The first call came Wednesday morning: Federal agents were raiding a Chinese buffet in the city of Pearl. Before long, word spread across Mississippi immigrant communities that agents were targeting a Hibachi grill in nearby Flowood and a sushi restaurant nearly 100 miles away in Meridian.
“We told people we don’t know what’s going on,” said Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance in Jackson. “The best thing to do is to go home.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained 55 people Wednesday on what were described as immigration-related charges as they executed criminal search warrants at a string of Asian restaurants in central Mississippi.
As the news rippled across close-knit immigrant communities, activists said that owners of restaurants and stores hurriedly closed their doors and workers left construction sites.
“Right now, the paranoia and sense of fear is overwhelming,” said Ramiro Orozco, an immigration attorney based in Jackson. “All the raids and the rhetoric coming from the new administration have created so much anxiety. We’re getting to the point that people are pulling their children out of school, they’re not going to work.”
This week’s searches at eight restaurants were the result of a multi-year criminal investigation by ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, according to ICE spokesman Thomas Byrd. He declined to provide any details on the warrants, saying the agency was still in the process of investigation.
Any potential charges against the restaurant owners would be brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi in Jackson, Byrd said. A spokesman for that office declined to comment.
Even if the detentions were the result of an investigation that predated the Trump administration, immigrant advocates questioned the timing and the nature of ICE’s searches, saying they had exacerbated fear across the community and raised concerns about lack of due process.
Last week, ICE agents in Mississippi detained an Argentine father and son outside their Jackson home as they left for work. Another family member, Daniela Vargas, 21, who moved to the U.S. when she was 7 and has been protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, barricaded herself in a closet as agents broke into the house.
“She’s now in hiding,” Chandler said. “There’s fear all across the country, but in Mississippi, it’s more acute because of the state’s long history of racism.”
Already, Orozco said, his firm had received a call from a women’s shelter about a domestic-violence victim who was too afraid to press charges because she feared she would be taken into custody for overstaying her visa.
“The lack of information coming out of federal agencies is really feeding the fear and feeling of xenophobia,” Orozco said. “Everyone, even immigration attorneys, is trying to determine what the presidential policy is going to be.”
Jarvie is a special correspondent.