U.S. immigration authorities on Wednesday rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers in food processing plants during a sprawling operation in Mississippi that officials touted as the largest immigration enforcement sweep in a single state in U.S. history.
By targeting workplaces across six different cities in southern Mississippi, Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents, with the help of the local district attorney’s office, apprehended approximately 680 undocumented immigrants.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst said the large-scale raids collectively represented “the largest single state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history.”
“While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that, we are first and foremost a nation of laws,” he told reporters at the press conference, where he was flanked by Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.
Hurst said authorities relied on both criminal and administrative warrants to execute Wednesday’s raids at seven different work sites. Administrative warrants are usually used by ICE to detain people who are in the U.S. unlawfully but otherwise do not have criminal records.
Albence, who was tapped last month to serve as acting director for a second time, said his agency would look to “swiftly” deport the apprehended workers with open orders of removal. Some, he added, would be prosecuted criminally.
Those without criminal records or orders of deportations will be placed in immigration proceedings before a judge and may be released.
Asked about what would happen to workers who have children in the U.S., Albence reiterated the administration’s standard guidance that arrests in the criminal justice system lead to family separations. He said affected children would be placed with other family members and in some instances, some parents could be released with ankle bracelets.
Peco Foods, a poultry processing and packaging company, confirmed that ICE conducted operations at three of its facilities in southern Mississippi.
The raids drew quick and scathing condemnation from immigrant advocates.
Julia Solórzano, a legal fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said these types of large-scale workplace operations “terrorize” and “destroy” communities, while accomplishing little for the administration.
“For a lot of the cities where these raids occurred, it was the first day of school. We know from past immigration enforcement actions of this type, that there are going to be children who go home tonight and their parents will be gone,” Solórzano told CBS News. “It’s extremely disruptive to families. It’s — in many cases — depriving the family of the primary breadwinner.”