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Immigration raid devastates Ga. town

Half of workforce lost; businesses at virtual standstill

STILLMORE, Ga. -- Trailer parks lie abandoned. The poultry plant is scrambling to replace more than half its workforce. Business has dried up at stores where Mexican laborers once lined up to buy food, beer, and cigarettes just weeks ago.

This Georgia community of about 1,000 people has become little more than a ghost town since Sept. 1, when federal agents began rounding up illegal immigrants.

The sweep has had the unintended effect of underscoring just how vital the illegal immigrants were to the local economy.

More than 120 illegal immigrants have been loaded onto buses bound for immigration courts in Atlanta, 189 miles away. Hundreds more fled Emanuel County. Residents say many scattered into the woods, camping out for days. They worry some are still hiding without food.

At least one child, born a US citizen, was left behind by his Mexican parents: 2-year-old Victor Perez-Lopez. The toddler's mother, Rosa Lopez, left her son with Julie Rodas when the raids began and fled the state. The boy's father was deported to Mexico.

``When his momma brought this baby here and left him, tears rolled down her face and mine, too," Rodas said. ``She said, `Julie, will you please take care of my son because I have no money, no way of paying rent?' "

For five years, Rodas has made a living watching the children of workers at the Crider Inc. poultry plant, where the vast majority of employees were Mexican immigrants. She learned Spanish, and considered many immigrants among her closest friends. She threw parties for their children's birthdays and baptisms.

The only child in Rodas's care now, besides her own son, is Victor. Her customers have disappeared.

Federal agents also swarmed into a trailer park operated by David Robinson. Illegal immigrants were handcuffed and taken away. Almost none have returned. Robinson bought an American flag and posted it by the pond out front -- upside down, in protest.

``These people might not have American rights, but they've damn sure got human rights," Robinson said. ``There ain't no reason to treat them like animals."

The raids came during a fall election season in which immigration is a top issue.

Last month, the federal government reported that Georgia had the fastest-growing illegal immigrant population in the country. The number more than doubled from an estimated 220,000 in 2000 to 470,000 last year. This year, state lawmakers passed some of the nation's toughest measures targeting illegal immigrants, and Republican Governor Sonny Perdue last week vowed a statewide crackdown on document fraud.

Other than the Crider plant, there isn't much in Stillmore. Four small stores, a coin laundry, and a Baptist church share downtown with City Hall, the Fire Department, and a post office. ``We're poor but proud," Mayor Marilyn Slater said.

``This reminds me of what I read about Nazi Germany, the Gestapo coming in and yanking people up," Slater said.

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