JACKSON, Miss. ― Magdalena Mateo doesn’t look like much of a threat. Short and round, given to fast-paced chatter and an easy laugh, she’d lived in the United States for well over a decade without any trouble with the law. Part of an influx of Guatemalan workers recruited by the poultry industry to southern Mississippi since the 1990s, she lacks legal immigration status, but all three of her kids are American-born. Hers is the kind of case that, in the years leading up to President Donald Trump’s election, Immigration and Customs Enforcement often would quietly drop.
But after the largest worksite raid in ICE’s 16-year history, Mateo now faces not just the looming threat of deportation but the prospect of up to a decade of federal prison time on criminal charges and more than $800 in civil fines, which she can’t afford to pay after losing her job. Just paying those fines would be an admission of guilt, making her deportable and barring her from the United States for life.
Mateo is one of more than 100 migrants hit with a series of multiple, overlapping criminal and civil penalties following the Trump administration’s August immigration raid on Mississippi poultry processors. The prosecutions — which amount to an experiment with systematically criminalizing migrants who picked apart chicken carcasses for about $10 an hour — break with a decade of practice and appear to contradict Justice Department guidelines.
The crackdown also fits into a larger administration pattern of leveraging the criminal justice system to expedite deportations and limit migrants’ ability to find relief in immigration court. The strategy of layering criminal prosecution on top of deportation proceedings spawned the family separation policy last year.
And like last year, families are often bearing the brunt of the Trump administration’s tactics in Mississippi.
HuffPost has identified two cases in which U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst of the Southern District of Mississippi prosecuted single mothers picked up in the Aug. 7 raid, threatening to leave their children without a parent in the house. In one of those cases ― highlighted by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) at a Thursday hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security held in Tougaloo, Mississippi ― the woman’s children were left in the care of an unrelated neighbor. Detaining and prosecuting single mothers contradicts ICE’s stated policy of not leaving children without at least one free parent.
“It’s the ultimate insult to injury,” said Brad Mills, a former federal public defender who is representing migrants arrested in the raid. “Where are these kids going to go?”
There are likely other cases like the two HuffPost found. Federal Public Defender Omodare Jupiter declined to offer concrete figures and would not discuss individual clients, but said his office had seen prosecutions of at least a handful of single mothers as a result of the raid. Most of the migrant workers his office has defended since the operation are women, and they usually have kids, according to Jupiter.
“Of all the things they could prioritize in the Southern District of Mississippi, they choose to prioritize this,” Jupiter said. “I don’t get it.”
The indicted workers include a breastfeeding mother who remains in ICE detention, several other parents of U.S.-citizen children, and a man who has lived in the United States since 1997 and, if deported, would leave behind his wife, three kids, two grandchildren and a house he paid off over decades of working six days a week in construction and poultry processing. His younger daughter suspended her wedding plans after the raid. She had imagined that her father would walk her down the aisle. Her father asked her to move forward without him.
It’s unclear how many of the workers caught in the raid will ultimately face criminal prosecution or fines in addition to deportation proceedings. Hurst’s office has repeatedly declined to answer questions about the raid, referring HuffPost to Justice Department headquarters, which has declined to comment.
The Return Of Controversial Raids
President George W. Bush pulled back from large-scale worksite raids at the tail end of his administration after facing widespread criticism for a major operation against the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. In that 2008 raid, ICE arrested nearly 400 migrant workers and then rushed about 300 of them through criminal prosecutions for identity theft. The Supreme Court later overturned many of those prosecutions.
But the raid left a lasting impact. The town lost a sizable chunk of its population. Many of those arrested were ultimately deported. And over the following three months, Hispanic mothers in Postville were 24% more likely to give birth to babies with low birth weight compared to a year earlier, according to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology ― a sign that the stress caused by such blunt operations can leave long-term damage.
ICE would carry out an even larger operation against a Howard Industries factory in southern Mississippi later in 2008, arresting nearly 600 migrants. But prosecutors ― including Hurst, who back then served as an assistant U.S. attorney ― declined to file criminal charges against the workers.
This approach “is in line with the Department’s emphasis on prosecuting employers, not employees,” then-U.S. Attorney Donald Burkhalter said in a press release. “Prosecuting employees is hardly a deterrent to companies bent on ignoring the law.”
