JACKSON, Miss. ― She’d lived in the United States for years. An ICE agent acknowledged she posed no security risk. She regularly attended her local Baptist church. And her 18-year-old son was a U.S. citizen.
But Magistrate Judge Linda Anderson rejected the Guatemalan migrant’s request for release on bond, citing the woman’s alleged use of an alias and a lack of witnesses to testify to her community ties. The decision left her son sobbing outside the courtroom.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 680 workers in Mississippi at the beginning of the month in the largest single-state operation in the agency’s 16-year history. Charges for the employers have yet to be filed, but the operation wrenched many low-paid poultry workers away from their children. At least one of the workers was still breastfeeding when she was detained.
ICE insists that the operation aimed to build a criminal case against employers who systematically contracted unauthorized workers at seven poultry processors across the state. But instead of cultivating the workers as sources of information, the Trump administration is prosecuting dozens of them ― largely under criminal immigration laws that several Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to repeal.
Most of the workers face the charge of illegal reentry. Michael Hurst, U.S. attorney for Southern Mississippi, charged others with misuse of Social Security numbers, impersonating U.S. citizens and other identity crimes allegedly committed to gain employment without legal immigration status.
Those charges could make felons out of workers whose alleged actions differ little from those of people who face deportation proceedings in immigration court alone.
The mass prosecution of migrant poultry workers has logjammed the federal court in Jackson, which is unaccustomed to processing multiple simultaneous cases requiring translation, often in indigenous languages like Mam and Chuj. Court-appointed lawyers saddled with several cases at once often struggled to locate their clients ahead of their first appearances before a judge this week, or to round up witnesses to vouch for their community ties.
Anderson, the magistrate judge, released one woman on an unsecured bond of $10,000. Prosecutors accuse the woman, a Mexican national, of returning to the United States after a deportation in 1997.
The woman first came to Mississippi three decades ago, avoided problems with the law and raised a family, including lawfully present children, according to her defender, John Weber. She worked for the last 12 years at a Peco Foods poultry plant in Canton, Mississippi, before her arrest on Aug. 7.
“We had just a ton of information for the court to show substantial connections to the community,” Weber told HuffPost. “It was pretty overwhelming.”
Cases of migrants with strong family ties to the United States and no criminal records usually move through immigration court. But prosecutors have the power to slap such people with felony charges if they choose, and three months after President Donald Trump took office, his administration encouraged all 94 federal districts to do so as often as possible.
The woman who won release was the exception. Most of the other workers facing prosecution on criminal immigration charges, who appeared in court shackled at the hands and ankles, will remain locked up. The judge said she may consider releasing some of them on bond in the future.
Prosecutors argue that the migrants will flee if released. One of the defenders, Tom Rich, questioned that logic, pointing to his clients’ histories of returning to the U.S.
“It seems that he’s made every effort in the past to be here,” Rich said, referring to a Guatemalan client with a wife in Mississippi.
In one case, a government attorney argued that releasing a woman from criminal custody on bond might make it possible for ICE to deport her before the Southern District of Mississippi could convict and imprison her for felony reentry.
In another, court-appointed defender Brad Mills took the unusual step of calling his client to the stand to testify on his own behalf. The man began weeping as Mills handed him a piece of paper and asked him what it was.
“It’s the deed to my house,” the man said, via a translator. The man was married with two children, owned his home outright and had paid his property taxes ahead of time. But the lawyer had not been able to reach his immediate family in time for the hearing. Anderson left the man’s bond decision pending until next week.
Mills hoped the judge would release his client, who, he pointed out, had no criminal record. He questioned why the prosecutors didn’t set their sights higher.
“It’s easier to go after the low-hanging fruit, and that’s the workers,” Mills told HuffPost. “Going after the employers is an afterthought.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Tom Rich’s surname as “Ridge.”