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Mass ICE Raids in Mississippi After Workers Fought for Better Conditions Leave Kids Without Parents

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept through seven poultry processing plants in Mississippi this week and arrested 680 people. It was the largest single-state raid in U.S. history.The mass arrests also came on the first day of the school year, and some children walked home from school only to find their doors locked and their family members missing. Wednesday’s raids targeted chicken processing plants operated by Koch Foods, one of the largest poultry producers in the U.S. Last year, the company paid out $3.75 million to settle an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission class-action suit charging the company with sexual harassment, national origin and race discrimination, and retaliation against Latino workers at one of its Mississippi plants. Labor activists say it’s the latest raid to target factories where immigrant workers have organized unions, fought back against discrimination or challenged unsafe and unsanitary conditions. We speak with Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and L. Patricia Ice, legal projects director at the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the fallout from the massive raid in Mississippi, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept through seven poultry processing plants and arrested 680 people. It was the largest single-state raid in U.S. history. Officials say 300 detainees have now been released for, quote, “humanitarian” reasons.

The roundup of mostly Latino immigrant workers came as Latinos around the country said they already felt shaken and targeted after the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Saturday, where an alleged white nationalist gunman, who killed 22 people, had published an online manifesto that echoed President Trump’s rhetoric about an “invasion” of immigrants. The mass arrests came as President Trump was in El Paso, supposedly there to comfort the victims who survived in the hospital. None of the eight victims in the hospital in El Paso would see him.

The mass arrests in Mississippi also came on the first day of the school year there and left scores of children traumatized and crying for their parents. Some children walked home from school only to find their doors locked and their family members missing. This is 11-year-old Magdalena Gomez Gregorio speaking with Mississippi CBS affiliate WJTV.

MAGDALENA GOMEZ GREGORIO: Government, please show some heart. Let my parent be free and with everybody else. Please, don’t leave the childs with cryness and everything. … I need my dad and mommy. My dad didn’t do nothing. He’s not a criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: It is not clear how many children have now been reunited with their parents, but their families now have no income.

Wednesday’s raids targeted chicken processing plants operated by Koch Foods, one of the largest poultry producers in the United States. Last year, Koch Foods paid out three-and-three-quarter million dollars to settle an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission class-action suit charging the company with sexual harassment, national origin and race discrimination, and retaliation against Latino workers at one of its Mississippi plants that were raided.

Labor activists say it’s the latest raid to target factories where immigrant workers have organized unions, fought back against discrimination or challenged unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Meanwhile, black farmers say they have also encountered bias from Koch Foods. In complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture between 2010 and 2015, they say Koch Foods discriminated against them and used its market control to drive them out of business. The company denied any wrongdoing.

For more, we go to Jackson, Mississippi, where we’re joined by two guests. Chokwe Antar Lumumba is the mayor of Jackson, longtime activist. Also with us, Patricia Ice, legal projects director at the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! L. Patricia Ice, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what took place? Again, this is Wednesday, when the national cameras were focused on President Trump going to Dayton, Ohio, and to El Paso. In El Paso, it was the largest Latino massacre in this country’s history. And now, on this day, the first day of school in Mississippi, ICE raided all of these factories and arrested close to 700 people. Explain how this went down, as you understand it.

L. PATRICIA ICE: My understanding is that the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations, which is also known as HSI, descended upon the state of Mississippi in seven different locations and arrested 680 immigrants who worked at these plants. And it was a devastating event for us. When I heard about it, I was shocked. And it was reminiscent of the raid that we had in 2008 at Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi, where 592 people were arrested. And I was involved in the response after that raid, and we are involved in the response after this current raid. So, in 2008, that was considered the largest worksite enforcement raid in the history of immigration. And I believe that this raid on Wednesday, that netted 680 arrests, is even — it’s even larger and is considered the largest worksite enforcement raid ever by immigration. This was —

AMY GOODMAN: Immigration activists in Mississippi condemned the ICE raids during a news conference Thursday. This is Cliff Johnson, director of MacArthur Justice Center at University of Mississippi.

