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A devastating set of workplace raids took place across Mississippi on Wednesday, leading to the arrests and detention of nearly 680 people. The raids, which took place at seven food processing plants in six cities, were among the largest ever carried out by ICE. Workplace raids, which were common under President George W. Bush, were abandoned under President Barack Obama. This week’s raids were said to be months in planning and were carried out by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. In the immediate aftermath of the raids, children were stranded at school at the end of the day, or could not go home to sleep for the night. It was the first day of school for many in the area, and principals and teachers said many children stayed home from school the next day, out of fear.
Nearly 300 of those arrested were eventually released late Wednesday night. In cases of children who had two parents arrested, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, one was released. The implication, of course, was that some children were separated from both parents without warning for a day, and although they were reunited with one parent, they are still indefinitely separated from the other. The acting ICE director announced that the people who have been released will be placed on ankle monitoring as they await court appearances.
These raids have brought fear to entire communities and inflicted lasting pain to scores of families. Among the many alarming aspects of the raids are the conditions awaiting those whom ICE has detained.
About 380 people remain in custody. Julia Solórzano, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, contrasted ICE’s continued appetite for detention with the overcrowding and squalid conditions reported in detention facilities. “It’s also worth noting,” she said in an SPLC statement after the raids, “that immigration agencies that have repeatedly blamed ‘overcapacity’ detention facilities for the horrific treatment of those imprisoned nevertheless detained more than 600 people today.”
The raids happened despite the fact that ICE is already far over the limit for the number of people in detention that was set by Congress this year. The emergency funding that passed Congress recently, despite opposition from many House Democrats over the leeway it offered, prohibited the Department of Homeland Security from adding more beds at detention centers or migrant processing facilities.
Yet ICE, despite repeated direction from Congress, has sought to expand its detention capacity. “ICE had the capacity to detain only about 2,000 people in Louisiana and Mississippi at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency,” Mother Jones reported last month. “But contracts signed with private prison companies in the past year have pushed ICE’s capacity in those states above 10,000 people.”
Much of the increased capacity has come via contracts with the companies CoreCivic and GEO Group, but local jails are also opting for ICE contracts over contracts with the state, citing the higher rate from the federal government. On ICE’s side of the equation, immigration detention in Louisiana is markedly cheaper than the national average.
After criminal justice reforms were enacted in 2017, the astronomical number of people in Louisiana’s prisons and jails declined. But as ICE has sought to expand detention capacity, people in immigration detention have filled beds emptied by the reforms. As Mother Jones reported in May, while Governor John Bel Edwards celebrated the fact that the state no longer had the nation’s highest incarceration rate, “Louisiana was on the verge of a different sort of incarceration boom that would wipe out much of that progress.”
The detention facilities with which ICE is contracting include those that have come under scrutiny for unsafe conditions in the past. In its reporting last month, Mother Jones pointed out that under President Barack Obama, revelations about dangerous conditions in two of them prompted the federal government to move to end its use of private prisons.
In the last week, immigration detainees have been pepper-sprayed at two Louisiana detention facilities. The ICE Processing Center in Pine Prairie is one of two dedicated ICE facilities in Louisiana. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed reported that more than 100 immigrants held there were pepper-sprayed over the weekend. An ICE spokesperson confirmed the use of pepper spray to BuzzFeed but said in an email that it was ”a brief, calculated use” when a group of people “refused to depart the outdoor recreation area.”
An advocacy group, Freedom for Immigrants, gave BuzzFeed a very different account of what happened, which ICE denied. The group told BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz that 115 immigrants who had been on a hunger strike “were tear gassed, shot at with rubber bullets, beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and blocked from contacting their families or attorneys.”
Just a day earlier, immigrants held at another Louisiana jail said they were beaten and pepper-sprayed after protesting their extended detention, according toreporting by Mother Jones. That facility began contracting with ICE a year ago and holds between 300 and 600 people in immigration detention.
Pine Prairie, the dedicated ICE facility, also had a recent mumps outbreak. The outbreak limited access to legal counsel.
That access is already severely compromised for people in immigration detention in Louisiana. Detention facilities are in remote, rural parts of the state. The LaSalle ICE Processing Center in the small town of Jena was mentioned in an ICE and U.S. Attorney’s Office’s press release as one of the jails where people arrested on Wednesday would be taken. The Miami Herald reported yesterday that “it is one of the largest in the country with an average daily population of 1,200. It holds men and women, according to data provided by ICE.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center opened a satellite office in Alexandria, Louisiana, last fall to take on representation of people detained at Pine Prairie and LaSalle Detention Center in Jena. But the rapid spike in detentions makes adequate counsel for all detainees impossible.
“When you open 2,500 new beds in the span of six months to a year there is no way for legal services to meet that demand,” said Jeremy Jong, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told NOLA.com in May. And immigrants in Louisiana face a particularly inhospitable legal climate. The July Mother Jones article reported on “the region’s harsh judges and shortage of immigration lawyers” and the advent of video conferencing for hearing asylum claims. This disadvantages asylum seekers in a process that is already heavily weighted against them: One Louisiana judge has, in recent years, denied every single claim presented to her.