The Trump administration is pushing for prison time for dozens of the immigrant workers arrested in a sweeping Mississippi workplace raid last week, court records show.
At least 41 of the migrants arrested in the raid will face prosecution under criminal immigration laws like the ones the Trump administration used to carry out its experiment with systematic family separations at the border last year ― and that some Democratic presidential candidates want to repeal.
The ICE operation at several poultry producers was the largest single-state worksite raid in the agency’s history. Immigration officials rounded up some 680 unauthorized migrants working at the plants ahead of the opening of the school year. Some of those arrested were parents of young children, including an 11-year-old girl whose tearful plea for her father’s release went viral.
Critics like immigration lawyer David Leopold contend that ICE’s worksite investigations should focus on employers who exploit undocumented labor, rather than on workers. The employees charged with immigration crimes might qualify for visas because of their role as witnesses to labor crimes, he noted.
“The U.S. can charge them with all kinds of technical crimes ― it doesn’t make it right,” Leopold said of the workers. “They should not be criminalized. Period.”
Four immigrants face the charge of “failure to depart” after receiving a deportation order. That immigration crime, which is less-commonly prosecuted than illegal entry or reentry, is punishable by up to four years in prison. The rest were charged with the felony crime of illegal reentry.
One of the workers charged with felony reentry had been sent back to Mexico twice in 2006, after getting arrested both times at the border in Calexico, California. After finally making his way past the border, immigration officials arrested him during a 2008 worksite raid of Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi. At the time, it was the largest single-state worksite operation in ICE history, with 600 arrests.
ICE deported the man to Mexico after the 2008 raid, but he later returned to Mississippi ― only to face arrest last week in an even larger workplace raid. He faces up to two years in prison on the felony reentry charge filed this week, though sentencing guidelines typically mandate shorter sentences.
Two other Mexican nationals charged with illegal reentry after last week’s raid on Mississippi poultry plants had also been deported after the 2008 worksite raid in Laurel.
Several of the workers appear to have long histories in the United States. One of those prosecuted for failure to depart received his initial deportation order in 2001, but never left. Sixteen of them had gone a decade or more without encountering an immigration officer until last week’s raid, including two deported back in 1997.
Guatemalan nationals make up more than half of the defendants. The rest are from Mexico. Fourteen of them are women.
Illegal reentry complaints often include information about the defendant’s criminal history, partly because prior convictions can enhance the sentence after conviction. None of the documents filed in federal court in the last two days claim the migrants arrested in Mississippi have convictions in the United States.
Leopold, the immigration lawyer, lambasted the Trump administration for the timing of the Mississippi operation, which immediately followed a mass shooting targeting U.S. Hispanics and Mexican migrants in El Paso, Texas. The confessed shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, may face the death penalty for killing 22 people with a semi-automatic rifle.
The Trump administration could have investigated the company “without doing this dramatic raid and terrorizing [the workers] and Latinx communities across the country,” Leopold said.
The U.S. can charge them with all kinds of technical crimes ― it doesn’t make it right. They should not be criminalized. Period.David Leopold, immigration lawyer
It remains unclear what will happen to the migrant workers arrested in Mississippi. ICE released about 300 of them on “humanitarian grounds” to avoid leaving children without a parent in the house. The rest are locked up in one of three immigrant detention centers located in Mississippi and Louisiana, according to ICE spokesman Bryan Cox. They will likely face proceedings in immigration court. The majority of the arrested workers were Guatemalan nationals.
Several of the candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, led by former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have pledged to repeal the laws criminalizing illegal entry and reentry that the Trump administration is using to prosecute the migrant workers in Mississippi. About two-thirds of Democrats favor that proposal, according to a recent survey by Democratic pollster YouGov Blue.
Critics of those laws, including criminal justice reform groups and immigrant rights organizations, have long contended that the 1929 criminalization of illegal entry penned by segregationist Sen. Coleman Blease drives up federal incarceration and unnecessarily criminalizes migrants who would normally go through civil immigration proceedings.
“The harm caused by the mass raid in Mississippi is why people are calling for the repeal of laws used to criminalize and demonize immigrant communities,” said Jesse Franzblau, a senior analyst with the National Immigrant Justice Center. “Prosecuting immigrants for working in the country after being deported is a cruel form of double punishment used to drive fear into communities and tear families apart.”
Illegal entry and reentry were rarely enforced in the decades leading up to the George W. Bush administration. But over the last 15 years, illegal entry and reentry cases combined have become the Justice Department’s most common, taking up around half the federal criminal docket annually since 2008.
The calls to repeal the laws have invited backlash from some Obama-era immigration officials who contend that they make up a small part of the enforcement system and rarely apply to people beyond the border region.
But prosecuting immigration violations will likely help the Trump administration speed the deportation of some of the migrant workers arrested in the Mississippi worksite operation, in addition to adding the extra punishment of a prison sentence. All prosecutors need to secure a conviction for illegal reentry is documentation of a prior removal.
The worksite investigation began after ICE received calls to its tip lines. ICE relied heavily on information provided by migrants employed there whom the agency had already arrested and, in some instances, enrolled in alternatives to detention, according to documents filed in federal court to support the search warrant. Those documents allege that some migrants working at the plants broke laws to gain employment.
“When you look at the type of investigation this is, there are a number of charges that can come into play,” Cox, the ICE spokesman, told HuffPost, citing charges like tax fraud or identity theft.
It is unclear whether there will be more prosecutions. The decision to charge the cases rests largely with U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
This piece has been updated to include information about new prosecutions.