JACKSON, Miss. — Two days after more than 50 people were detained in multiple federal immigration raids at Mississippi restaurants, the charges against them are not known, their locations have not been disclosed and their futures are uncertain.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained 55 undocumented workers Wednesday after executing criminal search warrants stemming from a yearlong investigation, according to spokesman Thomas Byrd in the agency's New Orleans office, which has responsibility for Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. He referred all questions about the warrants to the federal Justice Department, which did not respond to requests for comment.
But immigration lawyer Abby Peterson of Elmore & Peterson Law Firm in Jackson said at least three of the 55 detained appear to have been swept up because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Based on the knowledge we have, it seems like these are casualties," Peterson said. "In a criminal investigation, these guys were bystanders. That's what it seems, but we don’t know."
Byrd would not give specifics on those taken into custody, including how many were men, how many were women and where they are locked up. He did not have an immediate breakdown of how many were detained at each restaurant.
Raids occurred at eight restaurants in Clinton, Flowood, Madison, Meridian and Pearl, Miss., Byrd said. All but Meridian are Jackson suburbs; Meridian is about 90 miles east of Jackson.
Three eateries are part of the Ichiban Chinese restaurant chain, which has two locations in Flowood and one in Pearl. Two Asian restaurants each were targets in Flowood, Meridian and Pearl.
All detainees were restaurant employees, he said.
Each of the detainees are in ICE custody and "should have already been afforded the opportunity to speak with a lawyer," Byrd said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement's online detainee locator has no mention of those detained Wednesday raids because their names have not been made public.
"ICE focus should not be in ripping apart families and adding to the distrust of law enforcement by the communities, which undermine our state's economy, immigration lawyer Ramiro Orozco of Gulfport, Miss., said Wednesday, soon after the raids. "All persons, citizens or not, deserve due process and access to legal representation."
Last week ICE agents in Jackson took into custody an undocumented father and son from Argentina as they were leaving for work. Inside, 22-year-old Daniela Vargas, who was brought to the United States as a 7-year-old and is protected from deportation as a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, hid in a closet as agents broke into the house.
She's now in hiding, afraid to go home again because her renewal application for the program still is pending.
In Refugio, Texas, about 45 miles north of Corpus Christi, 16 restaurant employees were detained Tuesday after raids of two eateries and two homes in what ICE spokesman Gregory Palmore of the Houston field office called a four-year criminal investigation. The Houston office covers enforcement in southeast Texas.
Initially, Palmore said the restaurant workers in Refugio were arrested but later clarified that they were detained on suspicion of being in the U.S. illegally.
So far, no arrests of restaurant owners in Mississippi nor Refugio have been announced.
A sign Friday outside Ichiban Sushi & Chinese Buffet in Flowood advertised for dishwashers and buffet-bar helpers and cautioned customers that staff shortages would mean delays on refilling its buffet. Restaurant management would not comment.
Owners accused of engaging in a pattern of hiring undocumented workers could face civil fines and criminal charges for knowingly employing them. But a first offense for a business owner who does not know an employee is in the country illegally carries a $216 civil fine of per worker, according to information from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
A Department of Homeland Security memo issued Tuesday instructs all agents to immediately arrest any undocumented migrants they encounter and begin the removal process against them. Though illegal immigrants always have been subject to deportation, the Trump administration has made removal of all undocumented migrants a priority, not just those convicted of violent crimes.
Since the late 1986, all businesses are required to keep Forms I-9 on all employees to document that they either are U.S. citizens or have acceptable authorization to work in the United States.
Jackson lawyer Jeremy Litton at Elmore & Peterson, who is representing three men from Guatemala detained in the Mississippi raids and being held at LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, La., said he hasn't been told of any dates for hearings for his clients.
"We haven't seen charging documents," he said. "As far as charges with this raid, I don't know."
Litton will be expected to travel more than 150 miles to Jena for any hearing. Each of the hearings will happen where the arrestee is detained, Byrd said.
If all are being housed at LaSalle, a detention center operated by a publicly traded, Boca Raton, Fla.,-based company called the GEO Group (GEO), Litton said resources at the 1,160-bed facility could be stretched.
"If you get 55 people there, all of a sudden out of the blue, there’s no telling when bond hearings would be scheduled," he said.
GEO Group, which changed its name from Wackenhut Corrections Corp. in 2003, operates 16 facilities for the federal government that are labeled detention centers, according to its 2015 annual report, the most recent available. It previously ran prisons in Mississippi that faced federal scrutiny about conditions and staffing.
One of Litton's clients is an 18-year-old, whom he would not identify, in the process of becoming a permanent U.S. resident. Litton said the teen previously has come in contact with Homeland Security when he was apprehended as he came into the United States from Guatemala at age 17. He was placed in a refugee resettlement camp then.
The teen's 19th birthday is Saturday.
Other than being undocumented, Litton's clients have not been arrested nor cited for any crimes, the lawyer said.
"These are not criminals. These are people who have done the immigration equivalent of getting a speeding ticket," he said. "Everybody has gotten a speeding ticket.
"A great majority of the undocumented people in the country are doing what these guys are doing," Litton said. "They’re going to work every day and trying to provide for their families, and they got caught in a speed trap."
Contributing: Beatriz Alvarado, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times; Kristin Askelson, The (Lafayette, La.) Daily Advertiser. Follow Sarah Fowler on Twitter: @FowlerSarah