Families search for answers following immigration raids; 680 people working at food processing plants detained

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Matthew T. Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaks to media during a press conference about the results of the execution of federal search warrants by Homeland Security Investigations’ special agents at multiple locations across the state Wednesday, August 7, 2019. About 680 undocumented immigrants were detained during this operation.

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Immigration agents detained approximately 680 people during coordinated early-morning workplace raids Wednesday across Mississippi, federal authorities announced this afternoon.

The operation now holds the record for “what is believed to be the largest single state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history,” Mike Hurst, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, told reporters Wednesday.

More than 650 agents from Homeland Security Investigations executed administrative and federal criminal search warrants for immigration violations at seven sites in six different cities: two sites in Morton, and one each in Carthage, Canton, Pelahatchie, Walnut Grove and Bay Springs, according to Hurst.

Families, attorneys and immigrants’ rights advocates scrambled to respond Wednesday. Joshua Tom of American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi said his organization had joined several other local and national groups, including the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance and the Mississippi Center for Justice, to provide assistance for those affected by the raids.

Acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Matthew Albence said the raids were part of a year-long investigation.

Hundreds of workers who could not demonstrate legal status were bused to a military hangar in Flowood for processing, according to the Associated Press.

Citing the long planning time involved in the operation, Hurst denied that the timing of the raids had anything to do with a mass shooting in the predominately Hispanic city of El Paso, Texas over the weekend, in which a shooter killed 22 people at a Walmart. The suspect in the deadly white supremacist attack posted writings saying he wanted to stop a “Hispanic invasion,” investigators say.

At the Koch Foods plant in Morton this morning, family members and friends gathered to say goodbye and shouted, “Let them go! Let them go!“, per an Associated Press report.

Jackson-based immigration attorney Marshall Goff of Chhabra & Gibbs, P.A. said his office had heard from people, including clients, all morning: “Kids calling us on the first day of school, wondering if their parents were caught up in the raids.”

Authorities indicated that employers found knowingly hiring people not authorized to work in the country could face prosecution, but declined to provide specifics, citing an open investigation.

Per news reports, HSI agents were found at a number of poultry processing plants across the state, including a Koch Foods plant in Morton, Peco Foods in Walnut Grove, Canton, and Bay Springs, PH Food Inc. in Morton, Pearl River Foods in Carthage and A&B Inc. in Pelahatchie

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Bryan Cox, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson, answers questions from media concerning the detainment of illegal immigrants at several locations in Mississippi Wednesday, August 7, 2019.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said the agency was working on providing more specific numbers following the raids.

In addition to the detentions, the operation could also prove a blow for Mississippi’s poultry industry, which accounts for the largest percentage of the state’s agricultural economy; the industry employs more than 25,000 people across the state.

Though employers targeted in the raids could face criminal penalties, a report released in May by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University notes the criminal prosecution of employers “who knowingly hire undocumented workers has been relatively rare.”

The TRAC report found between April 2018 and March 2019, only 11 individuals were prosecuted in seven cases, and that prison sentences have also been rare for people convicted since criminal penalties were enacted by Congress in 1986.

Mississippi state law also requires employers to check the work authorization status of workers through the federally-administered E-Verify system, which confirms a worker’s I-9 form against other records.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba decried the raids, calling them “dehumanizing and ineffective as a tactic for protecting citizens from potential harm.”

“I’m calling upon faith institutions in our community to become sanctuaries for our immigrant neighbors and protect them from potential harm,” the mayor said in a statement. Under Lumumba’s administration, the city passed an anti-racial and ethnic profiling ordinance that drew disagreement over whether such an ordianance made Jackson a “sanctuary” city for immigrants.

Detainees will be interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed by ICE agents and taken to an ICE facility in Jena, Louisiana. According to officials, others identified as eligible for a detention alternative based on “humanitarian reasons” will be returned to the place they were originally detained, though they will still have to appear before a federal immigration judge.

An ICE spokesman said people could call the following hotline numbers for help locating individuals who were detained today: 855-479-0502, and 888-351-4024.

This is a developing story; check back for updates.