Business executives who federal filings say "willfully and unlawfully" employed undocumented immigrants have donated thousands to high-level politicians in and outside of Mississippi, including through a special "Chicken" political action committee. Even after last week's workplace raids in which federal agents arrested nearly 700 workers at poultry plants, the government has not brought charges against the corporate leaders who knowingly hired them, according to court documents.
Executives at PECO Foods and Koch Foods have donated at least $170,000 to the National Chicken Council Political Action Committee, or NCCC, which in turn gives money mostly to Republican politicians. In 2018, the NCCC gave $190,000 to U.S. House Republicans, and just $23,000 to House Democrats.
ICE agents raided PECO plants in Canton, Bay Springs and Sebastopol, and Koch Foods' two plants in Morton. It was part of the largest one-state, worksite ICE raid in U.S. history, as U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst touted last week at a Pearl, Miss., press conference.
Ongoing coverage of the politics and treatment of immigrants and refugees in Mississippi
PECO executives Mark Hicman, John Denny Hickman and Dayna Hickman have given more than $100,000 to the NCCC.
Joseph Grendys, the CEO of Koch Foods, has donated $23,000 to the NCCC in recent years.
PAC Money to All Mississippi GOP Lawmakers in Congress
U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, who served as the state's agriculture commissioner until her promotion to Washington last year, is among the top recipients of those funds. The NCCC donated $10,000 to her campaign to fill Sen. Thad Cochran's vacated seat last year. Since January, the PAC has donated an additional $15,000 to her 2020 re-election campaign.
Other recipients from Mississippi include U.S. Reps. Michael Guest, Steven Palazzo and Trent Kelly, also Republicans. Kelly received $5,000 from the PAC, while Guest and Palazzo each took in $2,500.
The PAC also donated $2,000 to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the sole Democrat from Mississippi in Congress, last accepted a NCCC donation in 2012 for $1,000. Before that, the PAC donated $1,000 to him in 2007 and again in 2008. Since 2015, the PAC has donated $25,000 to Blue Hen PAC, which does lobby for Republican candidates but has not taken contributions from any of the executives associated with poultry plants ICE targeted last week. Thompson is not a Blue Hen recipient.
The NCCC spends about a half million dollars per year lobbying members of Congress, FEC reports collected by OpenSecrets.org show.
U.S. Attorney Hurst to Businesses: 'We're Coming After You'
In an eight-page letter and attachments Friday to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan demanded answers on the ICE raids last week, Thompson and two other congressmen made the point that owners of businesses do not seem to face charges as the federal enforcement coalition pledged in a press conference the day of the raid.
Mike Hurst, United States Attorney for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, discussed Homeland Security Investigations and ICE operations at an Aug. 7 press conference inside the Homeland Security Investigations building.
"From these reports, it is unclear whether any of the owners or managers of these worksites will face charges or penalties in connection with these enforcement actions," the congressmen wrote.
U.S. Attorney Hurst, a Donald Trump appointee, had threatened those businesses in the initial press conference in Pearl, however. "For those who take advantage of illegal aliens, to those who use illegal aliens for competitive advantage or to make a quick buck, we have something to say to you. If we find that you have violated federal criminal law, we're coming after you," Hurst said.
The congressmen pointed out that Koch Foods, owner of three facilities raided, does not appear to have faced any immigration-related charges, despite Hurst's threats.
In an Aug. 10 press statement, Koch Foods Inc. denied all charges of wrongdoing. The company claims it complied with immigration laws to check the immigration status of workers, but that federal laws make it difficult to be certain workers are in the country legally.
"For instance, federal law prohibits an employer from requesting during the employment verification process more documents than the employee presents when the employee presents documents that appear authentic," the company wrote. "Requesting more documents subjects an employer to liability for 'over documentation' discrimination. Similarly, an employer would commit unlawful national origin discrimination if it refused to hire a worker on the basis that the worker comes from another country if the worker presents what appear to be authentic documents. Furthermore, the E-Verify system does not detect if a worker is working under a stolen identity of an authorized person."
That was the case in Morton, the company claims, adding that it has disqualified "more than 400 people since 2016 from employment due to lack of work authorization."
"An employer like Koch Foods can also find itself in jeopardy of committing unlawful discrimination if it acts too aggressively in its effort to comply with the immigration laws," the company wrote.
"The raid by the government on Koch Foods resulted in a significant disruption of work and terrible impacts on the lives of many workers and their families. It is apparent from the affidavit related to Koch Foods that this raid was directed at individuals and not the company. The affidavit does not set forth legal violations by Koch Foods. The government's actions amount to serious government overreach under a framework of flawed and conflicting laws. These most recent events are yet another demonstration of the fact that existing immigration law and policy need serious reform."
