Hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived: Some immigrants without food nearly 24 hours before first court appearances

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

A Latino youth wears a t-shirt that has “American” written on the back at a Spanish Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Canton, Miss., Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019 following immigration raids at seven Mississippi poultry plants.

During afternoon hearings before federal judges in Jackson Monday, some immigrants detained at the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, La. had not eaten for nearly a whole day, since 4 p.m. the previous evening.

They were hungry, thirsty, and hadn’t slept much, said federal public defender John Weber. One woman who has diabetes began to feel ill in court after agents failed to provide her food or medicine, U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Anderson said.

Some went as long as 20 hours without food until the initial arresting agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, eventually ordered lunch from McAlister’s Deli for the detainees.

The group of roughly 30 immigrants, who were among the 680 workers detained during immigration enforcement raids at chicken plants across central Mississippi on Aug. 7, arrived at the federal courthouse in Jackson before 7 a.m. Monday, Weber said, after traveling during the early morning hours. It was the first day of court appearances following the raids.

By Tuesday morning, federal public defender Omodare Jupiter said he had received similar reports from detainees arriving for court that day. So just after 9 a.m., the attorney brought two bags of groceries from Froogles, a supermarket in Jackson, into Anderson’s courtroom for the defendants, a violation of the court’s rules.

A marshal, who declined to provide her name to Mississippi Today, stopped Jupiter. The U.S. Marshals Service, which enforces the court’s rules, assumes custody of criminal defendants, including those arrested by ICE, once they are arraigned.

“They haven’t eaten,” Jupiter said. “The last time they ate was 5 p.m. yesterday.”

The agent disagreed, saying detainees were carrying sacks of food when they got off ICE’s bus at the courthouse that morning. She berated the defendants sitting with their attorneys and interpreters at the front of the courtroom.

“They had a chance to eat,” she said. “If they didn’t eat it, that’s on them.”

“This is ridiculous,” Jupiter said.

Anderson said she was satisfied with the representation from marshals that detainees had been provided food Tuesday morning. “That wasn’t the case yesterday and they addressed that,” Anderson said after refusing to allow anyone to eat in her courtroom.

She also said she had received multiple conflicting reports about the detainees’ meals.

“I don’t know where the truth lies between the two,” Anderson said.

The confrontation underscores the confusion expressed by loved ones, advocates and attorneys in the aftermath of the operation, which includes the detention of roughly 380 people accused of entering the country without permission or falsifying documents in order to work. The workplace raids in early August, the planning for which had been in the works for over a year, were the largest in the nation in over a decade.

ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told Mississippi Today the criminal defendants who claimed they had not eaten became the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service once they were indicted — as far back as two weeks ago, in some cases — while Chief Marshals Deputy Shermaine Sullivan said any detainees remain in ICE’s custody until they are seen by a judge on initial arraignment. 

“During the course of travel, it is up to the arresting agency to provide any needed food, any needed care, medical care, anything up to the point of court,” Sullivan said.

Those remanded into marshals custody after their plea hearings will be transported to one of the facilities contracted with the U.S. Marshals Service, Madison County Correctional Facility or privately owned Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, which also houses ICE detainees.

Jupiter told Judge Anderson that ICE had also provided conflicting information to attorneys about the location of certain detainees, first saying male detainees were located at Adams County Correctional Facility Friday when they had been hastily transferred to Jena, La. Cox did not answer emailed questions about this transfer.

“Over the last few days, people are being moved at whatever hours,” Jupiter said. “There are a number of people missing because this is something that has not been organized as well as the court would like it to be.”

Fewer than 20 percent of the workers currently detained had been indicted by Monday, nearly three weeks after their arrest. Those 71 indictments detail a range of crimes, some charged with reentering the country without permission after being previously deported. Others have been charged with fraudulent use of a social security number to remain in the U.S or gain employment. Illegal reentry comes with a maximum penalty of two years in prison while those convicted under the most severe fraud charge could face up to 10 years in prison.

Most workers pleaded not guilty but will remain in U.S. Marshals custody. The government has asked judges to deny bond for defendants, arguing that they are a danger to the community and a flight risk. Defense attorneys have asked for bond, and hearings on the issue of detention will proceed throughout the week.

U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services

The federal courthouse in Jackson.

In a different courtroom, one defendant from Guatemala, with her black hair pulled into messy french braid, sat on the courtroom bench Monday afternoon staring into middle distance, occasionally letting her head droop down. When it was her turn to speak to U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Ball, officers gave her a black headset and receiver allowing her to listen to a translator who stood next to her, quietly repeating Ball’s words. When swearing in, she could only slightly raise her right hand, which was shackled to her left.

As she answered the judge’s questions — including whether she understood her translator or if she provided accurate information on her financial affidavit — the translator repeated her mostly one-word responses into the microphone propped up on a wooden stand.

Two other defendants, one of whom told the judge he couldn’t read, had not discussed the contents of their indictments with their translator, who participated in the hearing over the phone, prior to appearing before the judge.

The five defendants before Judge Anderson Tuesday had an elementary school education, most of them having only completed first grade.