US immigration officials have raided numerous Mississippi food processing plants and arrested 680 people, mostly Latino workers, in the largest workplace sting in at least a decade.
The Wednesday raids took place just hours before Donald Trump was scheduled to visit El Paso, Texas, the majority-Latino city rocked by the recent mass shooting that left 22 people dead. The suspected gunman was linked to an online screed about a “Hispanic invasion”, in language that echoed Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration.
Workers filled three buses – two for men and one for women – at a Koch Foods plant in the tiny city of Morton, 40 miles (64km) east of Jackson. They were taken to a military hangar to be processed for immigration violations. About 70 family, friends and residents waved goodbye and shouted, “Let them go! Let them go!” Later, two more buses arrived.
A tearful 13-year-old boy whose parents are from Guatemala waved goodbye to his mother, a Koch worker, as he stood beside his father. Some employees tried to flee on foot but were captured in the parking lot.
Workers who were confirmed to have legal status were allowed to leave the plant after having their trunks searched.
“It was a sad situation inside,” said Domingo Candelaria, a documented resident and Koch worker who said authorities checked employees’ identification papers.
The company did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Mississippi is the country’s fifth-largest chicken-producing state and the plants’ tough processing jobs have mainly been filled by Latino immigrants eager to take whatever work they can get. Chicken plants dominate the economies of Morton and other small towns east of Jackson.
Matthew Albence, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (Ice) acting director, told the Associated Press that the raids could be the largest such operation thus far in any single state.
Asked to comment on the fact that the raids, planned months ago, were coinciding with Trump’s visit to El Paso, Albence responded: “This is a long-term operation that’s been going on.” He said raids were “racially neutral” and based on evidence of illegal residency.
About 600 agents fanned out across the plants involving several companies, surrounding the perimeters to prevent workers from fleeing. The raids occurred in small towns near Jackson with workforces made up largely of Latino immigrants, including Bay Springs, Carthage, Canton, Morton, Pelahatchie and Sebastapol.
Such large shows of force were common under George W Bush, most notably at a kosher meatpacking plant in tiny Postville, Iowa, in 2008. Barack Obama avoided them, limiting his workplace immigration efforts to low-profile audits that were done outside of public view.
Trump resumed workplace raids, but the months of preparation and hefty resources they require make them rare. Last year, the administration hit a landscaping company near Toledo, Ohio, and a meatpacking plant in eastern Tennessee. The former owner of the Tennessee plant was sentenced to 18 months in prison last month.
Koch Foods, based in Park Ridge, Illinois, is one of the largest poultry producers in the US, with an estimated annual revenue of $3.2bn. It employs about 13,000 people, with operations in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee.
Agents passed a chain-link fence with barbed wire on top and a sign that said the company was hiring. Mike Hurst, the US attorney for Mississippi, was at the scene.
Workers had their wrists tied with plastic bands and were told to deposit personal belongings in clear plastic bags. Agents collected the bags before the workers boarded buses.
“This will affect the economy,” Maria Isabel Ayala, a childcare worker for plant employees, said as the buses left. “Without them here, how will you get your chicken?”
Other companies targeted in the raids included Peco Foods, which has plants in Bay Springs, Canton and Sebastopol; PH Food in Morton; MP Food in Pelahatchie and Pearl River Foods in Carthage.
“We are fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation and are navigating a potential disruption of operations,” Peco, based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said in a statement. The company added that it participated in E-Verify, a government program to screen new hires for immigration status.