CLIFF JOHNSON: This is not the result of some outcry in Mississippi. Let the world hear this clearly. What happened yesterday is not the response to some demand on the part of Mississippians that these people be tied up and hauled off. Mississippi didn’t ask for this. This doesn’t come from the people. It doesn’t even come from those people who, on the larger scale, might chant “build that wall,” because in Mississippi we know each other. We do care about each other. We live next to one another. And this is not who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: L. Patricia Ice, I mean, this is astounding, what took place. The schools said they were not alerted. This even violated all of ICE protocols. They did not know what was taking place. Apparently, principals were calling bus drivers, saying if a child — if no one is there to meet the child when you’re dropping this child off, bring that child back. Mississippi protective services, child protective services, they were not alerted in advance. So all of these children were just left on their own, weeping and wailing?

L. PATRICIA ICE: Yes, they were, apparently. And this is a tactic that Department of Homeland Security — and before that, INS — has used over the years. And, of course, it was very tragic and horrendous that they chose the first day of school here in Mississippi to carry out these raids. And the U.S. attorney, Mike Hurst, in his press conference, claimed that the Department of Homeland Security had — or some federal agency had notified the school districts in the locations where they carried out these raids. But apparently, that wasn’t true.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Can you talk about your reaction to these raids and also what this means for Jackson? Who knows whether or not these raids are over? They were a complete surprise to many. Could they take place in Jackson? What are you doing in preparation?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Yes. So, what we witnessed, Amy, was an absence of humanity, to take people from their workplace, in their effort to just establish a quality of life for their families; to leave children stranded in the wilderness, in a sense, looking for a parental figure; and, you know, none of this being considered prior to these raids. You know, we’ve talked a lot about this in political circles. It’s been a hotly debated thing amongst the Democrats and the Republicans. And this isn’t an issue about, you know, what are your political affiliations. This is an issue about whether we have a soul. To leave children without their parents signals that this country is losing its soul, to round people up and to suggest that this was an attack on the corporations, yet we see no prosecution of those corporations. What we see are people who are left in terror. This is the state of affairs that we have, not only in Mississippi today, but now throughout this nation. And I think that we really have to evaluate that.

We are concerned about the impact of this to Jackson. I thought it was appropriate that we respond as a city, that we signal our solidarity with our immigrant population, let people know and have people step up to the plate in support. I called onto our faith institutions to open their doors to people in need. I think that that is the principal purpose for those established institutions, is to help those in need. And people have responded to that call.

We continue to be concerned about what the further tactics have been. No one reached out to my office prior to these raids. I have received correspondence now saying that they wanted to clear up any misnomers, but have yet to speak to anyone. I don’t know what those misnomers are. When I see that 11-year-old girl crying for her father, suggesting that he’s not a criminal, that he’s just a person seeking opportunity, and seeing him in jail and wondering what she will do and where she will go, that suggests that there is something horribly wrong today.

AMY GOODMAN: And the schools, the Jackson schools, were any of the children of adults who were rounded up? And how are the schools preparing for something like this?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: The schools were not notified. It’s been a complete effort to organize on the fly. I spent the day with the superintendent, in fact, prior to these raids, walking to different schools, welcoming children for their first day of school. And as we know, because of the terror that is often inflicted on our immigrant population, many of those members of the population don’t trust institutions like our schools. They’re fearful of the police.

And so, what it sets the scene for is a more dangerous condition for everyone. When people feel that they don’t have institutions of protection, they find means of protecting themselves. And that sets the stage for something that forfeits any credibility amongst leadership and credibility amongst institutions that should be aimed at protecting people, and leads to a condition of insecurity for everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask L. Patricia Ice about Koch Foods, who owned all these processing plants, and what is going on here. You have this $3.75 million EEOC settlement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settlement, that alleged that in these factories, that the workers were being sexually harassed, racially harassed, harassed based on their national origin. Clearly, in order to get a settlement like this, these workers had to organize. How is this ICE raid being seen? Is it that ICE is retaliating for the company against workers organizing? Of course, this puts the company in the spotlight, as well, for all of their abuse.

L. PATRICIA ICE: I don’t know if ICE is retaliating because of this $3.5 million settlement or not, but what I see — but it appears that it would be a retaliation. I have been into some of those chicken processing plants. I’ve been in the one in Morton, and I’ve been in one in Forest. And I have worked with the Latino community in Scott County for a very long time. I would venture to say at least 20 years. And I know that there was sexual harassment in the plants. I was not involved with that litigation, but I knew about it when it first came to light publicly that that was going on. So, it is possible that this was a retaliation by the Department of Homeland Security against the immigrant population who was working in those plants. But the conditions are terrible in the plants. It’s cold in there. People have to wear jackets. They usually wear white jackets. In these plants, they have to kill the chickens. There’s blood on the floor. There’s water on the floor. And the people performing the different jobs are exposed — excuse me — are exposed to machinery. They have to cut the chickens. They package the chickens, etc. And it’s not a very good environment.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at —

