The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s pick to lead U.S. intelligence claims he arrested 300 illegal immigrants in a single day. He didn’t. 

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) withdrew from consideration as director of national intelligence on Aug. 2. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump’s choice to lead the nation’s intelligence community often cites a massive roundup of immigrant workers at poultry plants in 2008 as a highlight of his career. Rep. John Ratcliffe claims that as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Texas, he was the leader of the immigration crackdown, describing it as one of the largest cases of its kind.

“As a U.S. Attorney, I arrested over 300 illegal immigrants on a single day,” Rat­cliffe (R-Tex.) says on his congressional website.

But a closer look at the case shows that Ratcliffe’s claims conflict with the court record and the recollections of others who participated in the operation — at a time when he is under fire for embellishing his record.

Ratcliffe played a supporting role in the 2008 sweep, which involved U.S. attorneys’ offices in five states and was led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, according to a Justice Department news release. The effort targeted workers at poultry processor Pilgrim’s Pride who were suspected of using stolen Social Security numbers.

Only 45 workers were charged by prosecutors in Ratcliffe’s office, court documents show. Six of those cases were dismissed, two of them because the suspects turned out to be American citizens. One of those citizens, a 19-year-old woman, was awakened in her home and hauled away by immigration agents, the woman said in an interview.

Two people involved in the planning or execution of the enforcement effort said they could not recall Ratcliffe playing a central role. 

A.J. Irwin, a former immigration investigator who was involved in the early planning stages before retiring, said in an interview that the operation was a costly failure. Later, as a private immigration consultant, he advised the poultry processor after the sweep and gathered details about the woman who was arrested.

At a July 24 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) said part of former special counsel Robert Mueller's report "was not authorized." (Video: The Washington Post)

“At the end of the day, it did not deliver,” Irwin said. “It was the biggest waste of money and hype.”

A spokeswoman for Ratcliffe, Rachel Stephens, did not respond to questions about the operation but said in a statement that it grew out of a prior investigation and arrests in the Eastern District of Texas at the company’s national headquarters.

Ratcliffe’s background has come under scrutiny since Trump announced Sunday that he plans to nominate the lawmaker to be the next director of national intelligence, replacing Daniel Coats, a former longtime senator and diplomat who was often at odds with the president. 

Ratcliffe has dialed back his earlier claims that he had won convictions in a high-profile terrorism case as a federal prosecutor. His planned nomination has drawn opposition from Senate Democrats and tepid support from key Republicans.

Some current and former intelligence officials have said Ratcliffe is the least-qualified person ever nominated to oversee the country’s intelligence agencies — previous directors have been former diplomats, senior intelligence officials and military leaders — and questioned whether he would use the position to serve Trump’s political interests. The post was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to coordinate the 16 other agencies of the nation’s intelligence community.

Ratcliffe has been a staunch defender of the president and has alleged anti-Trump bias at the FBI. Trump tweeted out his plan to nominate Ratcliffe several days after the lawmaker attacked former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III during a hearing.

Ratcliffe graduated from Notre Dame in 1986 and Southern Methodist University Law School in Dallas in 1989. A native of Illinois, Ratcliffe and his family moved to the small city of Heath, an affluent suburb just east of Dallas, where he began a law practice.

In 2004, he was hired as an assistant federal prosecutor in the sprawling Eastern District of Texas and was named chief of anti-terrorism in the office, despite an admitted lack of experience.

“My background isn’t in law enforcement and I don’t have any real specialized training,” he said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in early 2005.

The same year he became a prosecutor, Ratcliffe was elected mayor of Heath, an unpaid post he would hold for eight years while working for the Justice Department. In his run later for the House, Ratcliffe cited his leadership of Heath — a wealthy lakeside community of 8,000 that has a yacht club and a private golf course — as an example of his government service and fiscal acumen.

He was named acting U.S. attorney in May 2007 to fill a vacancy for one year. He was never nominated by the president or confirmed by the Senate. The brief stint later became a cornerstone in Ratcliffe’s bid for Congress.

“During his tenure, John personally managed dozens of international and domestic terrorism investigations involving some of the nation’s most sensitive security matters,” his campaign website said during his first run for Congress in 2013.

