U.S. officials defended Wednesday’s mass immigration raids at Mississippi workplaces, even as crying children and distraught neighbors and relatives hunted for news about people taken into detention.
Video footage from CNN affiliates and Facebook Live showed children sobbing and distraught parents after the sweeps at seven Mississippi food processing plants, friends and family members desperately searched for answers to the whereabouts of 680 individuals swept up in the raids on the first day of school in the area, CNN reported.
Authorities claimed the secretive operation was conducted in a “safe manner.”
Because previous plans for high-profile ICE raids had been disrupted by public disclosure — including tweets from President Trump telegraphing them — the agency stealthily sent 600 agents to Mississippi, many flown from other parts of the country.
“This was a textbook operation, carried out in a safe manner,” said Matthew Albence, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Washington Post reports.
In Forest, Miss., strangers and neighbors volunteered to take children with nowhere to go after their parents were detained to a local gym for the night, according to CNN affiliate WJTV. Volunteers distributed donated food and drinks. But most children sobbed rather than ate, according to WJTV.
“I need my dad … he’s not a criminal,” one little girl cried as she spoke with the network outside a gym.
The operation was so closely guarded that ICE officials did not inform the White House before it began, said Matthew Albence, the agency’s acting director.
The arrests 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.
“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 spokeswoman Lea Anne Brandon. “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.”
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 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.
Immigrant rights advocates, religious leaders and local officials sharply criticized the raids, 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 of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.
Luis Espinoza, an organizer with the alliance, teared up as he described seeing detained workers and said the immigrants who were detained are in need of legal and financial assistance.
“I don’t see illegals. I don’t see bad people. It’s only families, fathers, mothers who want something better for the kids, so they come here and just work,” he said. “They are not criminals.”