WASHINGTON — The timing of immigration raids at Mississippi food processing plants after a mass shooting apparently targeting Hispanics in Texas was “unfortunate,” the top US Homeland Security official said.
Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the actions, part of broader enforcement efforts that include employers as well as workers, had been planned for more than a year.
About 680 immigrant workers were arrested Aug. 7 at seven facilities in the southern state, the largest workplace raid in about a decade, US authorities said. Videos and images in news reports and on social media showed children whose migrant parents were detained pleading for their release.
Asked whether he wished the raids hadn’t happened after a mass shooting last weekend in El Paso, Texas, in which the police say the man accused of the killings said he was targeting Mexicans, McAleenan said “the timing was unfortunate.”
Still, McAleenan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the operation “was done with sensitivity” — with caseworkers on hand, and agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, at local schools as liaisons.
“ICE took great pains to make sure there were no child-dependent care issues that were ignored,” McAleenan said on NBC.
Asked why the administration went after the workers and not the employers who hired them by the hundreds, McAleenan said employers were being targeted in the investigation but that more than 200 of the workers detained had criminal records.
“This is a criminal investigation of the employers who are exploiting an undocumented workforce and skirting our laws,” McAleenan said. “Now, when you do an operation at a work site, you can’t ignore people that are there without the proper permission to be in the United States.”
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection and a former acting director of ICE, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that employers are being investigated. But he emphasized that the workers “aren’t undocumented immigrants. They are illegal immigrants.”
Asked about press reports that the Trump Organization has for years used undocumented immigrants for labor at President Trump’s properties — and why there haven’t been any raids in those cases — Morgan said, “You really can’t say that for sure because there are investigations going on all the time that you’re unaware of.”
Even so, Senator Kamala Harris of California, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, said on “Meet the Press” that the immigration raids were part of a “campaign of terror” by the Trump administration to make Hispanic Americans “afraid.”
The ICE raids have been criticized by other Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, head of the House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson said in a statement that ICE seemed to have ignored internal guidelines requiring it to minimize the impact on children affected.
“The Department of Homeland Security’s leadership has a responsibility to understand the consequences of its actions, and I seriously question why they continue to target migrant families in this way,” Thompson said.
Illinois-based Koch Foods, operator of one of the Mississippi chicken-processing plants subject to last week’s raids, will hold a job fair on Monday to recruit new workers, the company announced on Facebook.