How Mississippi, where chicken is a multi-billion dollar business, repeatedly balked at getting tougher on illegal immigration

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The early August day when federal immigration agents raided seven chicken processing plants, detaining nearly 700 workers across central Mississippi, gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves praised agents for their work.

“Glad to see that ICE is working hard to enforce our immigration laws. 680 aliens detained in Mississippi today. We must enforce our laws, for the safety of all Americans. Well done,” he tweeted, tagging both U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst and President Donald Trump.

Gov. Phil Bryant too praised the raids, also tagging the Trump-appointed Hurst in a Twitter post: “If you are here illegally violating federal laws, you have to bear the responsibility of that federal violation.”

Despite the enthusiasm Mississippi officials showed for the raids, Mississippi has seen a succession of failed legislative attempts to pass tougher state-level immigration laws in the past eight years.

In the 2012 session, the year Republicans controlled the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion for the first time since Reconstruction ended, the House passed legislation that, among other things, required local law enforcement to request authorizing documents from anyone suspected of being unlawfully present in the country.

The legislation, called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act and authored by Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, was billed as a major deterrent to undocumented immigrants locating Mississippi. Also dubbed a “papers, please” law, it followed similar measures enacted in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia.

After passing the House, opposition from the business community, especially agriculture groups, and local law enforcement officials grew as the Senate prepared to take up the bill. Reeves, the presiding officer in the Senate, took much of the blame for the bill’s demise.

“We actually gave the lieutenant governor an ‘F’ on illegal immigration,” Rodney Hunt, then-president of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, said in 2012.

Reeves drew the ire of groups like Hunt’s for sending the bill to a committee chaired by Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory, which meant certain death. “Lt. Gov. Reeves believes we need to do something to rid our state of illegal immigrants, but he respects the fact that the chairman listened to concerns expressed by (groups opposing the bill),” Reeves’ spokesperson, Laura Hipp, said at the time.

Bryan said he could not recall the bill’s specifics, although he said the presence of undocumented migrant workers in Mississippi still present concerns.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, expresses his concerns about a potential state lottery during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Friday, August 24, 2018.

“It just doesn’t work to have large numbers of people living in the U.S. who are not citizens,” Bryan said, because it creates an opportunity for employers to exploit them.

The Pew Research Center estimates there were 20,000 immigrants living in Mississippi, a state with a population of just under 3 million, without authorization in 2017.

“You’ve got to have a situation where everybody is here as a citizen, and I don’t know how to get from point A to point B,” Bryan said. “None of the solutions are pure enough for the pure.”

The attempt to pass a papers-please bill actually started one year earlier, when Bryant presided over the Senate as lieutenant governor and Democrats still controlled the House. A similar bill passed both chambers but died when the House and Senate could not work out differences before lawmakers adjourned.

In each instance, the bills met strong opposition from the powerful and well-financed poultry industry.

Chicken is big business in Mississippi, which produces roughly 750 million broiler chickens each year, making it the nation’s fifth largest chicken producing state. The state’s poultry industry, employing 25,000 people and generating more than $18 billion in economic activity, according to a Mississippi State University publication, makes up the greatest share of Mississippi’s agriculture economy.

The state has invested in the plants targeted by immigration agents, granting millions to local jurisdictions to make infrastructure improvements in exchange for promises to create new jobs. Peco Foods, Inc., and Koch Foods, two of the five poultry processing companies agents raided, have benefited from nearly $4 million in grants awarded by Mississippi Development Authority since 2009. Food processing company Koch, pronounced “cook”, has no relation to the politically influential “Koch brothers,” Charles and David Koch.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.

Several trade groups and organizations, including the Mississippi Economic Council, Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, Mississippi Poultry Association, and several law enforcement agencies have vocally opposed anti-immigrant legislation.

“Some groups wanted to follow the lead of Alabama and allow local law enforcement officers to begin enforcing federal immigration laws, but Alabama has been mired in
federal lawsuits and suffered an economic black eye,” wrote Mark Leggett, the president of the state poultry association in a 2012 association newsletter touting the defeat of the papers-please bill as one of his group’s legislative accomplishments.

In fact, since 2012, almost all legislation dealing with immigration has stalled in the Legislature. In 2017 and 2018, Rep. Currie introduced two identical “papers please” bills — even leaving “2012” in the summary of the act. They died in a committee chaired by former Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, now the state’s agriculture commissioner.