In 2016, seeking reelection, he claimed a central role in a major federal terrorism case. “There are individuals that currently sit in prison because I prosecuted them for funneling money to terrorist groups,” he is quoted as saying in campaign literature.

Stephens, Ratcliffe’s spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about which cases Ratcliffe was referring to. But the same news release refers to a high-profile case from that time. “In 2008, Ratcliffe served by special appointment as the prosecutor in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, one of the nation’s largest terrorism financing cases,” it says.

Stephens acknowledged this week that Ratcliffe’s assignment was not to prosecute the case but rather “to investigate issues related to” why an initial prosecution of Holy Land Foundation resulted in a mistrial.

She said Justice Department policy prevents Ratcliffe from commenting on his work related to the case because it did not result in criminal charges. Without citing specific cases, she said that Justice records would confirm that Ratcliffe “opened, managed and supervised numerous domestic and international terrorism-related cases.”

Ratcliffe has made the immigration roundup of poultry workers, code named Operation Plymouth Rock, a defining example of his conservative bona fides.

Irwin said he raised questions about its goals and methods during planning sessions in 2007. Irwin said he questioned why they were devoting so many resources to a case he thought would net only low-level offenders.

An ICE spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Irwin retired from ICE before the sweep. He later worked as a consultant at a firm that helped Pilgrim’s Pride comply with immigration laws, including in the weeks after the arrests. 

He dismissed Ratcliffe’s claim of having arrested 300 immigrants in the country illegally, in part because ICE agents and U.S. attorneys’ offices in five states were involved. Also, he said, federal prosecutors do not arrest suspects.

Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman in ICE’s El Paso office who also participated in the operation, questioned Ratcliffe’s characterization of his role in the arrests. “No, that doesn’t sound factual. That sounds incorrect,” she told The Washington Post. 

Zamarripa said she does not recall Ratcliffe being involved. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” she said.

A news release by ICE and the Justice Department on the day of the arrests calls the operation “an ICE-led investigation with support” from the five U.S. attorneys’ offices. The release said that the defendants could receive up to five years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000. 

“The Department of Justice anticipates that a substantial number of those detained will be federally prosecuted,” the news release said.

But the operation was marked by some missteps, and the cases did not result in long sentences or big fines. One of the suspects was Xochitl Delgado, the 19-year-old female citizen who was detained.

Born in California, she had worked at Pilgrim’s Pride for almost a year before her arrest. In an interview in Spanish, Delgado told The Post that eight agents, some of them armed, awakened her and took her into custody just hours after she finished a night shift at the plant.

She said she was surprised and scared: “I was asking myself, Why are they here? Who are these people?”

Delgado was released from custody the following day after agents learned she was a U.S. citizen. The case was dropped after a prosecutor representing Ratcliffe’s office asked a judge to dismiss it “in the interests of justice,” court records show.

Another U.S. citizen, also 19, was arrested at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant, records and interviews show. A third was a legal resident worker.

Irwin’s consulting partner, Hipolito Acosta, a 30-year veteran agent and manager at the agency formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was at the plant advising the company during the sweep. In an interview, he said he told a top ICE official who was there that the 19-year-old man was a legal citizen. He said the official responded, “He can tell it to the judge.”

Those charges were also dismissed, records show.

The three were among six cases dismissed at prosecutors’ request. Indictments against the other suspects were dismissed nearly two months later as part of plea agreements that resulted in guilty pleas to a single charge of false use of a Social Security number and a $100 fine. The defendants in the Eastern District were released to immigration officials for deportation proceedings, and at least one person arrested in the case was deported, according to documents and interviews.

More than a dozen defense attorneys representing other defendants did not respond to inquiries about the outcome of those proceedings.

Ratcliffe’s campaign literature later claimed that “as a result of John’s efforts” Pilgrim’s Pride paid a $4.5 million “criminal penalty.” The agreement to pay the money was not struck until December 2009, a year after Ratcliffe left the prosecutor’s office. The company did not admit wrongdoing and the government brought no civil or criminal charges against it.

Ratcliffe highlighted the crackdown when he announced his first run for Congress, citing it as “part of a proven conservative record” and describing it as “one of the nation’s largest work site enforcement actions.” 

“Operation Plymouth Rock led to the successful prosecution of hundreds of illegal aliens,” the campaign brochure said.