Friends and family console each other while U.S. immigration officials raided Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Aug. 7, 2019.
Photo: Rogelio V. Solis (AP)

In what Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are touting as “the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history,” nearly 700 undocumented immigrants were detained in raids at food processing plants in Mississippi on Wednesday.

As CNN reports, the ICE raids hit seven sites in six different Mississippi cities. Many of those detained are parents of young children, who were away at school when their parents were taken away by ICE agents. They did not know their families were being taken away, nor where they were headed. According to NPR, among the plants targeted were sites belonging to Koch Foods Inc. and Peco Foods Inc., both among the largest poultry producers in the country.

The raids come less than a week after a shooting in El Paso, Texas, where the suspect—a white man believed to be acting alone—posted a racist manifesto singling out the “Hispanic invasion.”

ICE agents attempted to arrest at least one American citizen during the raids, reports the Jackson Free Press:

“In Canton, there was a young man who was working there that protested the arrests because he was an American citizen,” [Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance President Bill] Chandler said. “And they tased him, knocked him to the ground, and put handcuffs on him before they finally figured out that he was an American citizen.”

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The raids were denounced by some local officials. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said they were“dehumanizing and ineffective,” CNN reports, and called on faith institutions and houses of worship “to become sanctuaries for our immigrant neighbors and protect them from potential harm.”

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Julia Solórzano told NPR in an emailed statement that the raids were part of an “ongoing war with immigrant families and the community in which they live.”

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“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,” she said, adding, “it’s also worth noting that immigration agencies that have repeatedly blamed ‘over capacity’ detention facilities for the horrific treatment of those imprisoned nevertheless detained more than 600 people today.”

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst defended the timing of the raids, which he said were planned more than a year ago.

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“You don’t bring over 650 special agents from across the country into the Southern District of Mississippi in a matter of three days without preparation for months and months and months,” Hurst said. “So while the tragedies this weekend around the country are horrific, this operation had been planned way before that, and we intended to carry it out.”

But what is most striking about Hurst’s comments is his invocation of law and order, a phrase that has reliably been used by government officials as a way to corral communities of color, to infer illegality in their mere existence.

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“While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that we are first and foremost, a nation of laws. The rule of law is the bedrock, the very foundation of our great country. Without law, there is no order. Without the enforcement of law, there is no justice,” Hurst said about the raids.

“Today, through the hard work of these men and women, we are once again becoming a nation of laws,” he added.

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In her seminal work, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander notes that law and order rhetoric has been racialized since at least the 1950s; the phrasing was first employed by segregationists in an attempt “to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights movement.”

“Conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime,” Alexander writes. Appeals to law and order became “race-neutral” dog whistles, allowing conservatives cover to push anti-black rhetoric and policies: President Richard Nixon invoked “law and order” when he first appealed to the American public that they needed a “war on drugs.” Years later, Ronald Reagan would make good on Nixon’s wishes, setting in motion a decadeslong assault on black communities that ballooned the American penal system into the largest the world had ever seen.

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The dehumanization and detainment of black and brown people have always been pushed to the American public as a return to “justice.”

The man who appointed Hurst to his position, Donald Trump, has frequently connected Latinx immigration with violent crime—it is, in fact, how he opened his 2016 presidential campaign, with references to Mexicans as “rapists” who are “bringing drugs” into the U.S.

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Trump’s administration has since become defined by its harsh immigration policies and racist rhetoric, specifically levied against Latinx and black immigrants. It is gruesome, therefore, but not altogether surprising for his appointee to refer to mass detainment as some measure of justice—a world turned right-side-up again.

According to the Jackson Free Press, detainees will likely head to a facility in Jena, La., where federal officials will determine who among them have committed felonies or previous violations; those with records will continue to be locked up until their deportation trials (MIRA head Chandler says he doubts there are many, if any, felons among the poultry workers arrested Wednesday). ICE officials told CNN the agency will work with school officials to “find placement” for the children of those arrested. The undocumented immigrants without records will return to their homes, but will have to wear an ankle monitor as they continue immigration proceedings—a government insisting on surveilling a community they have already decided has no right to protection and no legal place within its America.