A Year on from Mississippi Raids, Immigrants Have Gone from 'Illegal' to 'Essential'

Nearly a year has passed since the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sparked national outrage after launching raids that saw hundreds of immigrant workers arrested at processing plants in Mississippi.

That day, on August 7, shortly after many parents saw their children off to school for the first week since summer break, ICE arrested as many as 680 workers across seven plants in the state.

While many families saw their loved ones released, others saw their parents, spouses, relatives, friends and coworkers deported or forced to pay heavy bonds to secure their release.

In a new report published on Tuesday, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) shines a light on how the August raids continue to impact families in Mississippi, with many still struggling with the emotional trauma and financial impacts of the ICE operations.

In a series of site visits conducted in the months since the raids, CLASP found that families continued to struggle with the impacts of family separation, physical harm, economic hardship and strain on whole communities and community leaders.

"Across all the sites, a common theme was the excessive use of force and the highly dramatic nature of the operations," the report states. "The workers arrested in the raids were often mothers and fathers—many of whom had lived in the community for decades, rarely missed a day of work, and had no criminal record."

"Workers and community members alike expressed difficulty understanding the logic behind the choice to arrest workers in such an aggressive, public manner," it states, while "many immigrants talked about the large number of agents, often at least one per worker, the use of helicopters, and such physical and verbal aggression as pushing and yelling while handcuffing and transporting workers."

"In Mississippi, several providers and community members likened the raid to a terrorist attack," the report states.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, anICE spokesperson said that everyone arrested in the Mississippi raids were lawfully arrested for violations of federal law.

Further, they said that more than 100 people have since been additionally charged with "crimes related to stealing the identities of U.S. persons to illegally obtain employment in their names."

The ICE spokesperson said that CLASP's report fails to acknowledge that reality.

The report instead focuses on the impacts children and parents affected by the raids have described, with some describing emotional trauma from being separated from their loved ones, as well as struggling with the economic and emotional hardship of being forced out of work or even deported out of the country.

For one mother in Mississippi, who spoke to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity over fears of being targeted by ICE, the devastation caused by the raids has been longlasting, with her family still struggling after her husband was deported out of the country in June after being detained for months.

"Since August of last year, my life and that of my family has taken a turn that I never expected that has left me with many wounds in my heart," she said in an interview translated from Spanish.

For the mother of two young children, it has been difficult to explain to her kids why their father was arrested "without any crime, but simply for not having documents in this country."

Meanwhile, she has also struggled to provide for her family financially, being forced to take on work cleaning houses during the pandemic, despite her constant fears of catching COVID-19 and bringing the virus into her own home.

Her husband had been the primary income earner in her family and without him, she said, life is a struggle, both financially and emotionally, with the family continuing to receive psychological support in the wake of August's raids.

But while her husband ended up being deported out of the U.S. as a result of the raids, hundreds of other workers who were released after being arrested by ICE are back to work once again.

The difference now, is that in the wake of the pandemic, they have suddenly been welcomed back to work as "essential" workers, rather than being forced to slip under the radar to make a living.

"Now, we have things like a letter going out by the poultry plants...saying if police stop you, show them this letter and let them know that you're an 'essential' worker," Lorena Quiroz, a community organizer at Working Together MS and the founder of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity (IAJE) told Newsweek.

"They even went as far as putting flyers up in laundromats and offering more money," Quiroz said.

But as processing plants continue to roll out the welcome mat for immigrant workers in the midst of the pandemic, Quiroz said there have been spikes of coronavirus affecting workers, who fear for their health and safety.

"Now, they're deemed essential workers, but they're still treated as disposable," Quiroz said. 'Because if they're sick, they're not being reimbursed for their sick time and they're not being given the personal protection equipment (PPE)."

Further, the organizer said, not enough is being done to keep workers informed on how to stay safe and reduce the chances of catching and spreading the virus. So, she said, community organizers have been working to get the message out themselves.

Undocumented workers, Quiroz said, are more than "aware of the [bad] treatment they're getting."

"They're fully aware of the politics. Just because they don't speak the language or are undocumented doesn't' mean they don't understand the politics," she said.

However, the organizer said, "there's so much fear and this administration has done so much" that undocumented workers do not feel they can speak out or seek safer job opportunities elsewhere.

"So, the options are these chicken plants and they have to go back to work with COVID-19," Quiroz said.

In an interview with Newsweek, Wendy Cervantes, who authored CLASP's report, said the impacts of ICE's raids could last a lifetime.

Particularly for children, she said, "we know that the toxic stress created by those types of experiences have long-term consequences to their overall development."

"Many of the children impacted by the raids were separated from parents for months or permanently and that loss of a parent has consequences in the long-term in terms of overall health, but also emotional wellbeing... economic security. That's something that is a lifelong consequence."

For the mother who spoke with Newsweek on the condition of anonymity, those long-term consequences feel all too real.

Her young son, who is under 10, has a birthday coming up this week and "he says all he wants is for his dad to be here on his birthday," she said. "It's the saddest thing."

This article has been updated with a statement from ICE.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent prepares to arrest undocumented workers at Fresh Mark, Salem, June 19, 2018. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty