SPECIAL REPORT: Immigrants Laboring in Fear, Squalor on Georgia Farms
(APN) COBBTOWN, Georgia — The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in neighboring Savannah, Georgia, still echoes through the field-lined dirt roads in agricultural Cobbtown for the immigrant laborers who reside there.
The low wages, the long hours harvesting onions under the scorching Georgia sun, the discrimination, the underpaid hours – all of it has become background noise in this town in the south of Atlanta, between Macon and Savannah.
“We say goodbye every day when I leave my home,” says a Mexican who resides in Cobbtown, but builds chicken coops in neighboring Reidsville, sometimes making 65 to 70 dollars per day.
“It is possible that I may leave for work and never return home, to my family,” he told Atlanta Progressive News. He is afraid he will never see again his daughters, ages nine, sixteen, and eighteen.
The Mexican, who prefers his name kept confidential, says this is what happened to his coworker, Mauricio Revolorio, 28, a Guatemalan who was picked up from his home by ICE agents on Wednesday February 08, 2017, in a trailer park in Savannah.
Revolorio’s partner, Irma Ortega, was in the trailer when ICE officers showed up at 5:30 am. Their daughters–ages one, six, and seven–were asleep when ICE showed up.
Their seven year-old could not stop crying for hours after she saw an ICE officer handcuffing and taking away her dad. “Life is hard,” Ortega says.
“They did not show us anything and did not ask for anybody specifically,” Irma Ortega told APN.
“The ICE officer told us that the father of my children was taken away for being illegally in the country,” Ortega said.
APN confirmed that Revolorio is detained at the Irwin Detention Center, in Ocilla, Georgia, a jail for immigrants awaiting deportation. ICE has not responded to a request from APN inquiring if Revolorio has a criminal record.
Word of the ICE raids spread fast in Cobbtown, a small town of around 350 residents. The possibility of leaving children and loved ones behind monopolizes the suffering in this town where Hispanics are the largest minority, followed by African Americans.
Another undocumented Mexican, a man in his late thirties, sits outside his trailer in a wooden picnic table set he built in Cobbtown, his home for sixteen years.
“They want to clean this town of immigrants,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
The construction worker has to drive to Savannah to make a living. He moves his head from side to side as he demonstrates how he drives, looking over his shoulders. Terrified.
“I fear driving to Walmart to buy lunch and be detained by the police for driving without a driver’s license.”
Cobbtown neighbors have united in efforts in order to avoid being deported. They warn each other via phone texts when a driver’s license checkpoint takes place in Cobbtown and other adjacent areas.
“I feel like a criminal without having ever committed a crime,” the Mexican says, as his wife approaches him to let him know Sandra needs her lunch.
His daughter, Sandra Hernández, 18, a recipient of DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival), was brought from Mexico to the U.S. by her parents when she was five. DACA allows undocumented aliens who were brought by their parents into the country when they were children to receive a temporary protection from deportation and a work permit.
She sits in the break room at the Dollar General store where she works 32 hours a week as a cashier in neighboring Collins. The high school student breaks into tears at the thought of her parents getting deported and having to take care of her fifteen year-old sister, who was born in Mexico; and her ten year-old sister, who is a U.S. citizen.
Her parents are getting ready to do the paperwork necessary to give her custody of her sisters in case they are deported to Mexico.
“We all sat down and talked about it, and planned in case something happens to them. bIt could happen any moment.” She takes a deep breath.
“If they get deported, I will take care of the kids.”
“It really hurts because we do so much to help out. We work hard and then for them to want us to leave or not be here…” She looks down as her eyes fill with tears again.
The fear hangs in the air.
“People are hiding in their homes, afraid of being deported,” says Pedro Ocampo, a Mexican who arrived to Cobbtown 21 years ago.
Since Donald Trump became President of the U.S., Ocampo feels that people look at him and wonder if he is a “bad hombre.”
“It was not like that before,” Ocampo said.
Less than a quarter a mile away from Ocampo’s home, in an area where two trailers and a small red building houses temporary workers, a Guatemalan in his thirties plays with a basketball alone to avoid feeling sad, he says.
“I am always longing for my country,” he adds, holding the ball against his chest and looking away.
He arrived in Cobbtown a few days ago from Florida to plant pine trees for a few weeks, and then he will head towards Pearson to pick up blueberries. Sometimes he makes seven dollars per hour, sometimes a little bit more, he says.
He does not have a work permit and that is not a problem, he said. He does not even has his passport because it was stolen.
He sleeps in a bunk bed in a precarious residence for temporary agricultural workers. The one floor red small building where he sleeps has seven doors. The broken down bunk beds await the exhausted bodies of the workers who work long hours in the farms.
A bathroom area has contiguous shower stalls with dirty curtains and one single dilapidated washbasin.
Life in Cobbtown was hard for Latinos even before rumors of imminent deportations flooded their lives.
Uziel Muñiz, 16, recalls not being paid for a week of work two summers ago. But he was not supposed to be working anyway, he says, because he was fifteen at the time. He worked from 8:00 am to 9:00 pm every day for a week and never got paid.
Recently the student says he was working in a farm from 7:00 am to 1:00 am, eighteen hours straight.
He said he would sleep a few hours to start again at 7:00 am. “There was a lot of work.” Sometimes he makes $7.25 per hour, which helps him pay his bills while he attends high school.