By Levell Williams,
On August 7, 2019 the first day of school, nearly 700 Mississippi Hispanic and Latino poultry employees were arrested at seven poultry industries in a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to Attorney Cliff Johnson of the University of Mississippi Law School, some 1500 or more children were affected by the raid, many coming home to find that either one or both of their parents had been arrested and detained, with no indication of their return.
In the following months, the needs of the many hundreds affected by the raids have been met only through various efforts of generosity by community members and immigrant rights advocates, such as Lorena Quiroz-Lewis, lead organizer for the Mississippi Immigrant Coalition and Working Together Mississippi.
“They’re American citizens, these children,” said Quiroz-Lewis.
According to Johnson, more than a dozen organizations have made organized efforts to alleviate the effects. “We’re not equipped to handle this,” he said.
In the aftermath of the raids, many local and state officials were left with no answers as to why their constituents and dependents had been targeted by ICE.
On November 7, at Tougaloo College, Congressman and Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie G. Thompson, held a Field Hearing on Immigration Raids to generate answers.
An audience of immigrant families, students and faculty of the Tougaloo community, and other Mississippi constituents, gathered at Holmes Hall. The large room was substantially populated with members of the press surrounding the crowd on the wall. “Everyone we invited is here,” said Thompson in a warm welcome.
The field hearing would consist of two panels of testimonials from Mississippi government officials, knowledgable civilians affected by the raids. Seated in front of each panel, on the elevated stage where all could see them clearly, were the panel of congresspersons, who would receive the testimonials for the record without objections, as well as question the testimonials given.
On the stage were four congresspersons: Congressman Bennie G. Thompson from Bolton, Mississippi; Congresswoman Shiela Jackson-Lee and Congressman Al Green from Houston, Texas; and Congressman Steve Cohen from Memphis, Tennessee.
The First Panel
The message of the first panel of testimonies is well characterized in the words of Johnson, the first to testify: “Mississippians did not ask for this….[and] Mississippi is not better as a result of what happened here.” Johnson said that Latino immigrants have had a place in the Mississippi poultry industry for some 20 years, and they have become familiar parts of their Mississippi communities.
Next, Reverend Odel Medina, who converted his parish into a makeshift counseling center for affected families, testified. He spoke of the children who shared their woeful confusion with him, and he referenced the community members of various religions and creeds, who extended their support toward the cause of helping those affected by the raids.
Rev. Medina’s sentiments were echoed by Judge Constance Slaughter-Harvey, a Tougaloo alum, and Quiroz-Lewis. Slaughter-Harvey drew correlations between the cruelty of the ICE raids and the pains of the Civil Rights Movement. Quiroz-Lewis testified of such cruelty, referring to one woman who was forcibly removed from her car by an ICE authority who cut her seatbelt and told her she would not be returning home, as well as one single mother, whom Quiroz-Lewis called “L,”who was not allowed to see her children. “L,” who eats only once a day in detention and suffers from a chronic ailment, according to Quiroz-Lewis, was unrecognizable to her young daughter, when she finally was allowed to see her much later after being detained.
The panelists were then questioned. When asked about whether ICE officials notified any local authorities about the raids, Slaughter-Harvey said not even the supervisors of the Mississippi Department of Children’s Protective Services were notified. She said the same about the principles and superintendents of five public schools in Scott county. When asked whether ICE officials made any contact with local authorities before conducting the raids, Slaughter-Harvey said, “I am certain that it did not happen.”
Further, Quiroz-Lewis noted that many of the detainees, like one woman she identified as “L,” spoke indigenous languages, not Spanish, and were therefore unfounded by a substantial language barrier. She noted that there is only bilingual licensed trauma counselors in the whole state, who is working “around the clock” to train others in cultural competency. On her efforts to reunite detainees with their families, she said, “We just kept losing people… We couldn’t trace anyone.”
Congressman Green asked wether the detained immigrants had been a criminal or economic burden. All of the panelists testified that there was no gang activity among the detained population. According to Johnson, the Latino and Hispanic immigrants are actually more likely to “under-report when they … are victims of crimes.”