One victory for advocates of stricter immigration enforcement came in 2017 when the Legislature passed a measure prohibiting so-called sanctuary cities. However, even supporters of the legislation said at the time that there were no communities in Mississippi officially designated as sanctuary cities.

Mississippi is one of 20 states that require some employers to use E-Verify, a web-based application used to confirm a worker’s eligibility to work in the U.S.

In most of those E-Verify states, however, the requirement only applies to public employers. Mississippi and just five other states — Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee — applies the requirement to all employers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mississippi enacted the law in 2008, with Bryant’s full support, at a time when several states were beginning to crack down on migrants working in the states without authorization.

“It was political from the beginning,” said Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who criticized the leadership for not focusing on greater penalties for employers found hiring workers unauthorized to work in the country.

Despite the poultry association’s role in the state immigration bills’ defeat, the group remains an influential presence on High Street.

An excerpt from Mississippi Poultry Association President Mark Leggett’s lobbyist reporting form.

In addition to lobbying activities such as paying for meals and some travel for lawmakers, the state poultry association has donated $235,700 to 234 political campaigns since 1999, according to Montana-based FollowTheMoney.org, which tracks campaign finance filings at the state level. In the last two decades, the association gave the most donations — 70 in all — in 2011, an election year and the first year Currie introduced her “papers, please” law in the House, which died in committee.

Leggett, the poultry association’s president and lobbyist, did not return phone calls for this story.

Koch and Peco food companies and their executives have given few donations directly to local politicians — just $4,950 to five candidates since 1999, according to FollowTheMoney. Peco Foods donated $500 to Reeves in 2015, the year he was elected to his second term.

The political action committee for the National Chicken Council, the national trade association for companies that raise broiler chickens and produce chicken products, has donated roughly $3.5 million to political candidates nationally since 1990. Since 2010, the council’s donations have increasingly gone to Republican candidates with 88 percent of dollars going to Republicans in 2018, according to the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks national campaign finance reports.

The council has donated $226,300 to congressional candidates in Mississippi since 1980.

The council donated $10,000 to U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, former state agriculture commissioner, during her 2018 run to replace late Sen. Thad Cochran and has donated an additional $6,500 so far in 2019. It also gave $34,500 to Cochran, $30,500 to former U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, $26,000 to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, $10,500 to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, $10,500 to U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo and $4,500 to newly elected U.S. Rep. Michael Guest.

The chicken council wrote a letter to President Donald Trump following the Mississippi raids calling for improvements to the E-Verify system, which it called inadequate in ensuring applicants are eligible to work in the U.S.

Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer of Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, which was not involved in the recent immigration raids and is the nation’s third largest poultry producer, said the company supports meaningful immigration reforms and has opposed aggressive enforcement measures such as “papers, please” laws.

The raids, Cockrell said, “shines a light, once again, for the dire need for reform.”

Mississippi House

Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison

While Mississippi has balked at attempts at reforms on the state level, some lawmakers such as Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, agree with Cockrell.

“There are a lot of people that want to come to Mississippi to work, to pay taxes, to be productive, law-abiding workers and our immigration system and our immigration laws are so broken that there’s no good way for them to do that,” Bomgar said. “Regardless of how many people apply for the openings that were created by the raids, even so, those organizations will be extremely understaffed because the vast majority of Mississippians do not want to do that work.”

Just days before agents raided and detained employees at Pearl River Foods in Carthage, it had already posted 200 job openings for meat cutter positions paying $7.25-an-hour.

In particular, Bomgar said laws need to be changed so that migrants who come to Mississippi to work for a short time do not feel they need to stay indefinitely to secure work in the future.

Many workers are currently “afraid to go back to Mexico for fear they will not be able to come back to work when they need to,” Bomgar said.

The U.S. has a long history of laws — from slavery to banning women and African Americans from voting — that are unjust, unfair and don’t work, Bomgar said.

“If the laws are not producing the desired results, we should not be advocating for the enforcement of the laws, we should be advocating for changing the laws so that the laws give us the outcomes that we want,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of broiler chickens produced in Mississippi each year. That number is approximately 750 million.

Bobby Harrison contributed to this report.