Hundreds of immigrants swept up in mass raids at meatpacking plants in Mississippi last week are now being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at privately run jails hours away in western Mississippi and Louisiana. Waves of hunger strikes have swept through an expanding network of immigration jails in the region as immigrants and asylum seekers protest against indefinite detention in isolated facilities. Meanwhile, these detainees are facing courts that remove immigrants from the country at rates well above the national average.
Just days before the August 7 raids, guards at two Louisiana immigration jails forcefully cracked down on protests staged by dozens of hunger strikers, many of them asylum seekers. Guards deployed pepper spray in both cases, and at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, hunger-striking immigrants reported being beaten, shot with rubber bullets and thrown in solitary confinement. Jail officials denied allegations of “excessive force,” but activists with the group Freedom for Immigrants released photos of jailed immigrants with dark, round bruises allegedly caused by rubber bullets.
“Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a sharp decline to almost zero in parole approvals for asylum seekers based on the repeatedly refuted argument that they are flight risks,” said attorney Homero Lopez, whose client participated in the hunger strike, in a statement. “This prolonged detention in rural, isolated towns makes it difficult to impossible for asylum seekers to access attorneys, physicians, family members, and collect the necessary documentation to present their cases.”
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The cases of immigrant workers who were jailed after the Mississippi raids will likely be heard in the same crowded Louisiana immigration courts that have frustrated striking asylum seekers. There are no federal immigration courts in Mississippi, so the raids will add to a massive backlog of cases at courts in Louisiana and Memphis, Tennessee, where 17,691 and 19,433 cases, respectively, are currently pending, according to data obtained by Truthout from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
The Trump administration has put mounting pressure on judges to fast-track deportations despite a growing backlog of cases nationwide. So far this year, about 93 percent of immigration cases in New Orleans and 89 percent of cases in Memphis have resulted in deportations or the “voluntary removal” of defendants, often after months of incarceration. While removal rates have spiked under President Trump, the national average remains far lower than the New Orleans and Memphis averages. National averages have increased from 43 percent in 2016 to 75 percent today, according to TRAC.
Of the 680 people arrested in the Mississippi raids, 377 have been detained at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center and Basile ICE Processing Center in central Louisiana, as well as the Adams County Correctional Facility, a private federal prison across the Mississippi River in Natchez, Mississippi, according to ICE. The Louisiana facilities are run by GEO Group and the Adams County prison is run by CoreCivic, the two largest private prison firms in the nation.
About 100 miles from Jackson, Mississippi, the Adams County prison is closest to the communities where the raids took place. Attorneys and family members must drive about three hours to Jena, Louisiana, to visit those jailed at LaSalle and about four hours to visit Basile.
Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) named LaSalle in a class-action lawsuit against ICE and the Trump administration, alleging that immigrants at isolated, privately run jails were systematically denied proper access to legal representation. Immigration defendants with legal representation are more likely to be released on bond and are 10.5 times more likely win their cases than those without a lawyer, the group argued in its complaint.
“So few people have any legal counsel, and their rights are just being categorically violated across the board,” said Freedom for Immigrants organizer Sofia Casini.
Another 303 people arrested in the raids were released “on humanitarian grounds” within 24 hours after a flurry of media reports showed children crying for their parents who had been arrested by federal agents while they were at school. They are now shackled with ankle monitors and must appear before immigration courts in Memphis or New Orleans, depending on where they live, according to ICE and news reports.
The decision by ICE agents to release hundreds of parents with orders to appear in court was statistically unusual for the Trump administration, which has prioritized the incarceration of undocumented people and asylum seekers as a “deterrent” against others wishing to come to the United States. At the ICE Field Office in New Orleans, which spearheaded the raids in Mississippi, the number of people released after being arrested by ICE agents dropped from nearly 76 percent in 2016 — the last year of the Obama administration — to 1.5 percent in 2018, according to the SPLC.
Jailed immigrants can also ask a judge to be released on bond. In 2016, Louisiana immigration courts approved the release of 60 percent of defendants on bond, but that number has dropped to 26 percent in 2019, according to TRAC data.
The spike in immigration incarceration rates coincides with a large number of asylum seekers jailed under the Trump administration’s harsh policies at the southern border and shipped to Louisiana, where local sheriffs and private prison firms have signed lucrative contracts with ICE to turn local jails into immigration holding pens. In May, the SPLC filed another lawsuit against the Trump administration, this time for categorically denying requests by asylum seekers held in Louisiana and Alabama to be released on bond or parole while their cases wind through the system.
While some may file asylum claims, the workers swept up in the Mississippi raids may find themselves in a different legal position than the asylum seekers filling immigration jails in Louisiana. Their cases are linked to a sweeping investigation into the hiring of undocumented workers by major employers, not the influx of migrants at the border. Asylum seekers must prove they have “strong ties” to a community in the U.S. in order to be released while their case is pending; many of those arrested in the raids have been working and raising families in the U.S. for years now, but still are not being released.
However, the Mississippi workers are entering a crowded and backlogged system in Louisiana and beyond that has rapidly expanded the capacity for private companies to profit off of the incarceration of immigrants. They are also ordered to appear in courts where immigration cases now result in deportations 90 percent of the time or more. Most are now jobless and many are caged, waiting for their day in a court that is miles and miles from home.