Last week, scores of children in Mississippi returned from school to empty homes. Their parents had been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, who raided seven food processing plants in the state.
The raids, in which 680 people — many said to be in the United States illegally — were taken from the plants, raise many questions.
Why were better provisions not made to care for the children? Were these plants targeted because employees there had complained of workplace sexual harassment? Who will fill the jobs of the detained workers? Will the owners of the plants face penalties?
Intentional or not, the ICE raids looks more like intimidation than law enforcement. The U.S. economy is heavily reliant on immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented — to pick our crops, to process our food, to clean our hotel rooms, to care for our aging family members. It is naive to think that rounding up the estimated 11 million undocument immigrants in the US is beneficial, or even possible.
“This serves as a very good deterrent,” President Donald Trump said Friday when asked by reporters about the Wednesday raids and, specifically, why better plans weren’t made to take care of the children. He didn’t address the issue of abandoned children.
“If people come into our country illegally, they’re going out,” he said. “They’re not coming in illegally and staying.”
An ICE official offered a blunt assessment: “We are a law enforcement agency, not a social services agency,” the official said, according to NBC News. ICE did not notify schools or child welfare department, saying this may have tipped off the immigrant workers. The agency did eventually release about 300 of the detained workers, who were allowed to go home but are required to appear in court later.
But, there were social service agencies ready to step in — if only they had been notified of the raids, which took months to plan. Instead, some schools kept abandoned children overnight. A local gym owner took in several children, offering them food and transportation. One baby was looked after in a local church.
“It is frustrating because we have resources on the ground, trained, ready and licensed to respond to emergency situations, and we could have provided services that instead appeared to be put together in a makeshift fashion,” Lea Anne Brandon, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services told The Washington Post.
While Trump and ICE condemned the undocumented immigrant workers, they were largely silent on the companies’ owners and top officials who employed them, often for years. Court documents show that managers and supervisors at some of the plants knew that workers had used fraudulent papers to obtain employment, The Washington Post reported.
Prosecution of companies and their officials for immigration fraud are rare. From April 2018 to March 2019, only 11 individuals were prosecuted for hired undocumented workers. No companies were prosecuted, according to researchers at Syracuse University. During the same period, 85,727 individuals were prosecuted for illegal entry, 34,617 prosecuted for illegal re-entry, and 4,733 prosecuted for illegally bringing in or harboring immigrants.
“Given the millions of undocumented immigrants now working in this country, the odds of being criminally prosecuted for employing undocumented workers appears to be exceedingly remote,” the researchers wrote online.
Even the Trump Organization employs undocumented immigrant workers, according to Washington Post reporting.
“Well, that I don’t know. Because I don’t run it,” Trump said to questions from reporters in July on whether the company, which he still owns but is managed by his sons, employs undocumented workers. “But I would say this, probably every club in the United States has that, because it seems to me, from what I understand, a way that people did business.”
One of the companies involved in the Mississippi raids settled a lawsuit last year, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of more than 100 employees there. The EEOC argued that the company should have known about — and acted on — physical and sexual assaults against Hispanic workers.
Some workers at the Mississippi plant who lacked legal immigration status alleged that supervisors threatened to turn them over to authorities if they spoke out about their concerns, according to court documents.
“This is a high-profile way to send a message and to create more fear in immigrant communities about ICE and about their ability to live and work in this country,” John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE, told Buzzfeed. “This burns an incredible amount of resources to apprehend people, few of whom pose any threat to the US. It’s for show more than for anything else.”
America’s immigration laws should be enforced, but tormenting children and punishing workers for speaking out, without addressing the widespread hiring and employment of undocumented workers, looks more like intimidation than enforcement.