600 Arrested in Mississppi Raid

Posted by admin on Aug 27th, 2008

US Immigration News Briefs: http://immigrationnewsbriefs.blogspot.com.

On Aug. 25, dozens of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested approximately 595 workers in a raid on an electric transformer manufacturing facility owned by Howard Industries, Inc. in Laurel, Mississippi, a town of 20,000. The agents sealed off all the plant’s exits, trapping workers inside, and executed a federal criminal search warrant for evidence relating to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other crimes, as well as a civil search warrant looking for unauthorized immigrants. [ICE News Release 8/26/08; AP 8/27/08; ABC News 8/29/08; Washington Post 8/28/08]

The arrested workers were immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Brazil and Germany. Citing humanitarian reasons such as childcare, ICE released about 106 workers after fitting their ankles with electronic monitors to ensure their future appearance before a federal immigration judge. Nine other workers were transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) after they were determined to be unaccompanied minors. All nine were 17 years old; one was female. [ICE 8/26/08; ABC News 8/29/08]

ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez said agents also executed search warrants at the company’s headquarters in nearby Ellisville. She said no company executives had been detained, but that the investigation was ongoing. [AP 8/27/08]

“Paula,” a Mexican worker released with an ankle monitor, said that around 8am on Aug. 25, supervisors at the plant told workers that a “hurricane was coming,” then ICE agents “surrounded us in front, all around.” According to Paula, agents taunted and threatened the workers and kicked and pushed some of them as helicopters flew overhead. [ABC News 8/29/08] Steve Dodd, an eyewitness who was at the plant during the raid, called the raid “very professional” and “a smooth operation”; he said US citizens were provided with blue armbands. [Laurel Leader-Call 8/26/08]

The plant on Pendorf Road was shut down for the day. “Manufacturing operations were restarted at our Laurel Facility on regular shifts Tuesday morning [Aug. 26] with the remainder of our 3000-plus work force,” said Howard Industries in a statement on Aug. 27. “We began an immediate testing and hiring program to replace transformer production employees who may not be returning to work. We anticipate being fully staffed within one week.” [LL-C 8/29/08] On Aug. 26, hundreds of people lined up outside the plant to apply for jobs as news of the raid spread. [AP 8/27/08; Hattiesburg American (Mississippi) 8/27/08]

Eight Face Criminal Charges

On Aug. 26, Michael A. Holt, ICE Special Agent in Charge of the Office of Investigations in New Orleans, and Stan Harris, First Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, announced that the US Attorney’s Office had brought criminal charges against eight workers for aggravated identity theft and had transferred them to the custody of the US Marshals Service. The other workers face administrative immigration violations, although. Harris warned there could be more identity theft cases after ICE officials finish interviewing the detainees. [ICE 8/26/08; HA 8/28/08]

At a preliminary and detention hearing on Aug. 27 at US District Court in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, federal prosecutors said the eight workers had used stolen identities, including one of a dead person, to gain employment. ICE agent Ben Taylor testified that some had received the fake identification information from friends. US Magistrate Mike Parker ordered all eight held without bond; he rejected public defender Abby Brumley’s request to free Paula Gomez on bond to care for her five-year-old son, who had been sick and had no one else to care for him. “She has been charged with a serious crime,” said Assistant US Attorney Gaines Cleveland. “We need to keep this defendant until the charges are resolved.” Stan Harris would not say where the eight were being held. The Hattiesburg American reported that in court some had on Pearl River County Jail jumpsuits and others wore Mississippi Department of Corrections’ clothing. [HA 8/28/08]

On Mar. 17, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour signed SB 2988, the “Employment Protection Act,” requiring employers in the state to use the federal “E-Verify” database to check the immigration status of new hires. The law took effect on July 1 for state and local government agencies, companies contracting with state and local governments, and employers with 250 or more employees. Businesses with more than 100 employees must have the system in place by July 1, 2009; smaller businesses must comply by July 1, 2011. [Barbour Statement 3/17/08; HA 6/30/08; Immigration Practice Group, Immigration News: Recent E-Verify Developments 5/20/08]

Mississippi lawmakers once used Howard Industries laptops, and in 2002 Mississippi lawmakers approved a $31.5 million, taxpayer-backed incentive plan for Howard Industries to expand. It is unclear whether the company has current state contracts, but the provisions of SB 2988 do not apply to contracts entered before January 2, 2008. [AP 8/27/08, 5:47pm & 8:47pm; Immigration Practice Group 5/20/08]

Under the law, a company found guilty of employing unauthorized immigrants could lose public contracts for three years and the right to do business in Mississippi for a year. The law also makes it a felony for an unauthorized immigrant to accept a job in Mississippi. [AP 8/27/08] Howard Industries started using E-Verify last year. An ICE spokesperson said the agency began its investigation into the company two years ago. [Washington Post 8/28/08]

