After immigration authorities rounded up hundreds of workers in a massive sweep at seven Mississippi food processing plants, friends and family members are desperately searching for answers.
At least 680 undocumented immigrants were detained.
More than 300 of them had been released by Thursday, Bryan D. Cox, an ICE spokesman, said in a statement.
A crowd waited outside a plant in Morton, Mississippi, on Thursday morning, hoping authorities would release their loved ones. Many had been by later in the afternoon.
Video footage from CNN affiliates and Facebook live showed children sobbing as they waited for word on what had happened to their parents.
In Forest, Mississippi, strangers and neighbours volunteered to take children with nowhere to go after their parents were detained at a local gym for the night, according to CNN affiliate WJTV. Volunteers distributed donated food and drinks. But according to WJTV, most children sobbed rather than ate.
“I need my dad … he’s not a criminal,” one little girl cried as she spoke with the network outside the gym.
“I understand the law and how everything works and how everything has a system. But everyone needs to hold the kids first and foremost in their minds,” gym owner Jordan Barnes told WJTV. “And that’s what we’ve tried to do here, just give them a place to stay.”
Hours later, all the kids had been reunited with family members, Barnes told CNN, and the gym was set to resume normal operations.
But a parking lot near the plant in Morton was packed with people Thursday who said their lives were frozen as they waited for news. Hours had passed since the time when they thought more busloads of immigrants released from custody would be coming. Over and over, they asked for the time, worried with each passing hour that their loved ones were headed to immigrant detention centres instead of coming home.
“It’s exhausting, really. … I couldn’t even hold back my tears, and I don’t really cry. But it was just heart-breaking watching all of this,” said a woman who gave her name only as Maria and said she was trying to help people locate detained family members.
Brittany Reynoso said she came to the parking lot in case members of her church had gotten caught up in the raid. She wanted them to see a familiar face if they were released from custody.
“It’s definitely a ghost town. It is so empty. I’ve never seen Morton or Forest or any of the surrounding areas look so empty during the day,” she said. “It is horrible. And I honestly don’t think these communities will make it without them. because they really and truly are the backbone of what’s keeping this town afloat.”
Authorities hailed the sweep at food processing plants in six cities as a record-setting operation.
Eighteen juveniles were found working at the plants, according to Jere Miles, special agent in charge for the Department of Homeland Security. Nine were released and not taken for processing, Miles said. One was 14 years old, he said.
At least 377 migrants were still in custody Thursday, Miles said.
The arrests came as a result of administrative and criminal search warrants executed by special agents from Homeland Security Investigations, federal officials said.
“Today, through the hard work of these men and women, we are once again becoming a nation of laws,” US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst said as he announced the arrests Wednesday.
Immigrant rights advocates, religious leaders and local officials sharply criticized the raids, noting that a number of children returned to empty homes after the arrests, which occurred on the first day of school.
“Our brothers and sisters, our fellow citizens — 6 years old, 5 years old, 7 years old, 11 years old, they left to go to school yesterday, excited about education, and terror hit them while they were gone,” said the Rev. James Evans, a co-founder of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. – CNN.