to pay the rent or buy food and school supplies for their families.
How does arresting hard-working mothers and fathers make the United States safer? How does leaving kindergarten children with no one to welcome them home make this a better country? How does any of this make sense?
Magdalena is the brave, grief-stricken face we see on Instagram and YouTube and CBS and ABC and all over the place. She stands for hundreds of children in rural Mississippi, crying for parents swept away and for futures suddenly limited and uncertain.
In turn, these hundreds of grieving Mississippi children stand for six million U.S. citizen children living with undocumented parents, living in fear of a knock on the door, a raid on a workplace, a traffic stop, that could take their parents away forever, or send them into exile together.
Magdalena pleads for the government to have a heart. Our government has no heart for her, or for her parents.
People who do have a heart, who are moved by the plight of the children in Mississippi are sending donations. Donations help, but charity is not enough. We need a government with heart, and that will take concerted action: protest, organizing, voting out the current regime, and then continuing to put pressure on every single elected official to hear the cries of the children and protect the powerless among us.