On Wednesday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials raided several food processing plants across central Mississippi, detaining about 680 people who lacked proper documentation to work. According to the Department of Justice, it is the largest single-state worksite enforcement action in American history.
"The execution of federal search warrants today was simply about enforcing the rule of law in our state and throughout our great country," said Mike Hurst, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. "We are a nation of laws, and we will remain so by continuing to enforce our laws and ensuring that justice is done."
Detainees were taken by bus to a nearby Mississippi National Guard hangar for processing. Some, the Department of Justice said, may be released on "humanitarian grounds" while they await a hearing before an immigration judge. But in Scott County, school superintendent Tony McGee told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that parents from at least six families in his district were detained in the raids, with children ranging in age from kindergarten to high school; if a bus driver did not see parents at home on Wednesday afternoon, they were instructed to return the child to school. Although an ICE spokesperson told the Clarion-Ledger that the agency does not know how many parents of children were arrested—detainees were still being processed as of late Wednesday afternoon—McGee said he anticipates learning of more affected families in his district soon.
In Forest, Mississippi, Alex Love of WJTV reported that neighbors and even strangers were picking children up from school and driving them to a local gym, Clear Creek Bootcamp, which had arranged to take them in on a temporary basis. "Government, please show some heart,” Magdalena Gomez Gregoria, 11, told the station. "Let my parent be free, and everyone else." (Jordan Barnes, the owner of Clear Creek Bootcamp, did not respond to GQ's request for comment.)
As the New York Times notes, the meat processing industry in the South, among many other industries in many other regions, depends heavily on low-cost labor, and hiring managers have a reputation for looking the other way when it comes to prospective employees who present fraudulently-obtained documents. (A 2017 episode of This American Life explored this dynamic at a poultry plant in Albertville, Alabama.) In May 2008, ICE agents arrested nearly 400 employees at a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa; last year, 97 more were detained at a meatpacking plant in rural Tennessee.
These raids can have a devastating impact on small communities, where a large industrial facility may not be able to withstand the sudden loss of a significant portion of its workforce. In a statement to WADM, Peco Foods, which saw three of its plants raided on Wednesday, acknowledged that it is "navigating a potential disruption of operations" even as it cooperates with investigators. Maria Isabel Ayala, a childcare worker at one of the plants, warned the Associated Press that the raids will have an immediate impact on the economy. "Without them here, how will you get your chicken?" she asked. An employee interviewed at the scene was similarly incredulous as she recalled watching gun-toting agents lead arrested workers out of the building. "That's all our workers!" she told WAPT. "Half of the plant!
Similar raids have had devastating effects on other communities. The Des Moines Register documented how the raids in Postville, a town of only about 2,000 people, gutted the local economy, leading to Main Street business closures, sinking property values, and real estate foreclosures. As Marketplace noted in 2017, the company went into bankruptcy, and the plant closed down about five months later. It has since reopened under new ownership, but it took years for the town to recover from a recession inflicted by the federal government.
For at least a decade, Democratic lawmakers like California senator Dianne Feinstein have pushed for reforms that would allow undocumented agricultural workers to obtain legal status, thereby stabilizing the workforce and ensuring that immigration enforcement does not interfere with the apolitical task of harvesting America's food supply. Such proposals, of course, have little chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate.
Large-scale immigration raids are just the latest example of how the Trump administration's agenda can damage an otherwise-healthy domestic economy—often, in places where voters tend to support the president. When his trade wars prompted China to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports, the White House had to extend some $12 billion in emergency aid to affected farmers in the Midwest. Earlier this year, when he threatened a tariff on imports from Mexico unless the Mexican government could stop illegal immigration to the U.S., economists at the Perryman Group estimated that such a policy could result in a net loss of $66.1 billion to the U.S. economy, and cause more than 400,000 jobs to disappear.
Fortunately for the business community, Trump eventually backed down from that particular threat. The children of undocumented workers in Mississippi weren't so lucky. Raids like those conducted on Wednesday suggest that when ensuring a community's well-being comes into conflict with implementing his anti-immigrant agenda, this administration prioritizes the latter.
Update: On Thursday, ICE released a statement in which it claimed to have released detainees who had children at home after their processing was completed sometime last night. If both parents worked at an affected plant, ICE's policy was to release one from its custody. "Based on these procedures," the statement concluded, "it is believed that all children were with at least one of their parents as of last night."
Originally Appeared on GQ