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Crackdown on immigrants empties a town and hardens views

In Stillmore, Ga., more than 120 illegal migrants were arrested last month.

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As Department of Homeland Security agents in black SUVs tooled up and down the dirt avenues of Stillmore, Ga., hundreds of undocumented people scattered into the woods like "flushed quail," one witness said.

Many of those who weren't arrested fled, some to Kentucky. One family hid for two nights in a tree. As night sets now, a sprinkling of solitary lights glow from once-crowded trailer parks. Since the Labor Day raid, Stillmore, where the wishful sign at the city limit reads "A town that is still growing," has shrunk by at least a third after more than 120 people were arrested and perhaps as many as 300 others disappeared.

"It's a ghost town," says resident Bennett Byrd.

As federal, state, and local officials crack down on illegal immigrants across the country, attitudes continue to harden among those who want them to stay and those who want them to go. In places like Stillmore, Ga., Arkadelphia, Ark., and Charlotte, N.C., raids and crackdowns have uncorked a phenomenon for those left behind: a sense of moral confusion about mass roundups and midnight raids.

"There's a tension between working alongside these people, understanding their impact on the economy, and then some of the issues of a community being able or not able to sustain this kind of immigration," says Allan Burns, an anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "People are divided."

In Stillmore, the Crider plant does everything from poultry processing to packing M&Ms for the military to grilling the ribs for restaurant franchises, employees say. In a town of about 1,000 people, more than half of them were working there. The plant's success was driven by a hardworking labor supply that began arriving about four years ago.

Workers had "very good" fake documentation that fooled managers, a Crider plant spokesperson says.

In the town, few complained about the immigration status of the workers as Stillmore, once a thriving train depot, again became a destination. "People got along. The town was growing," says Don Hadden, a local carpenter.

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