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Feds Indict Poultry Execs After 2019 Mississippi ICE Raids; No Charges for Koch, PECO

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst, center, listens while ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence discusses charges against four executives at two Mississippi poultry plants that ICE raided in August 2019.

One day shy of a year after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stormed poultry plants across Mississippi and arrested 680 undocumented workers, ICE and the U.S. Department of Justice announced their first indictments against executives at the targeted companies.

“This office has a successful history of prosecuting employers for violating our immigration laws, and today marks another step in ensuring that justice is fairly and impartially done, no matter the law-breaking,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst said in a statement today.

The indictments include charges against four personnel members at two of the seven plants that ICE targeted in the Aug. 7, 2019 raids, including the Pearl River Foods plant in Carthage, Miss., and A&B, Inc., which has a plant in Pelahatchie, Miss.

No Charges for Koch Foods or PECO Foods

Left out of the indictments, though, are charges against personnel at two companies whose executives have given thousands of dollars to top Mississippi officials, and who received public endorsements from former Gov. Phil Bryant prior to the August 2019 raids. Those companies, PECO Foods and Koch Foods, represent five of the seven plants that ICE targeted in last year’s raids.

“The indictments unsealed today mark the beginning, not the end, of our investigations and prosecutions. Rest assured that we will continue to pursue criminal wrongdoers and enforce our criminal laws wherever the evidence may take us,” Hurst said today.

The indictments do not include charges against any management or personnel at PECO Foods or Koch Foods. Last year for a different publication, this reporter noted that executives at those companies gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to a “Chicken PAC” that, in turn, poured thousands into the campaign coffers of some of Mississippi’s top federal officials, including U.S. Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker.

ICE raided three PECO plants last year in Canton, Bay Springs and Sebastopol. A Koch plant in Morton, Miss., was also targeted. Top Mississippi Republicans have also supported Peco and Koch in the past.

Before the raids, former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, publicly praised PECO and Koch Foods at various points. He attended Koch Foods’ groundbreaking for its Morton plant in 2015, saying he looked “forward to the company’s continued growth.”

Former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted this photo of himself at a groundbreaking for a PECO Plant in West Point, Miss., in 2018, calling it a “testament to our skilled workforce and job-friendly tax and regulatory climate.” Photo courtesy Phil Bryant.

In 2018, he attended PECO’s ground-breaking for a new facility in West Point, Miss., praising the company for “the creation of so many jobs for the people of the Golden Triangle Region.” Bryant left office when his second term expired in January 2020.

After the raids last year, PECO defended itself, saying in a press statement that it was “fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation and are navigating a potential disruption of operations.” Koch Foods Inc. also denied all charges of wrongdoing in a press statement at the time, saying it had complied with immigration laws, but claimed federal employment nondiscrimination laws made it difficult to verify all employees’ citizenship status.

Koch bought the Morton plant from B.C. Rogers, a poultry company that brought more than 5,000 low-wage immigrant workers to the small town in the mid-1990s with promises of good pay and benefits. Many came from Mexico, Cuba and Central American countries like 

Guatemala and El Salvador. Other poultry producers began replicating that effort, dubbed the “Hispanic Project,” University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Anthropologist Angela Stuesse told this reporter last year.

Charges Include ‘Harboring’ Immigrants, ‘Fraud’

Two employees from Pearl River Foods LLC in Carthage, Miss., faced multiple charges in today’s indictments. A grand jury indicted Human Resource Manager Carolyn Johnson on six counts of allegedly “harboring” undocumented immigrants, a count of wire fraud and two counts of identity theft. The filing charges Pearl River Foods Manager Aubrey “Bart” Willis with five counts of “harboring” an undocumented immigrant.

Johnson, who is 50 and a resident of Kosciusko, Miss., could face up to 84 years in prison if convicted and $2.25 million in fines, today’s DOJ statement says. Willis, who is 39, could face up to 50 years in prison and $1.25 million in fines.

Those arrested include Salvador Delgado-Nieves of A&B, Inc., who “in violation of law, did conceal, harbor, and shield from detection” three undocumented immigrants “for the purpose of commercial advantage and private financial gain,” court filings say. The filings also say he “did aid and abet” undocumented immigrants in obtaining false Social Security cards and is also charged with “making a false statement to law enforcement officials when he denied having hired (undocumented workers) at A&B, Inc., in Pelatatchie.”

Koch Food plant in Forest, Miss.

Nieves, who is from Pelahatchie, Miss., where ICE agents raided the A&B plant there last year, could face up to 74 years in federal prison and $2.5 million in fines, the DOJ said. He is 57 years old.

A grand jury also indicted Iris Villalon, 44, of Ocean Springs on “one count of harboring” an undocumented immigrant and on a separate count of “making false statements when she denied that she had hired (undocumented immigrants) for employment with A&B, Inc.” The court filings also cite a count of “causing false employer quarterly wage reports to be filed” because she knew an employee’s Social Security number was faked.

Villalon could face as many as 20 years in prison and up to $750,000 in fines, Hurst’s statement today says.

The indictments do not mention Delgado-Nieves nor Villalon’s roles at A&B, Inc.

All four appeared before U.S. magistrate judges earlier this afternoon.

Hurst said in today’s announcement that the raids have so far resulted in 126 indictments, 117 criminal arrests and 73 convictions. All but four of those indictments and all of the convictions targeted immigrant workers, not employers who allegedly hired them illegally.

‘Still Standing, Fighting for Our Families’

Even as the Justice Department unsealed today’s indictments, many of the undocumented workers ICE arrested last year remain in ICE prisons a year later, making it difficult on spouses, children and other family members who were left behind in Mississippi’s raid towns. The government has deported others.

Salomon Diego Alonso, seen here with his daughter, is one of 70 ICE detainees at the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, La., who was treated for COVID-19. (Photo courtesy IAJE)

“We’re still standing, fighting for our families, but we have questions. How can it be that one year later, our brothers and sisters are still in ICE prison camps—that workers are still vulnerable to ICE threats?” Lorena Quiroz of the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity said in a statement today.

IAJE plans to host vigils on Friday at 6 p.m. in towns where families affected by the ICE raids live, including Morton, Laurel, Forest and Carthage. Though ICE did not raid plants in Laurel or Forest, a significant number of the families live in those towns.

ICE is holding dozens of workers who were caught up in last year’s raids in Richwood Detention Center in Monroe, La., a private-prison facility run by LaSalle Corrections, which has seen COVID-19 outbreaks in recent months. Since March, immigrant advocates have warned that the ICE centers could endanger the lives of detainees amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

IAJE said that “the same communities impacted by the raids are today excluded from certain pandemic assistance, deemed unworthy of humanitarian assistance because of their immigration status—despite most being ‘essential workers.’”

In April, the wife of detainee Baldomero Orozco Juarez wrote to Congressman Bennie Thompson, writing that it was already “an injustice that he is still detained after nine months and he has not committed a single crime in this country.”

“Now he might be sentenced to death because of the virus?” she wrote. (She did not disclose her name).

In its statement today, IAJE called for “defunding ICE,” reuniting immigrant families, and “to ensure this never happens again.”

“Mississippians have no problem calling out white supremacy. It’s a tradition here,” IAJE organizer and community historian Jessica Manrriquez said in today’s statement. “Indigenous communities have no problem identifying the racist colonial worldview that is attacking their families. They’ve seen it before. 

“It’s time that the rest of the country join us in demanding worker and migrant justice. That means defunding ICE, and it means indigenous and undocumented workers are protected when they speak out about abuse.”

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