L. PATRICIA ICE: Women are subject to — yes, go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at ThinkProgress, an article they wrote. They said, “As labor reporter Mike Elk notes at Payday Report, it may not be a coincidence that the Morton plant was raided. There have been at least two other plants, one in Salem, Ohio, and another in Morristown, Tennessee, where ICE raids have followed complaints of worker conditions. Last year, for example, [OSHA] the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Fresh Mark over $200,000 for three separate incidents in which proper safety guards were not in place in its Salem meatpacking plant. A week later, it was raided by ICE.” Let me put this question to the mayor of Jackson, to Chokwe Lumumba, this issue of ICE being used as a hammer on activist workers.

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Absolutely. I think that if we follow the case studies of what we’ve seen so far, then it appears to be a punitive of measure against the workers. The words of the U.S. attorney, the assistant U.S. attorney here in Mississippi, suggesting that this was an effort to punish the corporations, those words versus their actions just don’t match up. The only people who appear to be punished, the punitive measures that were inflicted were against those workers, those individuals who were seeking opportunity, being taken from their jobs, not doing any criminal acts, to be placed in cages, to be locked up, to be taken away from their children. And while some have reportedly been released to take care of their children, the trauma has already ensued. The trauma has already taken effect. You know, for this to be the first day of school for their children, it’s unconscionable. And so, there appears to be a pattern that has been established here.

L. PATRICIA ICE: And I would just like to add that at least two of the plants that were raided were unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. And one of those was the Morton plant, and the other one was the Peco plant in Canton, Mississippi. And unions have been constantly under attack, especially here in Mississippi. So, the fact that those plants — and the Morton plant, I believe, is one of the ones that was — that is unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. And the fact that those unions have a presence there was probably another reason why the United States government chose to target those plants, because it is clear that the corporations and others want to get rid of unions here in Mississippi, and really across the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Mayor Lumumba, this climate today, what we’re just coming off of last weekend, these two mass killings. In El Paso, a white supremacist apparently releases a manifesto talking about the “invasion.” You have President Trump repeating those words thousands of times this year alone, just in his campaign ads in January and February, apparently, 2,200 times using this word “invasion,” then going after congresswomen of color, going after Congressmember Cummings after his house was invaded by an intruder. You have President Trump saying, “Aw, too bad,” in a tweet. Can you talk about white supremacy? You are a longtime activist. President Trump, do you see him as a white supremacist?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: I do. I do. I return to the statement that I made when we initially started our discussion. I think that we have to reflect on where the soul of this nation is. You know, America is infected with a disease, and that disease is called racism. It often is utilized to support economic benefits of corporations, the economic benefits of those who use such divisions in order for their personal profit. And I think that we’re seeing a president who exacerbates that, a president who is incited by that.

And so, we have to really reflect on where the soul of this nation is, when he has the slogan that he wants to “make America great again.” When we reflect on the labor policy of this nation, not only what we’re seeing today — we think about the Africans that were snatched off of a continent to work for free — my ancestors — when we think about all of the oppressive conditions of dehumanizing and pushing away unions, this country has had a long-standing labor practice that is just despicable at best. And so, the idea of “make America great again,” we don’t see a country that has gone wrong, in my opinion; we see a country that has never been right.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for —

L. PATRICIA ICE: And if I could —

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, L. Patricia?

L. PATRICIA ICE: Yeah, I just want to add one thing, that the effects of these raids are going to be long-lasting. As I mentioned earlier, in 2008 I was part of the response to that raid, and I have at least one client that I’m still working with, 11 years later, as a result of that raid. And I’m sure that there are others who are still involved with immigration courts or with the government as a result of that raid. So, this has had, as I said, devastating effects on our community. Mississippi is a small state, and the communities that were affected are small communities where people do know one another. They go to church with us. We are in organizations together. We see each other in our neighborhoods, at school, in the grocery store, etc. And so, this was a horrendous thing that happened to us here in Mississippi.

AMY GOODMAN: L. Patricia Ice, I want to thank you for being with us, legal projects director at the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, and Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a devastating new U.N. climate report comes out. We’ll speak with one of the U.N. climate scientists. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Amor Eterno,” “Eternal Love,” sung by Rocío Dúrcal. This is a song that’s being sung at vigils after the mass shootings around the country.

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