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 U.S. 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' 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 Gov. 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, as if that is the town motto.
The 2000 Census put Stillmore's population at 730, but Slater said uncounted immigrants probably made it more than 1,000. Not anymore, with so many homes abandoned and the streets practically empty.
"This reminds me of what I read about Nazi Germany, the Gestapo coming in and yanking people up," Slater said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Marc Raimondi would not discuss details of the raids. "We can't lose sight of the fact that these people were here illegally," Raimondi said.
At Sucursal Salina No. 2, a store stocked with Mexican fruit sodas and snacks, cashier Alberto Gonzalez said Wednesday that the owner may shutter the place. By midday, Gonzalez has had only six customers. Normally, he would see 100.
The B&S convenience store, owned by Keith and Regan Slater, the mayor's son and grandson, has lost about 80 percent of its business.
"These people come over here to make a better way of life, not to blow us up," complained Keith Slater, who keeps a portrait of Ronald Reagan on the wall. "I'm a die-hard Republican, but I think we missed the boat with this one."
Since the mid-1990s, Stillmore has grown dependent on the paychecks of Mexican workers who originally came for seasonal farm labor, picking the area's famous Vidalia onions. Many then took year-round jobs at the Crider plant, with a workforce of about 900.
Crider President David Purtle said the agents began inspecting the company's employment records in May. They found 700 suspected illegal immigrants, and supervisors handed out letters over the summer ordering them to prove they came to the U.S. legally or be fired. Only about 100 kept their jobs.
The arrests started at the plant Sept. 1. Over the Labor Day weekend, agents with guns and bulletproof vests converged on workers' homes after getting the addresses from Crider's files.
Antonio Lopez, who came here two years ago from Chiapas, Mexico, and worked at the Crider plant, said agents kicked in his front door. Lopez, 32, and his 15-year-old son were handcuffed and taken by bus to Atlanta with 30 others. Because of the boy, Lopez said, both were allowed to return. In his back pocket, he carries an order to return to Atlanta for a court hearing Feb. 2.
But now, "there's no people here and I don't have any work," he said.
The poultry plant has limped along with half its normal workforce. Crider increased its starting wages by $1 an hour to help recruit new workers.
Stacie Bell, 23, started work canning chicken at Crider a week ago. She said the pay, $7.75 an hour, led her to leave her $5.60-an-hour job as a Wal-Mart cashier in nearby Statesboro. Still, Bell said she felt bad about the raids.
"If they knew eventually that they were going to have to do that, they should have never let them come over here," she said.