U.S. authorities strongly defended Wednesday’s mass immigration raids at Mississippi workplaces, saying the secretive operation to arrest undocumented immigrants was successful even as it led to images of weeping children arriving home to find their parents missing.
The raids targeted seven food processing plants in six cities in what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement referred to as one of the largest single-state enforcement operations in the nation’s history. Agents apprehended 680 workers, about half of whom remained in ICE custody as of Thursday night.
The operation was so closely guarded that ICE officials did not even inform the White House before it began, according to Matthew Albence, the agency’s acting director, and other administration officials. Because previous plans for high-profile ICE raids had been disrupted by public disclosure – including tweets from President Donald Trump telegraphing them – the agency this time stealthily streamed 600 agents to Mississippi, many flown from other parts of the country.
“This was a textbook operation, carried out in a safe manner, and done securely,” Albence said while traveling in Guatemala on Thursday. “Officers were able to execute these warrants in a safe fashion.”
But the arrests again exposed what state and local officials say is a major shortcoming in ICE procedures for dealing with children, as parents who were caught up in immigration-related enforcement activities while at work were unable to pick their children up from school, day-care centers and elsewhere, leaving some of them deserted and scared.
In Forest, Mississippi, local news reporters broadcast images of children huddled on the floor of a gymnasium on Wednesday evening because they returned home from school to find no one was there to take care of them. In other Mississippi towns, children had to be taken in by neighbors after they walked home from school but were locked out because their parents were detained in the raids.
On Thursday, nearly 24 hours after the raids began, officials at the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services said they were disturbed because they still could not conclusively say all the children were in safe hands.
“The Department of Child Protection Services was not notified beforehand of the ICE activity, nor have we been contacted by them after the fact,” said Lea Anne Brandon, a spokeswoman for the agency. “It is frustrating because we have resources on the ground, trained, ready and licensed to respond to emergency situations, and we could have provided services that instead appeared to be put together in a makeshift fashion.”
Jere Miles, the special agent in charge of the New Orleans office of the Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) unit – which ran the ICE raids – said authorities took tremendous care to make sure no children were left in vulnerable situations.
Miles said local schools were notified shortly after the raids began. He added that agents gave those who were arrested access to phones so they could make arrangements for their children.
About half of those arrested were released by Thursday, officials said, acknowledging that they were not a threat to the public. Many were parents who officials said were released to care for young children – some were driven back to their workplaces and issued a summons to appear before an immigration judge at a later date.
“This is the only operation I am aware where . . . those released are actually taken back to their original point of detention so they are not stuck 60, 70 miles away,” said D. Michael Hurst Jr., U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
Despite those steps, however, Miles said he could not guarantee that no child was left in a situation where there was no one to take care of them on Wednesday night.
“To be able to tell you, absolutely, there is no single parent, with no one to take care of [a child], I don’t think I can say that,” Miles said.
Tony McGee, superintendent of the Scott County School District, where several of the raids occurred, said the district received word Wednesday afternoon about the operations. The school system determined that about 35 students – who were attending the second day of their school year – had parents swept up in the raids.
“We started working hard to make sure every kid had an opportunity or a safe place to go home last night, and we didn’t have any children left at school,” McGee said.
Residents of heavily Latino neighborhoods remained fearful Thursday, McGee said.
About 15 percent of the district’s 4,300 students are Hispanic or Latino, and 154 of those students stayed home from school Thursday, he added. Teachers, counselors and administrators spent the afternoon making phone calls and going door-to-door to try to convince families that it is safe to go to school.
“We just want them to know that . . . we are a safe harbor for our kids no matter what family you come from,” McGee said.
In a joint statement, the National Education Association and the Mississippi Association of Educators condemned the raids, saying they were “causing chaos and separating families” during the first week of the school year.
“The trauma these students are enduring is inconceivable,” the statement said. “The effect the raids will have on their long-term mental and emotional health is profound.”
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi Law School, said undocumented families in Mississippi should be on guard because there was such an ICE presence in Mississippi.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were aftershocks, like an earthquake, in the days ahead given how many agents are still here,” Johnson said.
And with so many people arrested, Johnson said families might quickly find themselves struggling to pay for essentials such as food, clothing and transportation.
Normally, when an immigrant is detained by ICE, other family members and neighbors rally to support the family. In this case, the arrests have been too widespread for that to happen, and many of those arrested were the primary wage earners for their families.
“When money from that last paycheck goes away, there is just no support structure in place now,” he said.
The raids occurred as Trump was traveling to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, to memorialize the 31 people who were killed in two separate mass shootings in those cities over the weekend. An online missive, believed to be posted by the gunman who carried out the attack on an El Paso Walmart, stated that he wanted to kill Latinos, and the attack sent waves of fear through communities nationwide.
Albence said Homeland Security officials never considered calling off Wednesday’s operation because of the shootings.
“This has been planned for a long time,” Albence said. “We had 600 people that were brought in. We had warrants that expire signed by a judge.”
The Trump administration has been openly stepping up pressure on the nearly 11 million immigrants believed to be in the United States illegally, threatening mass arrests of families who have arrived recently as part of an effort to deter migrants from coming to the country.
Greg Nevano, assistant director of investigative programs for HSI, said the raids demonstrate the administration’s determination to ensure the nation’s employers comply with immigration and labor law.
“Employers need to understand the integrity of their employment record is just as important to the federal government as the integrity of the tax records” they file to the IRS, Nevano said.
Amelia McGowan, an attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said she believes the state was targeted because “there is very little legal support” for immigrant communities there.
McGowan, a Mississippi native, put a call out to attorneys to help in the hundreds of arrest cases. Within the first hour, 35 attorneys responded.
“I’m very proud of the local response,” McGowan said. “What’s cropping up now is the need for help finding people. Then there is long-term immigration help, and help right now for children whose parents have been detained.”
Many of those arrested, she said, were sent to Louisiana for longer-term detention. Attorneys say it is less expensive to house the immigrants there, approximately $28 per person each day.
Among McGowan’s clients is a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who is seeking political asylum. She and her uncle were both arrested in the raids, and McGowan has yet to reach them.
Her client is an indigenous Guatemalan for whom Spanish is a second language and English a third. McGowan said the language barrier makes the aftermath of the arrest far more complicated.
“This affects the entire community,” McGowan said. “The schools, the churches and places of worship – everything has been shaken and turned upside down.”
The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner and David Nakamura contributed to this report.