Over more than a decade, hundreds of undocumented workers across the country told federal officials they worked at food processing plants in Mississippi.
In some instances, immigrants were released from detention and outfitted with ankle monitors while awaiting deportation proceedings. Authorities tracking their GPS coordinates were able to see they were coming and going from Mississippi food processing plants.
On Wednesday, hundreds of immigration officials descended on seven Mississippi plants owned by four companies — Peco Foods, Koch Foods, PH Food and Pearl River Foods. They are suspected of "willfully and unlawfully employing" undocumented workers, recently unsealed search warrants say.
Workers reported hearing the roar of helicopters and seeing agents round up mostly Latino workers for questioning. Many wept as they waved goodbye to their family and friends being carted away on buses for processing.
It was the largest immigration sting of its kind in more than a decade. A total of 680 people were arrested. Of those, about 300 were released the same day, officials said. Those who remain in detention are being held in a ICE facility in Louisiana.
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As for the companies, no fines or arrests have taken place, though federal officials say investigations into the companies are ongoing.
What did federal authorities know? How long have they been monitoring these companies?
Unsealed court records provide the first look into how federal authorities planned what officials have described as the largest single-state workplace enforcement action in the country, ever.
ICE filed for search warrants Monday at the seven plants. The records had been sealed until U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Anderson approved a motion Thursday to open them.
Affidavits by ICE Special Agent Anthony Williams Jr. revealed that, for years, temporarily detained undocumented workers — from as far as El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona — had employment cards from plants in Mississippi. He also said electronic ankle monitoring, surveillance and a confidential informant played a part in where raids would be targeted.
In an affidavit about Peco Foods, Williams notes that historical data dating back 17 years, from Nov. 18, 2002, to June 13, 2019, showed that approximately 222 undocumented workers processed by federal officials indicated they worked at Peco Foods and presented agents with Peco Foods personnel identification cards with their photographs and assumed identities.
Similarly for Koch Foods, between Sept. 10, 2002 to April 13, 2019, about 144 undocumented workers told authorities during processing that they worked at Koch Foods in Morton, Mississippi or Forest, Mississippi an affidavit said.
At Pearl River Foods in Carthage, agents analyzed employee rolls and found that numerous workers were using stolen identities, Social Security cards that didn't match their names, or using Social Security cards reported to belong to dead people.
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In at least two cases at Pearl River Foods, the allegedly stolen personal information came from people who discovered that someone else had applied for work under their names when they tried to apply for food assistance or unemployment benefits.
For PH Food in Morton, an employee served as a confidential informant. He told authorities the vast majority of the immigrants employed at the plant are undocumented and using fake biographical information. He also gave investigators information about the inner workings of the plant and identified people he believed to be undocumented workers.
Undocumented immigrants wore ankle monitors to work, told authorities where they lived
Williams' affidavits, making a case for why a judge should approve the raids, detailed dozens of cases that linked known undocumented immigrants to the plants that were raided on Wednesday.
The following are just a few cases that illustrate the different ways law enforcement was able to trace undocumented workers to Mississippi plants.
► On June 15, 2018, Magdalena Alonzo-Martin of Guatemala was detained near the San Luis, Arizona, port of entry. She didn't have legal documents to work or live in the U.S.
Later Alonzo Martin provided ICE with an address in Forest and was was outfitted with an ankle monitor. Alonzo-Martin told officials she was employed with Koch Foods. GPS coordinates show that she worked at the Koch Foods plant in Morton for eight to 10 hours a day on a regular basis.
► On May, 27, 2014, Camelina Cash-Ramirez of Guatemala had an encounter with agents near San Miguel, Arizona. She had unlawfully entered the U.S. and did not have legal documentation to live or work in the country. She provided ICE with a Morton address. GPS monitoring showed she visited the PH Food processing plant multiple times a week, staying for six to eight hours at a time.
► On May 6, agents interviewed Ana Alonzo-Alonzo in Jackson, Mississippi. She provided the agents with information on her employment at Peco Foods. She said she entered the U.S. illegally in 2015 and had been working at Peco for five months.
She told agents she was working under the assumed identity of Isabel Perez and was on the night shift. Her unit is responsible for processing chicken tenders. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security Employer’s Quarterly Wage Report showed the Social Security number for Isabel Perez was paid a total of $6,710.96 by Peco Foods in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to court documents.
She told agents she bought the assumed identity from a man at a laundromat in Forest and paid $200 for a counterfeit identification card and a Social Security card.
► On Feb. 13, 2019, immigration officials executed an arrest and search warrant in Carthage, Mississippi for Silvia Custodio-Morales, who was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. They found a Tennessee ID card and Social Security card in the name of another woman. The fake ID card had Custodio-Morales' face on it.
Custodio-Morales told agents she was currently employed at Pearl River Foods and had worked there for about three weeks under the other woman's name. She said there were numerous undocumented workers at plant, including a shift supervisor.
What penalties could the companies face?
Southern District U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst wouldn't provide many details of the ongoing investigation or what companies might face if they were knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
Federal law says the maximum penalty for intentionally hiring a undocumented workers is six months in jail and/or a $3,000 fine for each undocumented worker.
“I would direct you to the history of this office and our prosecutions in the past of business owners who hire illegal workers,” Hurst said, noting that in his years as an assistant U.S. attorney, he personally prosecuted numerous such cases.
“I can tell you that when I was assistant U.S. attorney, I raided the Country Club of Jackson,” Hurst said. “At a press conference, the U.S. attorney at the time said this was the first action against an employer for immigration violations in our district’s history."
Hurst said there were a number of other employers he dealt with, including Love Irrigation, China Buffet "and the big one was Howard Industries.”
“We will follow the evidence where it leads, and if there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, we will prosecute the case,” Hurst said.
Hurst said the unsealed affidavits from the federal raid warrants “speak for themselves,” and he would not elaborate on the cases at this point.
What do the companies say?
In an emailed statement sent Wednesday, Peco Foods said the company adheres "strongly to all local, state and federal laws, including utilizing the government-based E-Verify program which screens new hires through the Social Security Administration as well as the Department of Homeland Security."
Koch Foods said in a statement Thursday that it screens employees through E-Verify. Jim Gilliland, company spokesman, also said the company relies on temporary workers vetted through a third-party service.
A man at PH Food, who identified himself as Jun Lian, receiving and shipping manager, told the Clarion Ledger the company uses a different company to recruit workers.
A message left with a representative at Pearl River Foods was not immediately returned.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: ICE raids: How federal investigation led to Mississippi poultry plants