US Attorney Mike Hurst announced unsealed indictments in his office’s investigation into Mississippi chicken processing plants.
Mississippi Clarion Ledger
Four managers at two chicken plants have been indicted for allegedly aiding undocumented workers to live and work in Mississippi, according to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst.
On Thursday morning, Hurst held a news conference at the federal courthouse in Jackson to announce the unsealed indictments in his office’s investigation into Mississippi chicken processing plants, which federal agents had raided one year before.
During the Aug. 7, 2019 raids, agents arrested 680 immigrant workers from seven chicken processing plants in Central Mississippi. It was the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in U.S. history. The indicted managers were not arrested that day, Hurst said.
The four indictments announced Thursday are the first for any company managers or supervisors. Starting last August, more than 100 workers have been indicted on immigration-related crimes.
“I am pro-legal immigration all day long. Immigrants built this country. Immigrants made this country strong,” Hurst said, but people who immigrate illegally “deserve prosecution.”
Hurst did not announce any punishment or indictments of top executives at the companies who operated the chicken plants, but hinted that could be coming.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day and most prosecutions of immigration crimes are not completed in just one year,” Hurst said. “…Prosecuting immigration crimes is incredibly complex. It’s time intensive. It’s a heavy lift for investigative resources.”
Who was indicted?
Hurst provided the following details about the indictments:
Salvador Delgado-Nieves, 57, of Pelahatchie, worked at A&B Inc., which was associated with the MP Foods plant in Pelahatchie
- Charged with three counts of undocumented immigrants, three counts of assisting undocumented immigrants in falsifying them to be U.S. Citizens and obtaining false social security cards and one count of making false statements to law enforcement by denying he had hired undocumented immigrants
- Faces up to 74 years in federal prison and a $2.5 million fine
Iris Villalon, 44, of Ocean Springs, worked at A&B Inc.
- Charged with one count of harboring undocumented immigrants, one count of making false statements and one count of causing false employer quarterly wage reports when she knew false social security numbers were represented
- Faces up to 20 years in prison and $750,000 in fines
Carolyn Johnson, 50, of Kosciusko, worked at Pearl River Foods in Carthage as a human resources manager
- Charged with six counts of harboring undocumented immigrants, one count of wire fraud and two counts of aggravated identity theft related to a grant from the state of Mississippi for reimbursement for on-the-job training of employees
- Faces up to 84 years in prison and $2.25 million in fines
Aubrey “Bart” Willis, 39, of Flowery Branch, Georgia, was a manager at Pearl River Foods
- Charged with five counts of harboring undocumented immigrants
- Faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Matthew Albence said at the conference that the investigation has so far resulted in a total of 126 indictments and 73 convictions.
Affidavits in the federal search warrant used to raid the plants suggested company officials knew their workers were undocumented. The affidavits described some managers who knew employees wore ankle monitors to work as they waited on immigration hearings, that a confidential informant told investigators one of the chicken companies was aware its workers used fraudulent social security numbers and that a human resources employee revealed an employee was hired on two occasions, under two different identities.
Mississippi’s Latino communities hit hard by the raids
Immigration agents struck on the first day of school for some of the communities, leaving social service agencies, local law enforcement and educators scrambling to make sure students had someone to go home to after school.
About 300 of the arrested workers were released within 27 hours on humanitarian grounds. Hurst said agents worked to make sure children had at least one parent at home. The Clarion Ledger and USA Today found that in some instances, breastfeeding mothers and single parents were kept in detention. Care of the children sometimes fell to extended family, friends or a neighbor.
After the raids, chicken plants laid workers off. Hundreds of families were left without a source of income and had to rely on donations collected by local religious organizations and nonprofits to pay their bills and put food on the table.
In the past year, some workers have been deported. Others continue to fight immigration or criminal cases.
Hurst has previously said the crimes workers were indicted for included illegal reentry and document fraud. ICE spokesman Bryan Cox has said the agency had identified 400 cases of social security fraud as part of the investigation.
Hurst criticized “sensational” news coverage of immigrant families impacted by raids
Hurst opened the conference by highlighting identity fraud cases.
“What was lost in all the sensational news stories last year, highlighting members of illegal aliens who have violated our laws, what were lost were those American citizens who have been victimized by this wrongdoing,” he said.
Hurst said identity fraud victims included an 8-year-old boy, a teen who was trying to enter the U.S. Navy and a woman with mental health issues who lost her social security benefits and medicine because of the fraud.
“These are real world, real people, real lives who were being threatened, who were being harmed and who were being victimized by those who seek to violate our immigration laws,” Hurst said.
Albence said illegal immigration is “not a victimless crime and feeds criminality” by funneling money to human traffickers who smuggle people across the border.
He compared immigrants who bypass the legal immigration system to stealing money to purchase a luxury vehicle.
“I may want to go out and buy a Jaguar tomorrow,” Albence said. “I don’t have the money to buy a Jaguar. Does that mean I can go out and steal money, because I don’t feel like waiting until I earn enough money to go buy a Jaguar? You just can’t commit crime because you don’t have the ability. There’s a legal way to do it.”
Latino immigrants impacted by the raids previously interviewed by the Clarion Ledger said they left their home countries to escape poverty, violence and to seek better futures for their children. Though Albence described the U.S. immigration system as the “most generous” in the world, the process of legal immigration is complicated and costly and has become more difficult under the current administration.
The wave of immigration to Mississippi from Central America began when a chicken company began recruiting Latino immigrants to fill a labor shortage in the 1990s, according to the man who led the recruitment efforts at B.C. Rogers chicken processing plant. Workers were given a bus ride and promised a bed when they arrived in the “Hospitality State.”
Undocumented immigrants make up a significant portion of the workforce at chicken processing plants, where the jobs are difficult and low-paying. Mississippi processes hundreds of millions of chickens each year and poultry is the state’s richest agricultural commodity.
Plants and communities targeted by the operation:
- PH Food in Morton
- Peco Foods in Canton
- Peco Foods in Sebastapol
- Koch Foods in Morton
- Pearl River Foods in Carthage
- Peco Foods in Bay Springs
- MP Food in Pelahatchie
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