The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has sent agents to Jackson to help with emergency water distribution efforts, but organizers who work with undocumented immigrants say its presence may prevent them from seeking assistance.
The Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity is distributing water from its headquarters at 406 West Fortification St. It is also collecting donations for two immigrant families impacted by flooding in central Mississippi about two weeks ago. Much of the operation is volunteer-based.
Organizers learned DHS agents would be in Jackson on a call where an agent announced they would visit distribution sites “to check things out,” said Jess Manrriquez, director of the Queer and Trans Justice Project for the alliance. The department also released a statement last week saying agents would be in the city.
“We don’t want anything to do with them because we have people on site who are vulnerable,” Manrriquez said. “As much as they say they won’t (conduct immigration enforcement), we don’t believe that. There are too many instances of people getting caught up.”
DHS includes Immigration Customs and Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol, which are agencies responsible for immigration enforcement.
In a Friday statement, the department said emergency relief sites, such as those to receive food and water and to apply for disaster-related assistance, are protected areas where “to the fullest extent possible” ICE and CBP don’t conduct immigration enforcement.
“ICE and CBP provide emergency assistance to individuals regardless of their immigration status,” according to the statement. “DHS officials do not and will not pose as individuals providing emergency-related information as part of any enforcement activities.”
Other examples of protected areas include schools, hospitals, places of worship and social services establishments.
Manrriquez said she doesn’t take the department’s word as a guarantee not to enforce immigraton laws. Although DHS says it won’t do it, the department relies on individual agents to determine whether to enforce the laws, she said.
People who the alliance has helped have reported ICE agents going to protected sites such as schools to request information about children’s parents, she said.
DHS has also deported people during crises, the alliance said in a Tuesday statement.
The alliance also highlighted the department’s impact in Mississippi. In 2019, a series of raids at poultry plants resulted in the detention of 680 people. Then-U.S. Attorney Mike Hurt called it “the largest single state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history.”
Unless DHS agents wear a badge, uniform or other form of department identification, Manrriquez said there isn’t a way to know whether they visited the alliance’s water distribution site.
The alliance’s headquarters is a DHS and ICE-free zone, she said.
The National Guard has been called in to distribute water, similar to how members administered COVID-19 shots earlier in the pandemic.
Manrriquez said people who are undocumented and in the immigrant community are not as comfortable around people in uniforms. There is a fear that they will be asked to show immigration documents, she said.
“It’s just the perception, it honestly is,” Manrriquez said.