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Former Acting ICE Director John Sandweg Discusses Mississippi Raids

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We begin this hour with the voice of Mike Hurst, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL HURST: Now, while we are a nation of immigrants, more than that, we are first and foremost a nation of laws.

CORNISH: Hurst yesterday announced sweeping Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at chicken processing plants across his state. They resulted in the arrests of nearly 700 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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 or they shouldn't come here at all.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hurst said the raid came after a yearlong criminal investigation targeting companies that hire undocumented workers. He would not say whether any company executives would face charges.

CORNISH: After the raids, many children came home from school to find their parents gone. Here's an 11-year-old who spoke with local TV station WJTV.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I need my dad. My dad didn't do nothing. He's not a criminal.

CORNISH: About 300 people who were arrested have been let out of detention. We'll hear more about those families in a moment.

SHAPIRO: First, we turn to John Sandweg. He was acting director of ICE under the Obama administration.

Welcome.

JOHN SANDWEG: Yeah, thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about the justification for large-scale workplace raids like this. They happened during the Bush administration, less so under the Obama administration. What's the reason for choosing this kind of immigration enforcement?

SANDWEG: Well, certainly, there's a long, as you kind of noted, controversial history with these type of raids. You began to see them in the tail end of the Bush administration, where they would go do similar type operations, executing search warrants against employers. But there's a secondary goal of these, which was to apprehend as many of the undocumented workers as possible.

We continued, during the Obama administration, to conduct these type of operations but with an employer-centric focus, meaning looking for those employers who are cheating - people who are stealing the identities of U.S. citizens or exploiting the workers, paying substandard wages, threatening to take legal action against them if they complain.

The big difference here, though, was the Obama administration - we were not going to waste resources apprehending people who are showing up for work unless those individuals had a public - some indication that they posed a public safety threat. It takes a tremendous amount of resources to apprehend 600 people, almost all for civil immigration violations, and I would guess that very few of who pose any threat to the country.

SHAPIRO: And so explain why an administration would choose to do that, to do a raid where you would arrest more than 600 people at once.

SANDWEG: Well, from a law enforcement perspective, there really isn't a good reason. They pulled in over 600 agents from field offices across the country, pulling them away from the criminal investigations they were conducting. I wouldn't fault the administration at all for going after these employers. I suspect we're going to find some criminal charges brought against them and that they were cheating. And I think that's a fair target.

SHAPIRO: But so is this meant to be a symbol. Are they hoping that people will self-deport? I mean, what's the purpose of something like this?

SANDWEG: Yeah, absolutely, it's meant to be a symbol. I mean, there was a very aggressive press strategy around this to make as much news as possible. They flew the acting director in. That's very unusual to be on-site for an operation like this. All of that is done with media in mind. And candidly, you know, bringing 600 agents in to make 600 arrests is done with the media in mind. From a law enforcement operational perspective, you're just diverting a tremendous amount of resources with very little upside from a public safety or national security or border security perspective.

SHAPIRO: We've heard so much about overcrowded immigration detention centers. Does the system have the capacity to handle this many people coming in all at once?

SANDWEG: No. I mean, the system right now is overwhelmed. So now what you do is you have a certain - a massive input of 600 individuals. You're going to have to make space for them. When ICE conducts operations, where you put your officers is going to really dictate what type of individual you apprehend. And the big problem with these worksite operations that are focused on apprehending the workers is the people you get are the responsible people who are trying to feed their family by showing up and giving an honest day's work. You're not going to find your criminals. You're not going to find your MS-13 members showing up and punching a clock for eight hours a day.

And so that's the real frustrating thing here, is that from a - you know, in terms of the valuable work that ICE does, this again kind of reinforces this perception that the administration is just targeting the parents of children, and then you hear children like that crying because their parents are not coming home that night.

SHAPIRO: What obligation does ICE have to the children?

SANDWEG: Well, listen. During the Obama administration, family unity was a critical factor in making decisions about how we're going to proceed, and the administration has tremendous flexibility here. Those little children oftentimes are U.S. citizens. They oftentimes become wards of the state when their parents are deported.

I would hope that the administration would exercise common sense here and use some prosecutorial discretion. And unfortunately, I think that this administration has not shown the same sensitivity, of course, towards family unity and oftentimes chooses family separation over unification.

SHAPIRO: So what do you expect will happen to these parents, these workers, in a system that's already overcrowded and doesn't have room for them?

SANDWEG: Well, so some percentage of these people are not going to be - the administration will not be able to deport right away. They will need to see an immigration judge because they have no prior immigration record. A lot of those individuals will be able to request that they post a bond. But a good percentage of these people probably have some immigration history that allows ICE to deport them very quickly.

And I think my concern would be that when some of those individuals might be parents of young children, and they could find themselves, within the next two to three weeks, back in their home country, separated from their child.

SHAPIRO: If these children are likely to become wards of the state, does ICE generally coordinate with Child Family Services? Do you think they did in this case?

SANDWEG: Unfortunately, no. I mean, there's a lot of operational planning that goes into effect in terms of how we're going to apprehend these people, where are we going to, you know, detain them after the initial couple of days. So all of that planning goes into effect. Unfortunately, what doesn't go into effect and while - ICE goes into this knowing very well, Ari, how many people they're going to be able to arrest. What they don't have a great sense of and what they don't invest a lot of time in is identifying who of them might have minor children.

And so, unfortunately, no, I think what you find is that suddenly, in these communities, 600 people that were living and working in the community are no longer there. And there's a bit of a mess that needs to be cleaned up for the local officials and, sadly, for these children who might not see their parents for some time.

SHAPIRO: That's John Sandweg. He was acting director of ICE under the Obama administration.

Thanks for joining us.

SANDWEG: Hey, Ari, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.