Four employees at two Mississippi food processing plants have been indicted on federal immigration-related charges on the eve of the one-year anniversary of what prosecutors called the largest single-state immigration crackdown in history.
The raids made headlines around the nation as many children, on the first day of school, were separated from parents who were rounded up in the operation.
Mike Hurst, US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, announced the unsealing of the indictments Thursday against four people who were supervisors or human resources personnel. Agents detained 680 undocumented immigrants during the raids at seven central Mississippi plants on August 7, 2019.
The indictments on charges ranging from harboring undocumented immigrants to obtaining false Social Security cards are the first against workers at the plants. No company executives or owners have been charged. Hurst said the investigation was continuing.
“Be patient,” he told reporters at a news conference Thursday. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and most prosecutions of immigration crimes are not completed in just one year.”
Additionally, Hurst said, 119 of the 680 undocumented immigrants detained last year have been charged with counts that include stealing the identities of American citizens, falsifying immigration documents, and illegally reentering the country after having been deported, among other charges.
One unsealed indictment named Salvador Delgado-Nieves, 57, a Pelahatchie, Mississippi, resident. He was indicted on three counts of harboring undocumented immigrants, three counts of assisting undocumented immigrants in representing themselves as US citizens, according to Hurst’s statement. He also faces three counts of assisting undocumented immigrants in obtaining false Social Security cards and one count of making a false statement to law enforcement officials when he denied having hired undocumented workers at the A&B Inc., food processing plant, Hurst said.
Iris Villalon, 44, an Ocean Springs, Mississippi, resident, was indicted on one count of harboring an undocumented immigrant and one count of making false statements in denying the hiring of undocumented immigrants, according to the statement. She’s also charged with one count for the filing of false employer quarterly wage reports, according to Hurst.
In addition, Carolyn Johnson, 50, from Kosciuskio, Mississippi, and Aubrey “Bart” Willis, 39, a Flowery Branch, Georgia resident, were both charged with harboring undocumented immigrants after federal warrants were carried out at the Pearl River Foods facility on August 7, 2019.
She was a human resource manager and he managed Pearl River Foods in Carthage, Mississippi, according to Hurst. Johnson was also indicted for fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Villalon, who pleaded not guilty at a federal arraignment on Thursday, was granted bond and was to be released, according to court documents. Her lawyer did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment. The attorney for Johnson and Willis declined comment. Johnson and Willis both pleaded not guilty and were to be released on bond.
It’s unclear if Delgado Nieves has a lawyer.
A&B Inc. did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment. At Pearl River Foods, a representative declined comment.
The August 7, 2019 enforcement action was carried out on the first day of school and videos of heartbroken children begging for their parents’ release flooded social media and America’s airwaves.
Tense scenes unfolded outside some plants as friends and family members clamored for information and buses shuttled away large groups of detained immigrants.
Critics called the raids yet another cruel immigration policy that ultimately punished children for political gain. Several local elected officials also blasted the raids, particularly the impact they would have on the children of the detainees and the local economy.
Hurst said the identities of more than 400 US citizens had been stolen or misused for the employment of undocumented immigrants — including an 8-year-old boy, a teenager trying to enter the US Navy, and a young woman with mental health issues who lost her Social Security benefits and medicines as a result of the theft.
“These are real world, real people, real lives who are being threatened, who are being harmed, who are being victimized by those who seek to violate our immigration laws,” he said.
On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, questioned why the Trump administration “still has not answered for the cruel and unnecessary family separation inflicted on hundreds of Mississippi families and how it continues to poorly treat immigrants.”
“It’s clear that working families, rather than the employers taking advantage of these families, are the ones that continue to suffer from the effects of this raid,” Thompson said in a statement. “ICE must do its part by utilizing discretion in its enforcement to focus on national security threats instead of its consistent and blatant targeting of vulnerable populations.”
Federal officials announced the day after last year’s raids that some 300 of the undocumented workers were released on humanitarian grounds, including many parents who were reunited with their children.
Most of those undocumented workers were released pending immigration hearings, according to activists. Many have been required to wear GPS ankle bracelets and to report to immigration authorities each month.
Hurst and ICE officials on Thursday would not provide a breakdown on how the cases were resolved. Most immigration hearings were postponed during the pandemic.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement have stepped up worksite enforcement since President Donald Trump took office, conducting a number of large-scale raids at food-processing plants and gardening centers in recent years.
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