US officials raided seven Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday, arresting 680 mostly Latino workers in the largest workplace sting in at least a decade. The raid is part of President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration.
The raids at various chicken plants were planned months ago and happened just hours before Trump visited El Paso, Texas. El Paso is the majority-Latino border city where on Saturday a white 21-year-old suspected gunman reportedly posted a manifesto railing against a "Hispanic invasion of Texas" before opening fire in a supermarket.
The workers were taken to a military hangar where they were processed for immigration violations.
TV footage showed lines of arrested migrants heading to buses parked outside the processing plants with their hands behind their backs under the watchful eyes of ICE agents.
Nearly 100 family, friends and residents looked on in shock, shouting, "Let them go! Let them go!"
A tearful 13-year-old boy whose parents are from Guatemala waved goodbye to his mother, a worker, as he stood beside his father. Some employees tried to flee on foot but were captured.
‘Families torn apart’
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, "When we seek unifying words and acts to heal the nation's broken heart, President Trump allows so many families and communities to be torn apart."
Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, called the "terrible" raids "another effort to drive Latinos out of Mississippi," and he blamed Trump for fanning racism with his past incendiary comments about immigrants.
"This is the same thing that Trump is doing at the border with the Border Patrol," he said, referring to the increased crackdown on migrants coming into the US.
About 600 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents fanned out across the plants operated by five companies, surrounding the perimeters to prevent workers from fleeing.
Mississippi is the nation's fifth-largest chicken producing state and the plants' tough processing jobs have mainly been filled by Latino immigrants eager to take whatever work they can get. Chicken plants dominate the economies of Morton and other small towns east of Jackson.
Based in Park Ridge, Illinois, Koch is one of the largest poultry producers in the US, with operations in Mississippi and five other states. The company didn't respond to telephone calls and emails seeking comment.
Largest-ever workplace raid
Matthew Albence, ICE's acting director, told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday in Pearl, just down the road from the Koch plant, that the raids could be the largest-ever workplace operation in any single state. Asked about their coinciding with Trump's visit to El Paso, Albence responded, "This is a long-term operation that's been going on." He said raids are "racially neutral" and based on evidence of illegal residency.
The companies involved could be charged with knowingly hiring workers who are in the county illegally and will be scrutinised for tax, document and wage fraud, Albence said.
Major immigration raids were common under President George W. Bush, including one at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008 that resulted in about 400 arrests. President Barack Obama avoided them, limiting workplace immigration efforts to low-profile audits.
Trump has resumed workplace raids, but the months of preparation and hefty resources they require make them rare.
Workers' wrists were tied with plastic bands
Agents who arrived at the Morton plant passed a chain-link fence with a sign that said the company was hiring. Workers' wrists were tied with plastic bands and they deposited personal belongings in clear plastic bags.
"This will affect the economy," Maria Isabel Ayala, a child care worker for plant employees, said as the buses left. "Without them here, how will you get your chicken?"
Other companies targeted in the raids included Peco Foods Inc., which has plants in Bay Springs, Canton and Sebastopol; PH Food Inc. in Morton; MP Food Inc. in Pelahatchie and Pearl River Foods Inc. in Carthage.
"We are fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation and are navigating a potential disruption of operations," Peco, based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said in a statement. The company added that it participates in E-Verify, a government program to screen new hires for immigration status.
No one answered the phone at Pearl River Foods. A woman who answered the phone at PH Food declined to comment or identify herself. A telephone listing could not be found for MP Food.