On Wednesday morning, in the latest example of President Donald Trump‘s return to the use of high-profile mass immigration raids, federal officials swarmed seven food processing plants in Mississippi, detaining about 680 people whom they said were working there illegally.
The raids prompted praise and severe criticism. Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, commended the work of prosecutors and ICE agents, tweeting Wednesday, “If you are here illegally violating federal laws, you have to bear the responsibility of that federal violation.”
But the mayor of Jackson, the state’s capital, said the raids were “dehumanizing and inhumane,” serving “only [to] further alienate communities from law enforcement,” according to the Clarion-Ledger.
“We aren’t one bit safer tonight — nobody believes these people were a danger to anyone,” the director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law said in a statement. “Families have been torn apart and local businesses have been hurt. Mississippians didn’t ask for this.”
While one Jackson city councilman agreed with Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, telling the Clarion-Ledger, “It’s frustrating to see us spend all of these resources going after people who are just trying to survive,” another councilman said such criticism was wrong-headed.
“We’re a nation of laws and when you don’t have laws, you have chaos,” he told the paper.
In announcing the Wednesday raids, ICE argued much the same: “Laws [requiring employers verify work eligibility] help protect jobs for U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. residents, eliminate unfair competitive advantages for companies that unlawfully hire an illegal workforce, and strengthen public safety and national security.”
“While we are a nation of immigrants, more than that we are first and foremost a nation of laws,” Southern District U.S Attorney Mike Hurst said at a Wednesday news conference.
The ICE acting director, Matthew Albence, told the Associated Press that the raids on Wednesday may have been the largest such workplace operation in any U.S. state ever. The Washington Post reported that it was.
Giant workplace raids like those undertaken Wednesday had been eschewed under President Barack Obama, according to the AP. But President Trump, who has made limiting both legal and illegal immigration a priority of his administration, favors them as did the administration of Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush.
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Wednesday’s raids involved some 600 agents. The aftermath, for friends and family of those detained, was as chaotic as the arrests were carefully planned.
An unknown number of children of various ages were left, suddenly, without their parents — unsure what to do after school or what to do for dinner. News reports described families waving goodbye as their relatives were bused away.
One 12-year-old girl’s mother was taken into custody, forcing her to stay with a family friend while they waited for the mother to be released, according to the Post.
“The girl is devastated for her mom,” Elizabeth Iraheta, who took the child in, told the Post. “We still don’t know if she will be released. The girl is in bad shape, very sad. We’re waiting for her mom.”
In other cases, school officials told bus drivers to return children to the school unless they could verify that a parent or guardian was waiting at home for them, according to the Clarion-Ledger. One district superintendent told the Clarion-Ledger he knew of six families with parents who were snared by the raids
“We’ll worry about the school part of it after we get all this sorted out,” Superintendent Tony McGee told the paper. “You can’t expect a child to stay focused on the schoolwork when he’s trying to focus on where mom and dad are.”
“We all know there is a bigger picture in all this,” McGee said. “We’re not here to navigate those waters. We’re here to try to help families get together as best they can.”
Local news station WJTV described how children who were left without caretakers following the raids were cared for by neighbors, sometimes even strangers, with some of them temporarily taken to a community gym.
“Government please show some heart,” one 11-year-old girl, in tears, told WJTV. “Let my parent be free.”
“I need my dad and mommy,” the girl said. “My dad didn’t do anything, he’s not a criminal.”
ICE has not released how many of the detained adults were parents with children, though an agency spokesman stressed to PEOPLE and other news outlets that officials took multiple steps (such as providing cell phones) to allow parents to coordinate care for their children after they were taken into custody.
Officials said that in cases where both detainees had minor children, one would be released, and a single parent would also be released, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
Detainees who were not being criminally arrested or required to be detained would be “expeditiously processed” if they said they had a child care issue, the ICE spokesman said.
The spokesman said that, as of noon Thursday, hundreds of the detainees had been released from custody, pending the outcome of their cases.
Still, as of late Wednesday, the 12-year-old girl had not yet been reunited with her mom, according to the Post.
An employee at one of the raided plants returned there and remained on Thursday, awaiting news of two friends who were detained, the Clarion-Ledger reported. Some of those in custody were being bused back to where they were first arrested, according to ICE.
“I just want our families to come home, because without their mamas and papas, how are they going to take care of their babies?” Desiree Hughes told the Clarion-Ledger. “How are they going to get to school? How are they going to pay their bills? They’re going to lose everything.”