LAUREL, Miss. Union bosses in this region of rural Mississippi have long grumbled that the largest factories here hire illegal immigrants, and that the immigrants were starting to get more overtime and supervisory positions.
Friction between the union and immigrant workers, along with a tipoff at an electrical manufacturing plant, boiled over this week into the biggest workplace immigration raid in the nation's history.
When the first of the 595 suspected illegal immigrants was taken into custody Monday, some fellow workers broke into applause. A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the investigation started three years ago after agents received a tip from a union member.
In interviews with The Associated Press, both union members and immigrants spoke of a simmering tension. At least one immigrant said scare tactics were used to pressure people to join the union.
Union members said they resented immigrants, who were often allowed to work as much as 40 hours of overtime a week when other workers were discouraged from doing so. All declined to give their names, saying they feared for their jobs.
Howard Industries, which makes dozens of products from electrical transformers to medical supplies, is in Mississippi's Pine Belt region, an area known for commercial timber and chicken-processing plants.
Robert Shaffer, head of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, said that members have long complained that companies in southern Mississippi hire illegal immigrants.
"Jackson, Hattiesburg, Laurel and all areas along the coast, it's a little Mexico," Shaffer said. "I'm not against people trying to make living. I have a compassion for those folks. But at the same time, the taxpayers of Mississippi shouldn't be subsidizing a plant that won't even hire their own workers."
In 2002, Mississippi lawmakers approved a $31.5 million, taxpayer-backed incentive plan for Howard Industries to expand. The company, with 4,000 workers, is the largest employer in Jones County, which includes Laurel.
About 2,600 of Howard Industries' workers are in the union. Shaffer said he did not know whether any of those picked up in the raid were union members, or if nonunion workers were offered overtime while union workers were not.
Shaffer said offering immigrant workers union membership would depend on the situation, but he doubted it could be done if immigrants were in the country illegally.
Those detained in the raid came from Brazil, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru.
Howard Industries referred reporters to the statement it issued, which said the company "runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for its jobs. It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants."
No executives were detained in the raid, but a spokeswoman said the raid was just the first part of an ongoing investigation.
A 30-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has worked at the transformer plant for three years said union representatives pressured immigrants to join the union, sometimes visiting their homes, offering gifts such as shirts and indicating that if they joined the union they would make more money.
The immigrant, who was not caught in the raid because he works the night shift, spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Jose, because he was concerned about being detained.
"The union uses the tactic of saying immigration was coming and the members of the union would not be taken," he said through a translator.
Jose said he did not join the union because he wasn't convinced it would come to his side if he were detained, and he felt his dues would not be returned.
At least eight of the workers caught in the raid face criminal charges for allegedly using false Social Security and residency identification
The unemployment rate in Jones County was 6.5 percent in July, slightly higher than the national rate of 6 percent but below the state's 8.5 percent rate.
William Gunther, an economics professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said Mississippi has a labor shortage because people aren't moving there, which could explain why companies might hire illegal immigrants.
"That leaves businesses with a serious problem," he said. "That doesn't justify, but it certainly explains why they might be hiring individuals who show up and say, 'I'll work for you."'
He said businesses could face higher wage costs and consumers could face higher costs for products and services if immigrants are taken out of the economy.
Ruben Castro, who owns La Fiesta Brava Mexican restaurant, is already seeing the effects. He had to bring in workers from a store in another town because he was so short-handed after the raid, when five other Mexican restaurants in Laurel closed because employees were afraid to come to work.
"It hurts the community," he said, because the town will lose 600 people who frequented stores like Wal-Mart and paid sales taxes.