Every day for more than two years now, Hilda Jorge Perez has been on pins and needles, waiting for a call, a letter in the mail or a knock at the door that will determine her family’s fate.
Antonio Lopez Agustin and his wife, Sheila, were both arrested at Pearl River Foods on August 7, 2019. They worked together for nearly a full year in the chicken processing facility in Carthage. The day marked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s largest-ever series of workplace raids, and resulted in the arrest of roughly 680 people at seven agricultural processing plants across the state.
Workplace raids such as this were not uncommon under the Trump Administration. ICE executed dozens more similar raids in the United States and made this tactic a key part of its strict enforcement policies at U.S. borders. The problem is that ICE conducted dozens of similar raids across the country. Biden Administration changed their tactics recently. Alejandro Mayorkas, Department of Homeland Security Secretary, directed enforcement agencies on Oct. 12 to focus their attention to those employers that are exploiting undocumented workers and stop any workplace raids. “By adopting policies that focus on the most unscrupulous employers, we will protect workers as well as legitimate American businesses,” Mayorkas said in a Public statement
Continue reading: In ‘Transformational’ Immigration Shift, Biden Administration Wants to Target Employers, Not Undocumented Workers
While migrant advocates praised the Biden Administration’s move and heralded a new era of immigration enforcement, many warn that unwinding the effects of years of aggressive workplace raids won’t happen overnight. As well as immigrant advocacy groups, business leaders and religious leaders have long claimed that workplace raids can stoke fear in government officers and law enforcement, and this can lead to distrust and suspicion in families. They also pose a threat to communities and families, who often provide financial assistance. Parents without documentationLose your job, or you are fired.
“[The raids] had a tremendous chilling effect,” says Amelia McGowan was the Mississippi Center For Justice’s campaign director and an immigrant lawyer, representing some families that were detained during the 2019 raids. There are many immigrant groups. Particularly in Mississippi, which was the site of large-scale raids by the Trump Administration, there is a strong distrust of federal government. It is difficult to convince them that they are now able to come forward and report abusive employers.
“It’s going to be very hard for this administration to overcome,” McGowan says.
‘In fear all of the time’
Jorge Perez, her husband and their daughter are undocumented. Their work days at Pearl River Foods were split so Jorge Perez would be at the chicken processing plant in the morning and Lopez Agustin overnight.
The morning after the raid that had changed their lives forever, their daughter went to school for the first day in second grade. Lopez Agustin still had one hour to go on his shift, while Jorge Perez was just arriving for hers. She was standing next to the conveyor belt on the plant floor, using a knife to demonstrate to a new employee how to carve up a chicken carcass when a group of people—clearly armed, but not wearing uniforms—entered the plant. The men suggested that she drop her knife, which she did.
“We didn’t know who they were,” Jorge Perez tells TIME, in Spanish. “Not until after they took away all our belongings and gathered us all together…and started taking down our information one at a time did they finally say who they were.” They were federal ICE officers, executing a planned federal immigration enforcement raid.
Continue reading: Biden Is Expelling Migrants On COVID-19 Grounds, But Health Experts Say That’s All Wrong
Her panicked reaction when Jorge Perez got arrested According to her, Perez’s daughter was already at school. She informed the ICE officers that no one would pick her up. One of the agents told Jorge Perez that her daughter would be safe, but didn’t offer any more information. The male workers, Jorge Perez remembers, were rounded up into a different group so she couldn’t see where they had taken Lopez Agustin.
Jorge Perez, who was on her period, was brought to a nearby ICE facility where she waited and became anxious. She was on her period and couldn’t get any of the agents to give a feminine hygiene product. “They’d tell me to sit down and I’d say I can’t, because look at me, I’m all stained,” she remembers.
Meanwhile, after the school bell rang, Jorge Perez’s daughter waited in vain—along with hundreds of other kids across the country that day—for her parents to arrive. Video footage of children crying for their mothers and fathers after they were detained at ICE became viral. According to the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance donations poured into local agencies, some even coming from Europe. Many politicians opposed the raids. However, some supported it. spoke support of them
One of Jorge Perez and Lopez Agustin’s relatives was eventually able to pick up their daughter from school, and took care of her until 10 p.m. when Jorge Perez was released. Lopez Agustin, the deportee, remained at ICE for eight more months.
