Thursday, August 15, 2019

Did ICE Solve Local Unemployment Problems By Arresting Illegal Immigrants In Mississippi?

I have seen a number of articles and conversations about how the ICE raid in Mississippi of the chicken processing plants opened up jobs for locals by getting illegal immigrants out of the employment mix.

I offer the following information to bring some clarity to a number of issues swirling around this topic. I'm not trying to make an argument per se in this post. My goal is to present the context surrounding the situation.

I'm sure we will all draw our own conclusions, but I hope we can at least agree on the facts. 

* * * * *

1. Mississippi’s unemployment numbers have been dropping for years starting in 2012. The state average in June was 6%, though it's been as low as 4.7% one month this year. It was at 10.9% at one point in 2012. Meanwhile, the percentage of population that is made up of illegal immigrants  (0.7% of the overall population) has stayed the same since 2007. 

2. While opportunity varies from state to state,  last year in the United States, there were more open jobs than people who wanted them. 

3. When ICE raided Koch foods, there were signs posted that they were hiring. There were 730 jobs available. Peco foods, which was also raided, is hiring. There were 1,964 in-state job openings on the Mississippi Works job search engine for “meat, poultry and fish cutters and trimmers.” Pearl River Foods posted 200 job openings on Aug. 1 for “cutter/sizer.” That’s 78 percent of local job openings within 10 miles of Carthage, the county seat of Leake County. In July, there were over 40,000 jobs open in Mississippi, a state where 78,000 are unemployed.

4. The plants that were raided were in Sebastopol (Leake and Scott counties), Canton (Madison county) and Bay Springs (Jasper county). There are 82 counties in Mississippi. As of June 2019, Madison ranks 3rd best in employment, Scott is 4th, Leake is tied for 17th, and Jasper is 60th. Here is where 2019’s employment average ranks in the past 30 years for each county:
  • Leake County: tied for 1st for the best employment rate ever in the county
  • Madison County: tied for 3rd highest employment rate ever in the county (they had several good years at the end of the 1990s)
  • Jasper County: tied for 3rd  highest employment rate in the county ( a couple good years, once again, in the late 90s early 00s).
  • Scott County: tied for 2nd highest employment rate ever in the county
5. Beginning in the 1990s, Latinos were actively recruited by these industries in Mississippi with something called the Hispanic Project. The owners of the chicken processing plants wanted to avoid labor unions and the impact on their financial bottom line, so they went for a demographic that would work for dirt cheap. There have been numerous lawsuits over the years in this industry and in Mississippi in particular, but as of today, the work remains hazardous, painful, and at times degrading, accompanied by bottom of the barrel wages. 

6. It is not new news that illegal immigrants work at chicken processing plants in Mississippi. I read an article from 2013 that talked about this, including the insight that Mississippi locals aren’t clamoring to work at these factories (see #5 for why). Baseline salary for a floor worker at Koch foods is a $22,000 -$28,00 a year. Peco foods is probably comparable. Pearl River Foods hires at the federal minimum wage - $7.25 an hour. 

7. The companies can be found guilty of civil and criminal violations for hiring and recruiting undocumented workers.  If a company employs more than ten undocumented workers, they may be found guilty of 'harboring' illegal employees, which is a felony that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. From a legal perspective, the companies hiring this many undocumented workers are guilty of a greater law-breaking (a felony) than the illegal immigrant ('improper entry' is a misdemeanor; unlawful presence is a civil infraction, not a criminal one)

8. President Trump is continuing to do the kind of  'audits' Bush and Obama did, in which businesses that hire undocumented workers are penalized in order to take away the "pull factor" for undocumented workers. ICE audited 1,360 organizations in 2017, resulting in 71 indictments and 55 convictions of business owners and managers. The fines exceeded $100 million dollars. They upped their audits to over 5,000 in 2018.  According to, "From Oct. 1, 2017, through July 20, 2018, HSI opened 6,093 worksite investigations and made 675 criminal and 984 administrative worksite-related arrests, respectively. In fiscal year 2017 – October 2016 to September 2017 – HSI opened 1,716 worksite investigations; initiated 1,360 I-9 audits; and made 139 criminal arrests and 172 administrative arrests related to worksite enforcement."  ICE is looking to do over 15,000 audits in the average year. 

9. A  very small percentage of employers are actually penalized; they have to 'knowingly' hire undocumented workers, and that's hard to prove. When they are penalized, it is almost never jail time.

10. Though President Trump has promoted E-verify, Republicans are very reluctant to make it a federally mandated law. There seems to be a reluctance because of how disruptive it would be to the economy, specifically in industries that heavily employ immigrants (both legal and illegal).

(I will offer my one bit of commentary here: follow the money. Many business don't want a crackdown because it harms their bottom line, and they have clout with their representatives. Fines have forced more than one business into bankruptcy, and that's not good for job numbers in a representative's district. I suspect there will be an ongoing tension here. Even the President has employed undocumented workers through the Trump Organization. I dare say that for every new law passed, there will be  loopholes such that business as usual can continue for the businesses that matter most to the politicians. Commentary over). 

11. Listen to or read the transcript from the podcast This American Life about the monumental shift taking place in the past 40 years in the chicken factory industry. It's insightful. If I were asked to identify "villains,"  the ones that rise to the top are the industry owners. What they have done is pretty shady, highly manipulative, and sometimes illegal. They have created and perpetuated a culture that attracts workers who are 'in the shadows.'

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