By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS and WILL WEISSERT Associated Press
CANTON, Miss. (AP) — Democrat Beto O’Rourke on Friday became the first presidential candidate to visit one of the Mississippi towns where federal immigration agents recently raided chicken processing plants and arrested nearly 700 people — beginning a revamped campaign he says will now focus more on highlighting President Donald Trump’s destructive rhetoric and polices than hitting states that vote early in primary season.
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 — and O’Rourke says Trump’s embrace of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment helped inspire the attack.
He still plans to visit Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, which kick off presidential primary voting, but has vowed to also travel the country to highlight the stories of some of those people he says have been most hurt by Trump administration policies.
That brought O’Rourke to Canton, home to a plant owned by Peco Foods Inc., which was among those raided on Aug. 7. He spoke for about 15 minutes in Spanish to a woman who owns a small grocery store in a neighborhood with many immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala. He also chatted with others, but many didn’t want to speak to reporters for fear of reprisal from federal immigration authorities.
Before O’Rourke arrived, Canton resident Giwada “Gi Gi” Williams, said she worries about the immigrants and their families.
“These poor folks. I don’t know what to say. God is going to take care of this,” said Williams, 60, who is retired after working as a cook and in a clothing factory. “All these people here are God’s people.”
Williams spoke in a field across from a mobile home park where many immigrants live, down a road from the Peco processing plant.
“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?”
Last week’s raids at seven plants in six Mississippi communities, described as worksite immigration operations by the Trump administration, were the largest conducted during Trump’s presidency, with 680 people arrested for being in the country illegally.
Images of children weeping as they pleaded for their parents who were arrested at work to be released became national news and shook many of the affected communities to the core — with the effects felt far beyond people who worked in the poultry industry.
Still, after Trump took office, then-Acting Director Thomas Homan declared that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would try to increase all worksite enforcement actions by 400%, to ensure, Homan said, that the rule of law is properly enforced.
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 amid the shooting’s aftermath, admitting 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.”