MORTON, Miss. — U.S. immigration officials raided seven Mississippi chicken processing plants Wednesday, arresting 680 mostly Latino workers in the largest workplace sting in at least a decade.
The raids, planned months ago, happened just hours before President Donald Trump was scheduled to visit El Paso, Texas, the majority-Latino border city where a man linked to an online screed about a “Hispanic invasion” was charged in a shooting that left 22 people dead.
About 600 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents fanned out across the plants operated by five companies, surrounding the perimeters to prevent workers from fleeing.
In Morton, about 40 miles east of the capital of Jackson, workers filled three buses — two for men and one for women — at a Koch Foods Inc. plant.
Those arrested were taken to a military hangar to be processed for immigration violations. About 70 family, friends and residents waved goodbye and shouted, “Let them go! Let them go!” Later, two more buses arrived.
A tearful 13-year-old boy whose parents are from Guatemala waved goodbye to his mother, a Koch worker, as he stood beside his father. Some employees tried to flee on foot but were captured in the parking lot.
Workers, including Domingo Candelaria, who could show they were in the country legally were allowed to leave the plant after agents searched the trunks of their vehicles.
“It was a sad situation inside,” Candelaria said.
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 U.S, with operations in Mississippi and five other states. The company didn’t respond to telephone calls and emails seeking comment.
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 scrutinized for tax, document and wage fraud, Albence said.
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 U.S.