A trailer loaded with chickens passes a federal agent outside a Koch Foods plant in Morton, Miss., after a raid by immigration officials. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Columnist

People who support high levels of low-skilled immigration often claim that immigrants do work that native-born residents won’t. The facts surrounding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids of seven Mississippi chicken processing plants show how untrue that claim is.

Documents released Thursday suggest that the operators of those plants knowingly hired undocumented immigrants for years in violation of federal law. They show that many of the workers wore ankle bracelets provided by ICE to monitor their location while others used multiple names and provided different Social Security numbers when applying to work at the same plant. If true, the only logical conclusion can be the operators wanted to hire people whose illegal status meant they wouldn’t push for higher wages or make trouble.

Neither the companies that operate the plants nor any of their executives have yet been charged with violating immigration law, The Post reports. Peco Foods said it is cooperating with investigators, while Koch Foods denied knowingly employing people with false documentation to work. The other plants, PH Food, A&B and Pearl River Foods, did not respond or declined to comment to Post reporters.

Each of the plants have put out statements that they use the federal E-Verify system for all employees, though the newly released documents show that may not be the case at PH Food.

Such alleged flouting of the law is not a victimless crime. Each of the plants is located in cities or counties with high levels of poverty and extremely low incomes. There were plenty of workers available who probably would have loved to get jobs at the plants.

Jasper County, the location of one of the plants owned by Peco Foods, is a case in point. Jasper’s unemployment rate this June was 7.4 percent, more than twice the national average. A majority-black county, Jasper County has a median household income of only about $35,000 and a 23.8 percent poverty rate. Those who live there need those jobs, but the employer’s alleged scheme denied them that basic chance.

The other plant locations have similar demographics. Canton, Miss., is nearly 70 percent African American, with a 31.4 percent poverty rate for blacks. Scott County is 38 percent black, has a median household income of around $33,000 and a poverty rate more than 21 percent. Leake County is 42 percent black, has a median household income just under $36,000 and a poverty rate of nearly 22 percent. Pelahatchie, a town in Rankin County, is 40 percent black with a median income of just $35,000. Sense a pattern?

Given these figures, the economic impact of illegal immigration becomes clear. The Pew Research Center estimates that more than 7.5 million undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. labor force. Assuming their unemployment rate is roughly equal to the 3.7 percent national average, that means more than 7 million jobs are held by undocumented workers. That can’t help but depress wages and opportunities for native-born American. As the Mississippi figures show, those victims of illegal immigration are often exactly the poor people of color whose continued poverty is a national tragedy.

This won’t stop until immigration enforcement becomes a national and state priority. Mississippi law requires businesses to use E-Verify, the federal online system that checks the validity of Social Security numbers for job applicants, but that did not stop these employers from allegedly hiring hundreds of undocumented workers. Federal, state and local governments need to coordinate their systems and root out businesses employing these workers, or last week’s ICE raids will continue to be a drop in a huge bucket.

There are lots of things the government can do to seriously enforce our immigration laws. National mandatory E-Verify is only the beginning, as the Mississippi example shows. Businesses should also be required to submit valid Social Security numbers for every employee, and the IRS should then audit large numbers of companies to check compliance. Companies should be denied tax deductions for employees found not to be validly in the United States, which would significantly increase those firms’ federal and state tax bills.

We can also do a lot more to ensure native-born citizens get the first crack at these jobs. One of the raided plants opened in Leake County in 2017, but apparently there was no concerted effort to ensure these new jobs went to local residents. That’s a government failure, as each county has a host of entities tasked with finding jobs for the unemployed, the disabled, mothers on welfare or prisoners reentering the community. These people are our fellow citizens — the ones most in need of the low-skilled, entry-level jobs that undocumented immigrants most often gravitate to. We should be more aggressive about seeking opportunities for these people and pressure local employers to look to these entities first when filling new openings.

The Trump administration has been serious about building the wall to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. The Mississippi ICE raids should be a wake-up call that spurs the administration to make employment enforcement every bit as much as priority as building the wall.

Read more:

David Bier: Trump’s latest immigration proposal has one goal: Keep immigrants out

Christopher Richardson: We must abolish the ‘public charge’ rule

Eugene Robinson: Trump’s claim that he supports legal immigration turns out to be a lie

Paul Waldman: Trump’s ultimate immigration failure

Paul Waldman: Donald Trump is the immigration problem he rails against