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A mass arrest of workers in Mississippi raises a question. Federal immigration authorities went to chicken plants in Mississippi. They found hundreds of workers allegedly in the U.S. without proper documents. Now, if those charges are true, how did so many undocumented workers find jobs in Mississippi? That state has tried to crack down on illegal immigration. NPR's Joel Rose asked what the case reveals.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Back in 2008, a wave of deep-red states in the South and Southwest passed laws cracking down on illegal immigration. Mississippi was one of them.
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PHIL BRYANT: What we hope to do is what's called self-deportation.
ROSE: Mississippi's lieutenant governor, Phil Bryant, told NPR the aim was to scare undocumented immigrants away.
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BRYANT: We hope that illegals from all over the world that come here that cross our borders and violate our federal and state laws will say, don't come to Mississippi to do that.
ROSE: More than a decade later, it hasn't worked. That became clear last month when agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 680 workers at chicken processing plants in the state, the nation's biggest workplace raids in more than a decade. Here's U.S. attorney Mike Hurst at a press conference announcing the arrests.
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MIKE HURST: While we do welcome folks from other countries, they have to follow our laws. They have to abide by our rules. They have to come here legally.
ROSE: There is a system in place to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers. It's called E-Verify. It checks the names of prospective hires against a massive federal database to ensure they're authorized to work in the U.S. But as the Mississippi raids show, the system is far from foolproof. Employers are not required to use E-Verify under federal law. And in the handful of states that have made E-Verify mandatory, like Mississippi, many employers still don't use it.
TAMMY MECKLEY: So on page 29 and 30, there's a list of individual names.
ROSE: Tammy Meckley is with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington. She oversees the E-Verify program. She's flipping through court documents that immigration authorities filed to get a search warrant for one of the chicken plants. Meckley points to a list of two dozen workers suspected of being here illegally.
MECKLEY: These names, these individuals, these new hires were never run through E-Verify.
ROSE: That drives Meckley crazy. Some of the companies caught up in the Mississippi ICE raids say they were using E-Verify. But Meckley suspects they only ran the names of some new hires through the system, probably the ones they thought could pass.
MECKLEY: Well, yes, they may have been using it for some. But they were selectively choosing which employees they wanted to run through the E-Verify program and which ones they didn't. It is not perfect. I'm not saying it's perfect. But it works. When it's used properly, it works.
ROSE: In Mississippi, only about half of all new hires in the entire state are run through E-Verify. That's according to Alex Nowrasteh with the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Washington. And that's not his only problem with the program.
ALEX NOWRASTEH: It's very easy to fool E-Verify if you are an unauthorized worker and if you're an employer who wants to look the other direction.
ROSE: Prosecutors say workers at the Mississippi chicken plants were able to get fake photo ID and social security cards for a couple hundred bucks. And employers at some of the plants said they were surprised to find out that workers had cheated the system. But Nowrasteh isn't buying that. He says E-Verify gives these companies cover. They can hire cheap immigrant labor. And much of the time, they get away with it.
NOWRASTEH: E-Verify has been sold over the years as this silver-bullet program. But one of the reasons why I think so many people are in favor of it, especially pro-business Republicans, is that it doesn't work. They get all of the political benefits of pretending to be tough on immigration, but they don't have to pay any of the economic costs.
ROSE: In the few states that make E-Verify mandatory, employers can lose their business licenses if they don't use it. But those laws have rarely, if ever, been enforced. NPR reached out to the Republican sponsors of Mississippi's law. None of them agreed to an interview. Democrats in the state say they had concerns about the law from the start.
DAVID BARIA: It was clearly political, and it was red meat for their base.
ROSE: David Baria is the minority leader in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He points out that the state's E-Verify law carries criminal penalties for the immigrant workers but not for their employers. Democrats tried to add tougher penalties for employers, but Baria says they were rebuffed.
BARIA: This is exactly how the law is designed to work. And it targets the dark-skinned people who have come into our country without proper documentation who allegedly are taking, you know, our jobs. But if you really want to solve the problem, you have to have accountability and consequences for the employers that are hiring these folks.
ROSE: Employers at the chicken plants in Mississippi have not been charged in the case. Prosecutors haven't said when or if that will happen. Joel Rose, NPR News.
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