In June, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed $123,500 in penalties for 36 violations at Howard’s Pendorf site and $41,000 for 15 violations at another Howard site
in Laurel. [LL-C 8/26/08]

Activists Issued Warnings

Just as happened with the May 12 raid at the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa [see INB 6/2/08], local immigrant advocates had reported warning signs in advance of the Mississippi raid. On Aug. 22, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA) issued a press release reporting a “series of preparations by [ICE] on the Gulf Coast” suggesting an impending major raid in the area. “ICE has reportedly booked dozens of rooms in hotels on the Gulf Coast,” wrote MIRA. “They may be checking in as early as tonight.” [MIRA Press Release 8/22/08] The week before the raid, Howard Industries put up a billboard announcing it was hiring. [AP 8/27/08]

“Perhaps even more worrisome are the reports that the federal court in Hattiesburg is being readied for a response similar to the response to the raid in Postville,” warned MIRA. The organization’s “staff and local leaders are working quickly to identify possible targets, educate workers and assemble a team of attorneys…” the press release said. “What happened in Postville was an absolute travesty of justice that must never happen again,” stated MIRA spokesperson and attorney Patricia Ice. “ICE must assure that any future enforcement actions are conducted in a humane manner and that detainees are permitted their constitutional rights to due process and to legal counsel.” [MIRA 8/22/08]

By Aug. 29 it seemed clear that the federal government had not repeated in Mississippi the strategy it followed in Iowa, where prosecutors filed criminal identity-theft charges against 305 of the 389 workers arrested. “I think Postville was a huge embarrassment because of the criminalization of workers,” said Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Florida International University professor who served as a federal courts interpreter during mass hearings for the Agriprocessors workers. After the proceedings were over, Camayd-Freixas published an essay suggesting that most of the Postville workers were unfairly pressured into guilty pleas and weren’t even aware that they had used Social Security numbers belonging to other people.

Drake University law professor Bob Rigg, who also criticized the Iowa court proceedings, said that processing most of the workers administratively for deportation instead of prosecuting them on criminal charges “used to be the norm until Postville.” Complaints from Camayd-Freixas, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Times and others about the unjust treatment of the Postville workers have caused tremendous controversy; “It could be the U.S. attorney in Mississippi decided, ‘I’m not going to go through that,'” said Rigg. [Des Moines Register (Iowa) 8/28/08]

When asked if the government’s policy had changed, ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez responded in an email message: “Absolutely not.” [New York Times 8/26/08] Gonzalez would not specify why only eight of the Mississippi workers were charged with crimes. [DMR 8/28/08]

Did Union Cheer Raid?

Witnesses said that authorized workers at the factory cheered and applauded as immigrants were herded out in shackles. ICE said a tip from a union member triggered its investigation of Howard Industries. [ABC News
8/29/08; AP 8/27/08]

According to an AP report, union members speaking on condition of anonymity said they resented immigrant workers at the plant; they said the company allowed immigrants to work as much as 40 hours of overtime a week but discouraged other employees from doing so. [AP 8/27/08]

Veteran labor reporter David Bacon writes that International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1317 had brought in Spanish-speaking organizers to sign up immigrant members at the Laurel plant, and that many immigrants who were hired recently had begun to join the union. (Mississippi is a “right-to-work” state, where unions must work to recruit voluntary members at unionized plants.) [New America Media News Analysis by David Bacon, dated 8/31/08, accessed 8/30/08] According to AP, about 2,600 of Howard Industries’ workers belong to the union, although it was unclear how many of them worked at the raided plant, or whether any had been arrested. One immigrant worker from Mexico who did not join the union said that in order to recruit members, “the union uses the tactic of saying immigration was coming and the members of the union would not be taken.” [AP 8/27/08]

Local 1317’s collective bargaining agreement expired at the beginning of August, and the ICE raid took place as the union was negotiating a new contract seeking wage increases, better vacation benefits and health care improvements. Activists say the raid in Laurel will help the company resist such demands and could undermine progressive coalition-building. Jim Evans, a national AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi and a member of the state legislature’s Black Caucus, said he believed the raid “is an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions–all those who want political change here.” [NAM News Analysis (Bacon), dated 8/31/08, accessed 8/30/08]

Immediately after the raid, MIRA began organizing meetings with the affected workers to provide legal advice, food and economic help. According to MIRA director Bill Chandler, Howard Industries representatives told workers who had been released and family members of detained workers that the company wouldn’t release their paychecks. On Aug. 28 MIRA organizer Vicky Cintra led a group of workers to the raided plant to demand their pay. Managers called Laurel police and sheriffs, who threatened to arrest her. After workers began chanting, “Let her go!” and news reporters appeared on the scene, the company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people. [NAM News Analysis (Bacon), dated 8/31/08, accessed 8/30/08; LL-C 8/29/08]

MIRA has established a special relief fund for those affected by the raid–for details see: www.yourmira.org/action.html

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