Concerning economics, Johnson noted, “they’re a vital part of an industry that creates 3 billion dollars in revenue each year in Mississippi alone,” noting also that most Mississippians do not desire the jobs that they worked. Slaughter-Harvey noted that Latino and Hispanic immigrant employees are actually crucial to the poultry industry, because, “no one will take the jobs that they took.” According to Quiroz-Lewis, after their bail bond hearings, “one of the first things they ask the judge is: ‘Can I go back to work?’”
Then, Congressman Cohen asked Slaughter-Harvey about the correlation between the events of this raid and her own work in the Civil Rights Movement. She responded, “I knew my rights as an American citizen. I could demand my rights. I could fight. They can’t… I could protect myself. They can’t.”
Cohen brought to the attention of the audience another raid that took place in Tennessee April 5, 2018. “It was so similar to this one, it’s eerie,” he said. Johnson agreed with Cohen that both the Tennessee and Mississippi raids are the result of the anti-immigration policy of the Trump administration. “What else might it be but the dictates of an administration that hasn’t learned the lessons of history; that when we round up people based on the color of their skin or their country of origin, we always look back in honor and shame,” said Johnson. “I think it’s demeaning of America,” said Cohen.
When asked about whether the raids were in his opinion a “good deterrent” to more immigrants coming from Central America, Johnson responded, “They’re driven by the human spirit, and I don’t think anything’s going to stop the effort to better your situation and help your children.”
Concluding the first panel, Thompson also noted that many detainees have not received their due pay because of their detainment period. “It cost $478,000 to conduct that one day raid. We’re still trying to get some of the other costs,” said Thompson.
The Second Panel
Michael Lee, Sheriff of Scott County, Mississippi, and and William Truly, Mayor of Canton, Mississippi, were joined on the second panel by Jerry Miles, special agent of the Department of Homeland Security, who has worked for ICE for more than ten years. Much of the questioning that would follow the three men’s initial testimonies would be directed at Miles.
Lee and Truly echoed many of the concerns of the first panel. Neither of them were notified of the raids’ occurrence. “As the mayor of the City of Canton, I was never notified,” said Truly, adding that he learned of the raids as they were happening. “It was like an agency came in and took over our town,” he said. They also both agreed that their Latino and Hispanic constituents posed no criminal or economic threat to their communities. Lee noted that only three of the 125 inmates in his prison identify as Latino.
Miles’ viewpoints starkly contrasted with those of every panelist and congressperson, as he rather staunchly defended the ICE’s actions August 7. He said that the raid uncovered more than 400 cases of stolen identities.
In the course of delivering his testimony and answering questions, Miles contended some of the definitions being discussed. Among other ICE policies, he testified, “We do not conduct raids, sweeps or checkpoints.” Further, Miles said that children were not “separated,” because their parents were not with them at the times of their arrests. On the topic of cruelty, he said that to expect ICE authorities to exercise discretion “puts too much power in the hands of police,” deferring the authority to congressional legislation.
The congresspersons had various critiques of Miles’ testimony. Green ridiculed the ICE’s ineffective execution in what Miles called a “well planned” yet “not perfect” operation. Jackson-Lee noted in opposition, “Congress does not [legislate] the separation of families…”
Some facts of the raids were clarified through the questioning. ICE has not charged any employers for hiring undocumented workers. Also, ICE does not have a count of the children who are yet separated from their parents as a result of the raids. “Do you realize how indicting that is?” remarked Jackson-Lee. On the record, Miles was charged to address these issues. He was also asked to deliver works to Washington about the ineffectiveness of ICE’s actions.
In the conclusion of the second panel, Jackson-Lee summed the sentiment of the field hearing. “The President needs to know that in the places beyond the boundaries of Washington…there is a great deal of disturbance.” Further, she extended her apologies to the families present, saying, “I have enough dignity to apologize on behalf of the United States… We can enforce the law [without being] perpetrators of injustice.”
After Thompson adjourned the field hearing, the room jumped abuzz with members of the press. In addition to a brief press conference held by the congresspersons, the present Hispanic and Latino families, led by Quiroz-Lewis, joined in a show of solidarity, which in ways became a press conference all its own.
All in all, the Congressional Field Hearing on Immigration Raids yielded significant information about the happenings of August 7. The formal introduction of this information may stand to bring change sooner than later. As said by Thompson, “We’ll do all we can. But we need to get it on the record.”