JACKSON • Exactly three months after the largest workplace raids in a decade at seven chicken processing plants in central Mississippi that resulted in almost 700 arrests, the impact is still being identified.
Mississippi Congressman Bennie G. Thompson hosted a hearing Thursday at Tougaloo College that revealed several undocumented workers remain detained, there are more than 400 cases of identity theft, and no employers have yet been charged.
Thompson, a Democrat and chairman of the Committee of Homeland Security, was joined by members Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green, both of Texas, and Congressman Steve Cohen, Tennessee, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
In opening statements, Thompson shared concerns over the care taken for children whose parents were arrested, stating that communities instead had to “scramble to find separated children.”
“Because of the way this operation was carried out, our communities are living in fear, people are afraid to leave their homes, children are terrified to go to school because they may return home to find their remaining parent gone, and local businesses are suffering,” Thompson said.
Professor Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center with the University of Mississippi School of Law, testified that charges against undocumented workers demonstrated a lack of prosecutorial discretion. He cited former secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, speaking on Trump’s 2017 executive order, who said “being in the US is not enough.”
“In Mississippi, in these raids, there was nothing else. These people are not criminals,” Johnson said. “These prosecutions are wrong-headed and they are a wrong use of our resources.”
Constance Slaughter-Harvey, president of the board for the Legacy Education and Empowerment Foundation, said the raids reminded her of past racial injustices in Mississippi and said most of Scott County was surprised and that it was “quite disturbing,” while witnesses such as Odel Medina, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Carthage, and Lorena Quiroz-Lewis, lead organizer of Working Together Mississippi and Mississippi Immigrant Coalition, shared stories of families who are still separated and seeking support. Medina said the raid has resulted in national attention for immigration reform.
Quiroz-Lewis said the growth of detention facilities from two to 13 made it hard to track down detainees for family members. She shared testimony of a woman being forcibly removed from her car after an ICE officer cut her seatbelt with a knife, and also said another woman she represents is facing declining health after being detained for three months. She raised additional concerns around language issues, stating several spoke three to four different indigenous languages rather than Spanish, meaning there was a language barrier which causes concerns around due process.
“We have to find court interpreters from all over the country because there is such limited resources, so this has been excruciating even for the folks doing organizing work to do legal intake to make sure they are understanding accurately,” Quiroz-Lewis said.
Special Agent in Charge Jere Miles of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security, said use of words such as “raids” and “sweeps” misrepresented HSI. He testified they executed eight criminal searches and seven federal civil searches as part of an 18-month investigation.
“HSI prioritizes criminal worksite enforcement investigations by focusing on the most egregious violators, which includes employers that mistreat or exploit their workers based upon their unlawful status, agents smuggling over alien workforce into the United States, create false identity documents to facilitate document fraud, utilize undocumented workers as a business model, and/or knowingly and willfully hiring unauthorized workers,” Miles said.
He said HSI conducted coordination meetings on a bi-weekly to weekly basis with state partners prior to the raids and gave each area its own supervisor group to minimize fallout.
He said ICE contacted schools after the raids and set up 11 phone lines for family and friends, which provided information in 343 calls. When asked about the number of children still not united with parents, he said he did not have them but will try to get those numbers.
He further testified officers seized more than 850,000 documents, 61 digital devices and more than 82 terabytes of data. There have been 119 criminal indictments of more than 400 people for identity theft.
The investigation involved approximately 600 officers and cost $487,000 to execute, according to Congress members and Miles.
During a follow-up question from Thompson, Miles said ICE only contacted county schools and had possibly had an oversight that resulted in no contact with Canton schools.
At times, questioning became somewhat heated as committee members asked questions about why ICE chose to conduct a major workplace raid rather than go to an individual’s home, why they raided on what was, for some school districts, the first day of school, and the lack of criminal charges for employers so far. Miles said the operation was planned well and said Aug. 7 was the chosen date.
“What does it matter if it’s the first day or tenth day of school? The parents are still not going home,” Miles said.
In referencing the lack of charges for employers, Miles said the raids were just “one step” in a larger investigation. When asked directly by Green about evidence of employers being in violation of the law, Miles said that is a complicated question. Green said this indicated that ICE “picked on the undocumented persons to the exclusion of the employers.”
Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee and Canton Mayor William Truly testified a lack of prior notice made it difficult for them to respond after the raids.
To both, Miles said there is currently no policy where they have to notify anyone.
Following the hearing, Jackson Lee called for an investigation into the Department of Justice and Homeland Security.
“We’re going to investigate what determination you make to have a raid like this,” Jackson Lee said.
Thompson said the information heard would help craft future legislation. Green directly attributed the raids to the Trump administration.
“This is a policy of the Trump administration that ICE had to enforce. We must send a message to the Trump administration that this kind of behavior is unacceptable,” Green said.
Mississippi immigrant community and allies, such as Southeast Immigrant Rights Network, Working Together Mississippi, Mississippi Resiste, Southerners on New Ground and FIRM Action, also held a press conference following the hearing, during which four immigrants affected testified about being separated from family members, the confusion following being detained and released, and made calls to stop funding ICE and instead fund communities.
“We are not going to stop telling our story until we have a way to citizenship that allows us to contribute to this country with peace and tranquility,” said Lorena, one of the detainees, through a translator during a press conference. Her last name was withheld.
Tyson Jackson of the People’s Advocacy Institute and Dr. Safiya R. Omari, chief of staff for Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, said Jackson stood in solidarity with immigrant communities and for the end of ICE raids.