Worksite raids continued to dwindle under President Barack Obama, who preferred to quietly audit companies’ tax documents rather than splash images across the media of dozens of agents descending on a location with helicopters flying overhead. But Trump’s first pick to head ICE, Thomas Homan, ordered the agency to revive the practice in 2017.
Since then, ICE has carried out several worksite raids. But the systematic prosecutions following the Mississippi raid, along with the scale of that operation, have made it uniquely punitive, marking a return to the long-abandoned Postville model.
A Growing Number of Prosecutions
On the day of the raid, ICE questioned each migrant arrested. The agency released 300 of them, in some cases citing “humanitarian concerns.” ICE said it let single parents go, as well as releasing at least one adult in cases where the raid resulted in the arrest of both parents in a household.
The agency also hit an unknown number of migrants, including Mateo, with civil fines for allegedly lying on tax forms. Few of them realize that merely paying those fines would make them deportable and prevent them from returning to the U.S.
Within a week, Hurst had obtained indictments for 41 of the migrants, all but two of them on the felony charge of illegal reentry, a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.
Hurst also charged two people with “failure to depart,” an obscure criminal charge for ignoring a deportation order that carries a sentence of up to four years. Federal prosecutors filed only 19 failure-to-depart charges last year, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse database at Syracuse University. Court records show that at least one of them was also tied to a worksite raid, which occurred last year in western Tennessee. “It’s certainly not something I’d ever seen before,” Christopher Sullivan, the court-appointed defense attorney who handled the case, told HuffPost.
After the first round of charges, Hurst filed dozens of new indictments against the migrant workers for crimes like misusing a Social Security number, false representation as a U.S. citizen or visa fraud — all of which carry stiffer sentences than illegal reentry. Mateo is facing all three charges.
Starting in September, some of the workers released by ICE the night of the raid began receiving notices to appear in court to face criminal charges — often those same fraud-related counts. More than a dozen of those indictments have yet to appear in the federal court records database, as Hurst continued filing new indictments as late as last week, according to two defense attorneys working on the new cases. It remains unclear how many more migrants Hurst plans to prosecute.
ICE has defended the Justice Department’s prosecutions, likening the workers’ alleged misuse of Social Security numbers to obtain employment to stealing someone’s identity. “Is that not a serious crime?” Jere Miles, a homeland security investigations officer at ICE, asked lawmakers at the field hearing on Thursday.
Critics point out, however, that the workers are not accused of robbing the system ― they face prosecution for allegedly paying into Social Security without permission.
“It’s not a crime to work without authorization,” immigration lawyer David Leopold said. “It’s a crime to employ somebody without authorization. The criminal here is the employer, not the worker, so they have to come up with some sort of pretext to charge the worker.”
Moreover, the cases against the migrant workers are redundant, addressing many of the same violations that already landed them in immigration court. Prosecutors have routinely pleaded the illegal reentry cases down to time served and asked for sentences of four months in prison for the fraud-related charges — all light sentences by federal standards.
Hurst’s focus on prosecuting migrant poultry workers en masse appears to contradict Justice Department guidelines, according to Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The Justice Manual for U.S. attorneys suggests declining to indict for federal crimes people who face overlapping civil penalties or charges in state criminal court. The migrants arrested in the August raid are also subject to civil deportation proceedings.
But branding the workers as felons fulfills a key Trump administration goal, making it far more difficult for them to win relief in immigration court.
“This administration wants to criminalize these immigrants,” Leopold said. “The goal is sending as many people back with felony records as possible. It makes it more difficult to return, and it makes the penalty much harsher if they come back.”
People who choose to contest their charges, like Mateo, have to be granted bond in both criminal and immigration court if they hope to remain free while their cases play out. Persuading the judge to set an affordable bond in either system is a challenge, but Mateo, whose case is being handled by a prominent immigration attorney free of charge, managed to do so.
After two months locked up, she returned home to her family, just blocks away from the parking lot where ICE arrested her on Aug. 7 ― close enough to smell the stench of concentrated chicken feces wafting from the plant. With both her and her husband now jobless, they depend on charity to pay the bills and feed the kids.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I was just working.”