U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst 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.

On the eve of the 2018 election, speaking at a Biloxi rally, President Donald Trump acknowledged prominent Republican elected officials Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker.

From the stage that night, Trump also recognized one unelected political appointee — Mike Hurst, the U.S. Attorney for Mississippi’s Southern District.

“A man who’s been spectacular,” Trump said of Hurst. “The job he’s done, everybody’s talking about it.”

Hurst, who Trump appointed to the post in fall 2017, is also a central figure in recent raids in which federal agents apprehended nearly 700 workers at Mississippi meat processing facilities.

A 43-year-old Hickory native who ran for state attorney general four years ago, Hurst has also been one of Mississippi’s most influential law enforcement officials when it comes to prosecuting individuals in illegal immigration cases. However, Hurst has been less aggressive in prosecuting businesses, including a prominent Mississippi country club that admitted to knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants, documents show.

From 2006 to 2015, Hurst was an assistant U.S. attorney in Jackson and worked on public corruption cases. A review of 306 criminal cases in which Hurst is identified as the lead or only prosecuting attorney from that period shows that approximately 40 percent of those were immigration-related, including violations such as illegal re-entry, harboring undocumented people and passport falsification. Of those roughly 125 immigration cases he led, Hurst criminally prosecuted just four businesses, court records show.

Since the raids, immigration-rights advocates and critics of the Trump Administration’s policies have questioned whether the five companies employing workers at the seven plants raided last week will also be held criminally liable; federal agents targeted plants owned by A & B Inc., Koch Foods, Pearl River Foods, Peco Foods and PH Foods Inc.

When asked about possible charges against the food processors, which according to court documents, knew the workers were undocumented, Hurst told Mississippi Today in an e-mailed response: “I cannot comment on that question as this is an ongoing criminal investigation. What I can tell you is that, if you look at the history of this office, we have consistently prosecuted employers, companies and owners when evidence has been presented to us to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they have violated federal criminal laws.”

The severity of the punishment among those business owners has not always been consistent, however.

In three of those cases, owners or managers of the companies were sentenced to prison time. But the Justice Department handled the case against the Country Club of Jackson for hiring undocumented immigrants differently.

In a 2008 agreement with the federal government, no leaders of the country club, a private organization that also has nonprofit arm registered with the state, were named even though the club admitted to hiring undocumented immigrants. After a two-year period in which the club was not again charged with breaking the law, all charges were dismissed.

The charges were dropped even though the criminal complaint said the country club “did knowingly hire and continue to hire illegal aliens” and “operated willingly, knowingly and with intent to deceive the Social Security Administration.”

The document – a deferred prosecution agreement – was signed by Bill Rush Mosby III, the president of the Jackson Country Club, and by Southern District U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton and Hurst. In the document, the country club said it “accepts and acknowledges responsibility for its behavior.”

Hurst called the Jackson Country Club case unique because it was the first immigration-related prosecution of a business in the Southern District. He cited a statement from Lampton, a George W. Bush appointee who died in 2011, at the time:

“Due to a lack of emphasis, our federal immigration laws have not been traditionally and consistently enforced against employers. That is about to change in the Southern District of Mississippi. Today’s agreement should be viewed as a one-time occurrence, intended to serve as a clear and unequivocal warning to all employers throughout the state that, from this day forward, this office will be vigorously prosecuting employers who violate our federal immigration laws.”

In three subsequent cases brought after the Jackson Country Club case, business owners accused of hiring undocumented workers served prison time or in federal custody.

In a case involving two Flowood Asian restaurants, operator Gin Hsing Chen pleaded guilty to charges related to hiring “illegal aliens” and was sentenced to 12 months in federal custody, placed on supervised release for one year and fined $72,000.

In the same case, Karl Kwok Hing Wong was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison, placed on supervised release for two years and fined $5,000. Plus, in the same case, Shao Li Chen received eight months in prison, two years supervised release and fined $5,000.

Jose Humberto Gonzalez, the personnel manager for Howard Industries, received five years probation, including six months of home confinement and a $4,000 fine for conspiracy to violate immigration law after federal agents raided the Jones County manufacturer in 2008; 600 people accused of being undocumented were taken into custody, making it the largest immigration raid in state history until last week.

Paul and Barbara Love of Love Irrigation in Ridgeland were both sentenced to confinement in 2012. Paul Love received 21 months in custody, three years supervised probation and was fined 5,000. Barbara Love received 30 days of home confinement and three years of supervised probation.

The Jackson Country Club case, according to court documents, began when the Social Security Administration sent a letter to the Club in May 2006 stating that it was employing 43 people whose names and identification did not match Social Security records.

Then, in August of that year, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did an outreach presentation with the Country Club. In a follow-up visit later that month, country club officials told immigration enforcement officers the club could not fire all of the alleged undocumented workers because of the hardship it would place on the golf course and its restaurant.

Later, ICE obtained and executed a judicial warrant on the club and found the names of 49 undocumented workers spanning a period between May 2000 and August 2006. ICE detained 18 undocumented workers; ICE commenced deportation proceedings for all of them. The country club also had to pay $214,000 in penalties.

The proportion of businesses prosecuted for immigration crimes to total immigration prosecutions during Hurst’s tenure as assistant U.S. attorney mirrors data in a May report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Since 1986, when Congress enacted criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, both prosecutions of such employers and prison sentences have been “relatively rare,” according to the clearinghouse.

The TRAC report found between April 2018 and March 2019, only 11 individuals were prosecuted in seven cases; prosecutions have rarely climbed above 15 per year since 1986.

Still, a top Trump Administration officials has vowed to hold accountable any business owners who may have broken the nation’s immigration laws.

“Our investigation in Mississippi continues and all parties found in violation of the law will be held accountable,” said ICE acting director Matthew Albence in a statement released Tuesday. “This includes the employers who profit off their crimes.”

Read our full coverage of the immigration raids in Mississippi.

Alex Rozier contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: After this story published, Southern District U.S. Attorney Hurst contacted Mississippi Today Thursday to note he had prosecuted two other businesses related to the hiring of undocumented immigrants.

In September 2018, after being appointed U.S. attorney by Trump, his office garnered convictions against Cheng Lin, Yan Fei Tang and Guo Guany Lin in connection with the “harboring of illegal aliens” at the China Buffet II restaurant in Meridian.

Chen Lin was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and five years of supervised released. Yan Fei Tange received a sentence of six months confinement and three years of supervised release while Gua Guang Lin received six months imprisonment and three years supervised release.

The restaurant was hit with $600,000 in fines and special assessments. In addition property from the defendants totaling more than $700,000 was seized by the federal government.

In a 2011 case while Hurst was still an assistant U.S. attorney, three people were sentenced in connection with the hiring of undocumented workers at Artisan Construction on the Gulf Coast.

Randall Weitzel of Gulfport received six months imprisonment, followed by five months of home confinement and two years of supervised release.

Edwood Brodtmann Jr. of Bay St. Louis was sentenced to three years of probation and a $5,000 fine while Agustin Arcadia of Vancleave received three months imprisonment, followed by six months home confinement and two years supervised probation.

The original search by Mississippi Today looked at cases where Hurst was listed as the lead attorney or sole attorney. He said he was co-counsel on the Artisan Construction case with Gaines Cleveland. Court records found online show Cleveland as the lead attorney.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.

Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.