From a major national newsroom in Virginia to New York’s Times Square, communities across America are still grappling with the post-traumatic stress induced by a pair of mass shootings last weekend—but few places have felt that dread more acutely than in immigrant communities, where the anxiety sparked by the deaths of 22 people at the hands of an alleged white supremacist mass shooter in El Paso, Texas, has been compounded by the largest workplace raid on undocumented immigrants in history.
On Wednesday, those communities were reminded that despite an increase in racist violence nationwide, many immigrants believe the most dire threat posed to their families comes from the U.S. government itself, according to advocates on the ground.
In a massive sweep of work sites across the state of Mississippi, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested nearly 700 people, the largest such operation in history. The raids, which targeted workers at agricultural processing plants who were suspected of being in the country illegally, was the culmination of a year-long investigation, according to acting ICE Director Matt Albence, who told reporters during a press conference on Wednesday that the agency would “swiftly” deport individuals with standing orders of removal.
“These are not new laws, nor is the enforcement of them new,” Albence said, declining to answer most questions from reporters, including the percentage of individuals who were “collateral” arrests—that is, people who were not originally targeted by the operation but who were arrested in the course of its execution. “The arrests today were the result of a year-long criminal investigation, and the arrests and warrants that were executed today are just another step in that investigation.”
The operation furthers promises made by President Donald Trump to begin “mass deportations” of undocumented immigrants who have received final orders of removal from the United States. Although Trump announced in June that ICE would begin “removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way” into the country, the promised massive operation conducted one month later, “Operation Border Resolve,” netted a mere 35 people—far short of ICE’s target goal of roughly 2,100 family units.
Mike Hurst, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, insisted at that same press conference that the raids were not about Trump’s immigration agenda.
“While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that we are, first and foremost, a nation of laws,” said Hurst, whom Trump nominated to the position in 2017. “Without law, there is no order. Without the enforcement of law, there is no justice.”
It was a message the president himself reiterated on the White House lawn before leaving to visit the sites of the most recent mass shootings. Asked by a reporter whether he regretted using the word “invasion” to describe illegal immigration—a word echoed in a manifesto linked to the alleged murderer in El Paso, Trump expressed none.
“I think that illegal immigration—you’re talking about illegal immigration, right? Yeah?” he said. “I think illegal immigration is a terrible thing for this country. I think you have to come in legally.”
The Mississippi raids, conducted during the first week of school in many communities, stranded an unknown number of children at schools and day care centers across the state, and left immigrant communities “scared to death”—not of random violence as in El Paso, but of targeted removal. At least one American citizen was reportedly tased by an ICE officer, who placed the man in handcuffs before determining his citizenship status.
Groups that advocate for immigrant rights condemned both the operation’s scope and its timing, saying that the raids have terrorized communities already on edge.
“On a day when we seek unifying words and acts to heal the nation’s broken heart, President Trump allows so many families and communities to be torn apart,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, in a statement. Salas added that the raids “exemplified” the hatred that allegedly drove the El Paso shooter to target Latino people in El Paso.
Julia Solórzano, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said that operations like those conducted on Wednesday “terrorize” workers and their family.
“It is especially sickening that days after immigrants were targeted by a gunman in El Paso, Texas, workers at plants across Mississippi witnessed armed agents descending on their workplace,” Solórzano said in a statement, calling the raids part of the Trump administration’s “ongoing war against immigrant families and the communities in which they live.”
Other advocates made even more direct comparisons between the Trump administration’s immigration agenda and that of the El Paso shooter, accusing ICE of compounding post-El Paso fears and calling the raids part and parcel to white supremacy.
“Even as our nation mourns the victims of white nationalist terror in El Paso, inspired by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and his allies, his administration is continuing the assault on immigrant communities with white nationalist policies,” said Ginna Green, chief strategic officer of Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, a progressive Jewish group. “You can't condemn the shooter and then enact the same goals of terrorizing immigrants and creating a culture of violence that force communities to live in fear.”
One immigration attorney told The Daily Beast that such crackdowns potentially hamper other law enforcement operations, including the massive investigation into the El Paso shooting.
Protections for undocumented crime victims and witnesses were built into U.S. immigration law with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, “the current administration has done everything in its power to slow down and prevent the adjudication of these [visas],” Michael Wildes, an immigration attorney who represented Melania Trump and her parents in their immigration proceedings, told The Daily Beast.
The visas—specifically the U visa for victims of crimes, the T visa for victims of human trafficking, and the S visa for witnesses in criminal cases—are powerful tools in the fight against crime. By empowering undocumented victims to report crimes committed against them, it disincentivizes criminals who inordinately target immigrant communities, knowing that undocumented victims would normally be too afraid to report crimes.
The Trump administration has slowed down the adjudication of these visas under the guise of increased vetting, Wildes said.
“Processing times for U visas and… battered spouse petitions has doubled and tripled over the past two years,” Wildes said. “U visas are taking four and a half years to process, according to USCIS’s own published case processing times.”
Such wait times are “unconscionable,” Wildes said.
After early reports that some victims of the El Paso shooting were too scared of being ensnared by immigration enforcement to seek medical treatment or be reunited with family members, ICE released a statement saying that the agency has a policy of not conducting immigration enforcement operations “during tragedies.”
In response to a request by The Daily Beast to clarify to what extent that statement applied to the course of the investigation—there were an estimated 2,000-3,000 people in the Cielo Vista mall at the time of the shooting, and the investigation will likely take months at a minimum—ICE insisted that witnesses and victims of the massacre would not be targeted, calling rumors to the contrary “dangerous.”
“Despite false rumors to the contrary, ICE does not conduct immigration enforcement operations during tragedies like the one that recently impacted El Paso,” said ICE public affairs officer Leticia Zamarripa, adding that “this is not a time to compound one tragedy upon another by spreading fear in our community with false rumors of ICE operations.”
Current ICE policy directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval. But with the Mississippi raids fresh in their minds, members of undocumented communities may not believe these assurances.
“The ICE raids are both dehumanizing and ineffective as a tactic for protecting citizens from potential harm,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi. “These raids will only further alienate communities from law enforcement, disrupt community policing efforts, and cause law enforcement to forfeit credibility and trust among the people they are sworn to protect and serve.”