Most of the 680 illegal immigrants nabbed in August’s immigration raids at poultry plants in Mississippi worked under stolen American identities, the Department of Homeland Security’s top investigator told Congress Thursday, rebuffing Democrats who insisted the “undocumented” workers were doing no harm.
“They stole the IDs of 400 U.S. citizens,” said Jere Miles, who leads Homeland Security Investigations’ New Orleans office. “Where’s their voice?”
Mr. Miles was defending the Aug. 7 operations against seven processing plants as both a success and a deterrent to future illegal immigrants, battling with Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee who called a field hearing in Mississippi to criticize the raids.
The raids have become a major flashpoint in the immigration debate, with activists complaining that they were conducted cruelly, on the first day of school for the workers’ children, and without warning to local authorities or social welfare agencies.
That left children waiting after class to be picked up by parents who would never show, because they ended up in detention. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did immediately release 303 of the 680 for humanitarian reasons such as young children at home, but some migrants are still in detention and critics said children are still separated.
More galling, according to the Democrats who convened the hearing, is that none of the managers at the poultry processing businesses has been charged.
“You picked on the undocumented persons, to the exclusion of the employers,” said Rep. Al Green, Texas Democrat.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the committee, said he’s working to make sure the illegal immigrants get paid for the work they did — as illegal as it may have been.
He said he has heard tales of employers who wait to see their workers arrested and then pocket the wages they had promised to pay.
“They should have received a paycheck,” Mr. Thompson said. “We’ve been working with various agencies to make sure that happens.”
The raids have become the latest example of “separations” of children from illegal immigrant parents who got entangled with authorities because of their unauthorized status in the U.S. Democrats compared it to the zero tolerance border policy from spring 2018, which saw newly arrived illegal immigrant parents jailed, necessitating separation from the children they brought with them when they snuck across the border.
Mississippi is different in that the families were already established in the state. In some cases that meant children returned home from the first day of school to empty homes, activists said.
Now those families face decisions, Mr. Thompson said.
“Will families be forced to send children back to a country they have never seen or speak the language of, or grow up here without any parents? What happens when these children are U.S. citizens?” he said Thursday, as he kicked off a hearing at Tougaloo College, near some of the raid sites.
The Rev. Odel Medina, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Carthage, Mississippi, which became a nerve center for the community after the raids, read a letter from a 13-year-old boy to a judge who is about to decide the boy’s fate.
“I don’t want him to leave me by myself with my mom and my brother because it will not be a complete family,” the boy wrote.
Mr. Miles said the families are in no different position than any other instance where a parent runs afoul of the law and is incarcerated, forcing spouses and children to figure things out.
Democrats challenged Mr. Miles on whether anyone nabbed had major criminal rap sheets. He ticked off some felony cases against some of the people caught, but then pointed out that 400 of them were working in the U.S. on fraudulent identities he said were stolen from Americans.
“Is that not a serious crime?” he demanded of Democrats.
At that point Mr. Thompson cut him off.
“Be quiet,” the chairman ordered.
But Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the Texas Democrat Mr. Miles had been sparring with, said she didn’t mean to suggest that those alleged crimes were minor.
“You won’t get me on the record saying identity theft is not important or serious,” she said.
No Republican lawmakers attended the field hearing, giving Democrats free rein to criticize ICE’s decision-making.
Mr. Miles, under questioning, admitted to some missteps, including not knowing the operation was on the first day of school.
He said authorities notified school districts, but when told one district never got the notification, he acknowledged it wasn’t on his list.
“Then I would say it was an oversight,” he said.
To Democrats who fretted that the businesses were being let off the hook, Mr. Miles urged patience. He said the heart of the August operation wasn’t the arrest of the migrants but rather to serve search warrants at the businesses, which netted 850,000 documents.
“Seven months from now, a year from now, when we finalize the investigation, there’ll be nobody thanking us for it,” he said.
But he also defended the arrests of the workers who were in the country without authorization.
“It’s one thing to sit here and say this is cruel, this is this, this is the other. But it is the law. And Congress writes the law, we don’t,” Mr. Miles said. “If you want us as a unit, as a group, to go ‘We’ll not enforce the law,’ that’s really not what we’re designed for.”