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ICE agents raid Miss. work sites, arrest 680 people in largest single-state immigration enforcement action in U.S. history

Elizabeth Iraheta, a Salvadoran immigrant who works at Koch Foods Inc., says she now has to take care of a 12-year-old whose mother was detained. (Video: The Washington Post)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept through seven work sites in six cities across Mississippi on Wednesday, arresting approximately 680 people the agency said were undocumented immigrants in what officials said is the largest single-state workplace enforcement action in U.S. history.

The raids targeted agricultural processing plants, part of a year-long investigation into illegal employment of immigrants in the state, officials said. They did not say how many individuals they were targeting in the operations, nor what proportion of those taken into custody were what ICE calls “collateral” arrests — those who were swept up along with those ICE was seeking.

ICE acting director Matthew Albence said at a news conference in Jackson, Miss., that some of those arrested will be prosecuted for crimes, others will be swiftly deported, and some will be released pending immigration court hearings. Albence said the raids were part of normal ICE operations that seek to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept through seven work sites in six cities across Mississippi on Aug. 7. (Video: WJTV)

The Trump administration has been openly stepping up pressure on the nearly 11 million immigrants believed to be in the United States illegally, threatening mass arrests of families who have arrived recently as part of an effort to deter migrants from coming to the country. The administration also has sought to turn away asylum seekers — forcing some to await their court hearings in Mexico — and now plans to deport some Central Americans to Guatemala to seek asylum there instead as part of an international agreement.

Although President Trump telegraphed the family raids several times, they have not gone forward in full force. But ICE has continued operations that it says primarily target immigrants with criminal convictions as well as those who have been deemed deportable in U.S. courts. The Mississippi raids were a stark reminder that the administration is continuing to press on immigration, with some of its largest enforcement efforts to date.

As immigrant families wait in dread, no sign of large-scale enforcement raids

“The arrests today were the result of a year-long criminal investigation, and the arrests and warrants executed today were just another step in that investigation,” Albence said Wednesday.

ICE Homeland Security Investigations conducted the operation in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. ICE said such enforcement efforts are focused both on those who are seeking to work unlawfully in the United States and the employers who knowingly hire them.

“To those who use illegal aliens for a competitive advantage or to make a quick buck, we have something to say to you: If we find you have violated federal criminal law, we are coming for you,” said Mike Hurst, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. But he declined to comment on whether anyone other than the immigrant workers would be charged as a result of the operation, which he said is ongoing.

Alabama-based Peco Farms Inc. confirmed in a statement that ICE raided three of its poultry processing plants in Mississippi, and the company said it is cooperating fully with federal authorities.

ICE routinely declines to provide details about individuals in its custody, but the number of those without known criminal histories out of those arrested in recent operations suggests a substantial proportion of “collaterals” during such raids.

A July analysis of ICE data by the American Immigration Council shows that ICE has cast a wider net in its arrest raids under the Trump administration than previously “in its search for individuals who may be deportable from the United States.”

Department of Homeland Security officials, emphasizing the severity of a mass influx of migrants at the Mexican border, have said repeatedly in recent months that ICE detention facilities are at capacity, forcing a backlog of detained immigrants at Border Patrol stations that are ill-equipped to hold people for long periods of time. A July report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General described ICE detention centers as “operating at or above capacity.”

“During the week of our visits, ICE had approximately 54,000 beds occupied nationwide, but was only funded for 42,000 beds,” the OIG report said. “In our discussions with ICE field management about this situation, they explained that their capacity to find additional bed space is strained.”

Congress in June approved a $4.6 billion emergency border aid package, and nearly $209 million was designated for ICE.

Speaking before a House Oversight Committee hearing in late July, Albence said the border crisis continues to strain resources, and he asked for more funding, saying that ICE capacity limits mean there is still a massive backlog in Border Patrol stations.

“ICE is currently detaining over 53,000 single adults, and there are approximately 8,000 single adults in CBP custody awaiting processing or transfer to ICE,” Albence told members of Congress.

The raids in Mississippi came just days after a gunman killed 22 people in El Paso after reportedly driving across Texas with the intention of attacking immigrants near the U.S. border, an event that has struck fear into many Hispanic residents across the country. Coupled with Trump supporters chanting about sending minorities back to their countries and the president’s own references to an immigrant “invasion,” immigrant communities from coast to coast have been put on edge.

Officials said the Mississippi operation, which they said involved the mobilization of nearly 650 federal agents from across the country, was the result of a long-standing investigation that had no ties to current events. Albence said the shooting in El Paso was “horrific,” but he said the raid operation had been planned long beforehand, “and we intended to carry it out.”

A reporter at the news conference pointed out that the poultry farms seemed likely to have been employing illegal labor for years and asked: “Why now? . . . Do you feel like you’re being directed by President Trump to do this?”

“I feel like I’ve been directed to enforce the law,” Hurst responded.