State of Mississippi's Support of Koch Foods and Peco
In 2018 Gov. Phil Bryant used Twitter to praise Peco Foods Inc. and, back in 2015, Koch Foods for expanding operations in Mississippi, and creating hundreds of new jobs in West Point, Forest and Morton.
“The addition of the West Point facility to the Peco Foods’ portfolio and the creation of so many new jobs for the people of the Golden Triangle Region demonstrate how existing companies in our state benefit from our productive workforce and prime location in the fastest growing region of the U.S.,” Gov. Phil Bryant said at the ground-breaking in West Point in April 2018. He added that the Mississippi Development Authority had helped make the deal happen, meaning the use of taxpayer dollars for infrastructure and infrastructure improvements. The company also received local abatements in West Point.
In 2018, Bryant attended the groundbreaking in Morton, one of the plants targeted last week during the ICE Raids. “I appreciate the team at Koch Foods for choosing to expand its operations in Forest and Morton and for creating hundreds of new jobs for the area’s workforce,” Bryant said last year at the ground-breaking in October 2015. “Mississippi strives to provide a business environment that fosters growth and longevity, and Koch Foods’ decision to further invest in these two locations reinforces that fact. I look forward to the company’s continued growth.”
The Koch Food expansion "represent corporate investments of approximately $2 million and $33 million, respectively, and will create a total of 203 jobs – 23 at the Forest location and 180 at the Morton location. Koch Foods currently employs approximately 3,200 in Scott County," a 2015 release from Bryant's office said.
Thompson Implies Koch Foods Retaliation Over Lawsuit
In the letter from Thompson and two other congressmen, which the Jackson Free Press reported Friday night, they note that Koch Foods had paid $3.75 million in a 2018 legal settlement over an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit on behalf of Hispanic workers who had accused the company of race, sex and nationality-based discrimination. They pointed to similar instances, such as in Ohio in 2018.
"It appears that these DOJ and ICE enforcement actions are targeting only immigrant workers and not their employers," the congressmen wrote, pushing back on Hurst's assertion in Mississippi on Wednesday. "We are alarmed by the potential serious chilling effect off these enforcement actions close in time to these workers vindicating their rights to a safe working environment."
The letter then demanded that Barr provide multiple documents by Aug. 23, 2019, including the costs of the Aug. 7 enforcement actions, which apparently drew hundreds of ICE agents from around the country to Mississippi. The congressmen want to know specifics of who was detained and arrested, including minors, the number criminally charged and how many were U.S. citizens.
Koch Inc. responded to allegations of discrimination in a press statement today.
"Koch Foods has long maintained that these cases involved numerous contrived and fabricated allegations of mistreatment. At no time has Koch Foods admitted guilt or wrongdoing in this matter," the statement reads.
In the statement, CEO Grendys said he settled the case to avoid further litigation costs.
"That is a decision that I would not have made," Grendys said. "I would have spent the money to have my day in court and bring forth these facts.
In Thompson's letter, the congressmen demanded to know specifics of family separations that resulted and how long parents were separated from children. They want details of all criminal charges, if any, that resulted from the raids, as well as any fines against the companies who employed the people detained.
A growing collection of many ways to help and donate in the wake of the Mississippi ICE raids.
'Willfully and Unlawfully' Employing Unauthorized Workers?
Also on Friday, the Associated Press reported that six of the seven Mississippi chicken processing plants that ICE and the U.S. Department of Justice raided last week were "willfully and unlawfully" employing people who were not authorized to work in the United States. Unsealed court documents showed that included workers wearing electronic monitoring bracelets while working in the plants for previous immigration violations.
PECO also defended itself in a statement on the day after the raids, writing that it was "fully cooperating with the authorities in their investigation and are navigating a potential disruption of operations."
The company also denied violating immigration laws. "We adhere strongly to all local, state and federal laws including utilizing the government based E-Verify program which screens new hires through the Social Security Administration as well as the Department of Homeland Security for compliance." The company added that it is experiencing "work stoppages," but is "actively taking appropriate measures to best serve our team members' and customers' needs."
Religious leaders were among those from across the state and country condemning the raids last week, which came without notice to either the schools of the detainees' children or Mississippi's Child Protective Services, even as Hurst claimed the next day that the coalition followed protocol.
"The United States of America and the State of Mississippi has perpetrated a great injustice, and for this immoral and inhumane behavior, I pray for our souls," said Jason Coker, a representative from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi, at a press conference with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance last week.
"Leave these people alone. Help them instead of hurt them. Treat them the way that you would want to be treated if you were a foreigner in a strange land."
Follow State Reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send story tips to [email protected]. Read full team coverage of the aftermath of the Mississippi ICE raids, including ways to help families and children, at jacksonfreepress.com/immigration. Donna Ladd contributed to this report.