Immigration authorities defend factory raids against public anger over child 'victims'
Authorities in the US have strongly defended this week's mass immigration raids at workplaces in Mississippi against a worldwide outcry.
They said the secretive operation to arrest undocumented immigrants was successful, despite images of weeping children left alone after their parents were caught up in the sweep.
The raids targeted seven food processing plants in six cities in what US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) referred to as one of the largest single-state enforcement operations in the nation's history.
Agents apprehended a total of 680 workers, about half of whom had been released by Thursday night. The plans were so secret that ICE officials did not even inform the White House before the raids began, according to Matthew Albence, the agency's acting director.
Previous plans for high-profile raids had been disrupted by public disclosure - including tweets from President Trump telegraphing them.
The agency stealthily sent 600 agents to Mississippi, many of them flown in from other parts of the country.
"This was a textbook operation, carried out in a safe manner, and done securely," Mr Albence said while travelling 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 of those caught up in the raids.
Parents who were taken away by agents while at work were unable to pick their children up from school, day-care centres 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 neighbours after they walked home from school but were locked out because their parents had been 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 belonging to those detained 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.
"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 - claimed that the authorities took tremendous care to make sure no children were left in vulnerable situations.
Mr 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 to be taken care of.
Officials confirmed that about half of those people arrested were released by Thursday, acknowledging that they were not a threat to the public.
Many were parents who were released to care for young children, they added.
Some were driven back to their workplaces and issued with 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, the US attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.
Despite those steps, however, Mr Miles said he could not guarantee that no child had been 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," he said.
Tony McGee, superintendent of the Scott County School District, where several raids occurred, said the district received word about them on Wednesday afternoon.
Officials 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," Mr McGee said.
Residents of heavily Latino neighbourhoods remained fearful, he added.
About 15pc of the district's 4,300 students are Hispanic or Latino, and 154 of those students stayed home from school on Thursday.
Teachers, counsellors and administrators spent the afternoon making calls and going door-to-door to try to convince families that it is safe for their children to go to school.
"We just want them to know that... we are a safe harbour for our kids no matter what family you come from," Mr 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 Washington Post)