CANTON, Miss. (AP) — Beto O'Rourke on Friday became the first Democratic presidential candidate to visit one of the Mississippi towns where federal immigration agents raided chicken processing plants and arrested nearly 700 people — kicking off a new phase of his campaign he says will focus on President Donald Trump's damaging policies.
It was the former Texas congressman's first campaign stop since he suspended his White House bid for nearly two weeks to stay in his hometown of El Paso, where a mass shooting killed 22 people on Aug. 3. The gunman drove 600-plus miles to open fire near the U.S.-Mexico border after posting an anti-immigrant screed online. O'Rourke argues that Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric helped inspire the attack.
He still plans to visit Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which kick off presidential primary voting, but has now vowed also to travel the country to highlight the stories of some of those people that, in his view, have been most hurt by Trump administration policies.
That brought O'Rourke, a fluent Spanish-speaker, to Canton, home to a plant owned by Peco Foods Inc., which was among those raided on Aug. 7. He met privately with several immigrants in a grocery store in a neighborhood where many people come from Honduras and Guatemala. His campaign also distributed containers of eggs and bags of rice, cornmeal and black beans to immigrants who walked from a mobile home park where many live down the road from the Peco plant.
O'Rourke later told reporters that several immigrants said both they and their spouses work at the plant — one on day shift and one on night shift so someone is always home to take care of their children because their pay is too low to afford child care.
Asked why he thinks the workplace raids took place in Mississippi, O'Rourke said: "I don't know, other than to strike terror into the heart of this community."
"And if that were the goal, and I think it is from Donald Trump — we're seeing a tenfold increase in these kinds of ICE raids in his administration versus the last administration — if that is his goal, he's getting it done," he said. "He's terrifying this community — people who have done nothing to anybody else, pose no threat to America. So, there's no other reason to raid this community, other than to terrify this community."
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christiana Purves said in a statement Friday that O'Rourke's visit "showcases just how out-of-touch he is with Mississippians who want strong borders and safe communities."
Last week's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at seven plants in six Mississippi communities were the largest conducted at workplaces during Trump's presidency. Images of children weeping as they pleaded for their parents to be released became national news and shook many of the affected communities to the core — touching people beyond those who worked in the poultry industry.
Still, after Trump took office, then-acting Director Thomas Homan said ICE would try to increase all worksite enforcement actions by 400%, part of a larger effort to enforce immigration law.
Agusto Lopez Coronado, 42, is from Honduras and said he has lived in the United States for 19 years, working for 10 of those years at the chicken processing plant. He said his wife, who is also from Honduras and had worked at the plant for five years, was arrested during the raid and is now jailed in Louisiana.
"We need permission to work so we won't be afraid," Coronado said in Spanish. "We've got kids who are growing up and, if we're not going to work, how are we going to live?"
Canton resident Giwada "Gi Gi" Williams, said she worries about the immigrants and their families.
"Who wants to work at the stinking chicken plants? These people — they get up and go to work," Williams said. "And then this happens to them?"
Also, Friday, O'Rourke released a plan to combat "hate, white nationalism and gun violence" that would institute a voluntary program under which the federal government would buy handguns from owners and a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons. He said that, as president, he'd declare violence associated with white supremacists as organized crime and create domestic terrorism offices within the FBI and other federal agencies to help combat it.
O'Rourke's campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, noted that the campaign halted virtually all fundraising efforts while O'Rourke was in El Paso out of respect for the shooting victims, saying in an email to supporters, "We've just suffered several of our lowest fundraising days of the campaign."
"Moving forward, we're going to be working with a fire under us," O'Malley Dillon wrote. "We are going to be as clear and as strong as possible in drawing our contrasts with Donald Trump."
Weissert reported from Washington.