Nearly a month after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents served criminal warrants at eight restaurants in Central Mississippi, details surrounding the 55 people detained on Feb. 22 remain a mystery.
Thomas Byrd, a public affairs officer for ICE, declined to release any identifying information about the individuals who worked at restaurants in Meridian and the Jackson, Mississippi, area, citing "privacy restrictions." Though asked several times over the course of the last three weeks, Byrd also didn't say where the arrests were made, what charges had been filed or where those detained are being held.
In contrast, any citizen can request the arrest docket for a local detention facility to see who has been arrested and charges against them. Some area facilities even publish their arrest docket online.
The Meridian, Mississippi, Star filed a Freedom of Information Act request for more information on Feb. 23 and, according to FOIA regulations, should have received a confirmation within 3-5 business days. ICE officials said they were "weeks behind" and that The Star should expect a FOIA confirmation "weeks from now."
According to its website, ICE should respond to the request – either by supplying the requested materials or denying the request – within 20 business days unless it asks for a 10-day extension. March 23 will mark 20 business days since the request was submitted.
During the same week as the Mississippi raids in February, immigration officers in the Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio and New York City areas arrested more than 680 individuals.
Currently, the Southern Poverty Law Center is in court, seeking the identities of women and children detained in a "controversial and potentially unconstitutional" immigration raid from 2016. The SPLC filed a FOIA in January of 2016 and ICE did not respond until October. Neither ICE nor SPLC has revealed that response.
Jessie Hahn, a labor and employment policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, works at the intersection of immigration and labor law. Hahn focuses on issues such as workers' rights for undocumented immigrants.
"Sometimes people don't understand that (labor rights) apply regardless of their status," Hahn said. "There are limited protections, but there are protections."
Hahn said that usually, because of privacy concerns, the names of detainees wouldn't be released to anyone other than their legal representatives.
The American Civil Liberty Union said Feb. 27, however, that attorneys in metro areas reported difficulty obtaining from officials more than a name and birthdate of individuals rounded up in similar actions across the country, but that thousands may have that same name and birthdate. This makes it difficult for attorneys and family to locate specific detainees.
Jeremy Litton, an attorney at Elmore and Patterson in Jackson, represents three detained by ICE and works with English and Spanish-speaking clients.
Litton, a Meridian native, said that in the immigration process ICE decides to charge someone detained with being inadmissible or removable. ICE issues a Notice to Appear, similar to an indictment, to lay out the charges against the detainee.
Litton said that criminal charges were not as common, though illegal entry is a federal misdemeanor. Re-entry can be a felony offense if it occurs within a certain timeframe.
WLBT, a Jackson, Mississippi-based television station, reported that 11 of the 55 detained faced felony re-entry charges, which Litton said was rare. None had other criminal charges against them.
"I was surprised to see prosecutions for those 11 (detainees) for re-entry," Litton said. "Until this, I had rarely seen criminal charges for re-entry. Those were typically for three (or more) re-entries. This is the first time I'd seen charges for one re-entry."
For Hahn, the bigger question is what warrants ICE agents were executing, since it appears these 11 felony charges all came after the arrests.
"Who were the targets of this investigation?" Hahn asked.
Both Litton and Hahn said that the 55 detained may not have been the target of the warrants and were likely collateral arrests.
"From everything I understand these were targeted toward warrants that they were serving," Litton said. "The 55 were pretty much... they were not the primary target."
The target of the investigations remains unclear.
"It seems like a pretty aggressive enforcement action if all you had was regular unauthorized employees," Hahn said. "Or is this just representative of the new era?"
Hahn said that previously, 87 percent of undocumented immigrants were not a priority since the Obama administration prioritized criminals, such as drug traffickers, or recent immigrants.
On the other hand, deporting every undocumented immigrant presents logistical issues, including overcrowded detention facilities, securing money to cover the associated costs and adding to the already backlogged immigration court system.
"The Oakdale Immigration Court (where detainees would likely face a judge)... has been completely overwhelmed," Litton said. "Some of their files have not been sent. None of my clients have court dates set."
Authorities still haven't revealed if any of the 55 detained were arrested in Meridian. ICE agents served warrants at two restaurants there – one of which reopened within days, reporting no arrests or charges filed against the restaurant, according to their attorney.
Still, the actions of ICE has caused even documented immigrants to fear.
"Many people in the immigration community are scared that they will be detained and deported," Litton said, including immigrants who entered the country on green cards, asylum or visas. "They're frightened they'll be picked up and taken to an ICE office and questioned. They weren't afraid six months ago."
Downard writes for the Meridian, Mississippi Star.