Continue reading: How as a Community Can We Move Forward?’ Uncertainty Lingers After Mississippi ICE Raids
A pro bono lawyer later took on the family’s case, and submitted an appeal to Lopez Agustin’s deportation order, but the family remains in purgatory. The already slowing down of the deportation process for whites has caused a significant delay. Lopez Agustin was granted permission to leave ICE custody in April 2020 because he suffered from an underlying cardiac condition making him more vulnerable to COVID-19. An immigration judge is yet to rule on Lopez Agustin’s case.
Jorge Perez, Lopez Agustin and their daughter have not been able return to work. A local church is helping to pay their bills, but when that charity runs out, there’s no plan B. They’ve been in the U.S. for nearly half their lives—Jorge Perez for 18 years and Lopez Agustin for 25—and their daughter was born here. They cannot wait to hear from the federal government.
“I’m in fear all of the time,” Jorge Perez says. “I’m always wondering when they are coming to get me.”
They are the employers
For decades, immigration experts debated the efficacy of workplace raids in enforcement. While they tend to result in an immediate uptick of worker deportations, there’s often no long-term deterrent effect. Because the employers themselves usually go unpunished, many companies simply return to business as usual in the aftermath of a raid—sometimes hiring a new crop of undocumented immigrants just weeks or months later.
“Workers are detained and deported and employers often just get off scot-free,” says Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “Or they may get a small fine that they just consider as a cost of doing business.”
Only 11 individuals were charged for undocumented worker hiring in seven cases between April 2018 – March 2019, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. This research group at Syracuse University is called the Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Although it’s technically against the law for employers to hire illegal workers after 1986, enforcement of that law can be difficult, according to Chuck Mullins who was a personal injury and criminal defense lawyer. He represented an employer in the Mississippi raids. Prosecutors must prove that the employer knew about the worker’s undocumented status and still hired them. It can be difficult to prove this knowledge. Employers verify potential hires’ documents using government system called E-Verify, but many undocumented workers use fraudulent papers.
“The employer is going through the verification process that the government has set up,” he says. “Unless there are telltale signs that the employer is just overlooking [citizenship]…they can’t say ‘I’m not gonna hire you because I think you’re illegal,’ because then they run the risk of facing a lawsuit.”
This was a notable exception in the August 2019 workplace raids. An assortment of charges were brought against the employers who ran the Mississippi raids at seven different processing plants. Salvador Delgado-Nieves, who worked for Southern Knights Industrial Services as the manager at A&B Inc., a chicken processing plant in Pelahatchie, Miss., pleaded guilty to charges of aiding and abetting the harboring of an undocumented person for financial gain, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). Court documents show that he received two years probation. Iris Villalon, who also worked at A&B Inc., pleaded guilty to the same charges in May, according to the DOJ. Court documents show that she has not been sentenced yet.
Carolyn Johnson also worked as a Pearl River Foods Human Resources Manager. She was accused of six felonies including wire fraud and identity theft. Her case remains open. According to court records, Aubrey Bart Willis was a Pearl River Foods manager who Mullins represented. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced for one year probation. Attorneys for the other three former employers did not respond to TIME’s request for comment or could not be reached.
Meanwhile, Jorge Perez and Agustin Lopez’s U.S.-born daughter remains in school, where she speaks English and lives an American lifestyle. Jorge Perez worries that if she and Lopez Agustin are deported, her daughter would bear the brunt of the punishment—ripped away from only country she has ever known.
“So many of us have kept this country running,” Jorge Perez adds, referring to undocumented people whose labor was deemed “essential” during the pandemic. “It’s in the hands of the government. It’s up to them to decide if those of us who have been here for years, have homes, have children here, will be able to work without the constant fear of immigration arriving.”
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