The Trump administration brought new federal charges against migrant poultry workers in Mississippi this week, intensifying the heavy-handed approach it has taken toward the people Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested in the agency’s largest single-state worksite raid in August.
ICE arrested about 680 migrant workers at seven poultry processing plants outside Jackson in an Aug. 7 operation coordinated by the agency’s investigative branch. Within two days, ICE had released 300 of the poultry workers. In cases where ICE had arrested both parents of a household, the agency released one on humanitarian grounds, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. ICE also typically released single parents while their cases proceeded.
But now the Trump administration is prosecuting some of the people that ICE chose to release. Dozens more migrant workers are now facing federal indictments, with many of the charges based on the same statute criminalizing immigration violations that several 2020 Democratic presidential nominees have pledged to repeal.
U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst, a Donald Trump appointee, had already brought charges against about 75 migrants for crimes including illegal reentry, misuse of a social security number or falsely representing themselves as U.S. citizens.
The latest indictments have yet to appear on a database of federal court records or on the daily courtroom schedule. But a court-appointed lawyer and two people who have viewed recently issued summonses confirmed to HuffPost that they are beginning this week.
“Apparently there are some new ones,” Brad Mills, who has defended migrants arrested in the Mississippi raid as a court-appointed lawyer, wrote in an email to HuffPost. “They want me to show up in court at 10 a.m. this Thursday, and they will assign me a new case. Maybe more than one.”
It was unclear how many more people Hurst’s office has indicted. At least some of them were not jailed or in detention centers when they received summonses.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Jackson refuses to discuss the prosecutions it’s carrying out against the migrant workers, instead directing queries to the Justice Department. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Prosecutors have also gone after migrants over criminal violations stemming from unauthorized employment.
Most of the migrants facing prosecution after the ICE raid are Guatemalan nationals ― part of an influx of Latin American migrants recruited to Mississippi by the poultry industry itself, according to Angela Stuesse, author of ”Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race and Work in the Deep South.”
“They were welcomed with open arms by the industry and have been here, in some cases, for 25 years — they’ve laid down roots and are integral parts of poultry communities,” Stuesse told HuffPost. “It just seems mean-spirited to pass a law that criminalizes work in the first place, and then to prosecute them for fraud when we haven’t seen that there’s any accountability at the corporate level.”
The Trump administration has faced widespread criticism for charging working-class migrants who already face deportation with felonies while leaving the managers and executives of the poultry processing corporations that employ them untouched. Bryan Cox, a spokesperson for ICE, pointed out that prosecutors have filed criminal charges against the employers in previous worksite raids but that gathering evidence for such charges takes time.
For the migrants, federal judges have typically handed down sentences of time served for the illegal reentry cases and four months in the cases involving charges like misuse of a social security number, according to Mississippi Resiste, an activist group that has monitored the federal courthouse in Jackson.
Those are short sentences by federal standards. But those who enter immigration court as felons usually have a harder time fighting their deportation cases, even if their criminal histories are otherwise clean and their records differ little from those the Trump administration declined to prosecute.