Immigration

When ICE raids left children without parents, their neighbours rallied around

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Dozens of children, some as young as toddlers, were bewildered when they were picked up from school and taken to makeshift shelters.

There were scores of cars and trucks at the trailer park near this small town’s chicken processing plant on Thursday afternoon, the day after federal immigration authorities swept across Mississippi and apprehended hundreds of immigrants in one of the largest workplace actions in recent memory. And yet it felt like a ghost town.

Many of the Hispanic workers who were swept up in the targeted raids — including one at a processing plant here in Canton, Miss., owned by Peco Foods — remained in detention. But many others had returned to their American homes, some of them back to this trailer park, a grid of rutted streets lined with shoddy mobile homes clad in corrugated metal, the addresses spray-painted on the sides.

A man is taken into custody during an immigration raid at a Koch Foods plant in Morton on Wednesday.
A man is taken into custody during an immigration raid at a Koch Foods plant in Morton on Wednesday.
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

No one came to doors when they were knocked on.

Blanca Peralta, director of Hispanic ministry at the nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church, said that everyone had been advised to lay low.

“They don’t go out; they’re hiding,” said a Guatemalan man named Lucio, who had just come home from his construction job and declined to give his last name because he, too, was undocumented. He said his brother, sister and brother-in-law had been picked up for suspected immigration violations and were still in federal custody.

“They’re just going to get a lawyer and wait to see what happens,” he said.

Federal agents fanned out across the state on Wednesday and detained about 680 workers at poultry and other food-processing plants. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said on Thursday that 300 people had been released, as they had no criminal record, or any other reason to remain detained.

If fear and foreboding had taken hold in the Hispanic community here, a sense of uncertainty had settled more broadly over Canton, a city of about 12,000 people a half-hour north of Jackson, the state capital.

A number of residents said that Hispanics, who account for about 5 percent of the city’s population, had arrived in noticeable numbers about 13 years ago. They have tended to cluster and stay to themselves, and their children often translate at parent-teacher conferences, residents said.

And now the questions on many minds: What would happen to the workers? And what would happen to their children? What, too, would happen to the chicken plant? Representatives for Peco Foods declined to say on Thursday how the plant was operating in the wake of the raid, but its parking lot was full, and big trucks were moving in and out. A few workers, black and Hispanic, could be seen walking into the building wearing plastic hair coverings.

Ms. Peralta, 63, said that families were working together to cope. It was rare, she said, that both members of a couple were working at the plant, and many extended families lived together. This meant that most children had someone to look after them, unlike those east of town, in Forest, Miss., where children of people caught in the raid were reportedly left in the care of neighbors and strangers, and a local gym was opened to offer them a place to sleep.

In tearful videos and images that ricocheted across social media, children whose migrant parents had been rounded up pleaded with the United States government to release their mothers and fathers.

A news conference, organized by the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance in Jackson, Miss., discussed immigration raids that took place across the state.
A news conference, organized by the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance in Jackson, Miss., discussed immigration raids that took place across the state.
William Widmer for The New York Times

“Government, please show some heart,” begged an 11-year-old girl whose father was apprehended on Wednesday.

Dozens of children, some as young as toddlers, were bewildered when they were picked up from school and taken to makeshift shelters, including the gym in Forest, where the owner fed them dinner with food donated by residents.

Videos showed children crying in corners or in the arms of friends, neighbors and strangers. On Thursday afternoon, state officials, immigration advocates, and lawyers still did not have a clear picture of what had happened to those children, or who had taken custody of them.

The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services said that no child was in its custody.

On Thursday afternoon, the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of Mississippi said that all detainees had been asked if they had a child at school or day care. Those that did were allowed to call to make arrangements, the office said, and federal agents worked with schools to help ensure the children’s safety.

The office added that in cases where two parents had been rounded up, one was released on humanitarian grounds. “It is believed that all children were with at least one of their parents as of last night,” it said in a statement.

Speaking in a classroom behind the quiet Catholic church, Ms. Peralta said that the Hispanic community had been on edge for weeks, as the Trump administration made it known that they were preparing for a major immigration sweep. Many of the people here, she said, were Guatemalans, and about 200 of the 1,000 parishioners in the church were Hispanic.

Some, she said, would probably stay and fight their cases. Some had been here for more than a decade. But she anticipated that others would go back to their home countries. What else could they do? 

“Somos impotentes,” she said: We’re powerless.

The Pew Research Center estimates that there were about 20,000 undocumented immigrants in Mississippi, up from about 10,000 in 1995 — a relatively small fraction of the total state population of about three million. But in a deep red state, concerns about illegal immigration run high in many quarters, and conservative politicians are outspoken in their support of President Trump’s positions on immigration.

The Peco Foods processing plant in Canton, Miss., was one of several locations targeted by federal immigration authorities in coordinated raids.
The Peco Foods processing plant in Canton, Miss., was one of several locations targeted by federal immigration authorities in coordinated raids.
CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is in a Republican runoff for governor, expressed his support for the raid on Twitter. “Glad to see that ICE is working hard to enforce our immigration laws,” he wrote. “680 aliens detained in Mississippi today. We must enforce our laws, for the safety of all Americans.”

Down the road in Jackson, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who has said he wants to make Mississippi’s capital “the most radical city on the planet,” called the raids “dehumanizing and ineffective.”

It was less clear how the raids were reverberating among city officials in Canton, which, like Jackson, is a majority-black city. Calls to the mayor and a number of members of the board of aldermen were not returned on Thursday.

A number of black residents were livid that their Hispanic neighbors had been hauled away.

“It’s wrong. They’re good people just like us,” said Michael Watts, 40, who cleans buildings for a living and had pulled up to one of the trailers to visit his brother. “God don’t like ugly, and this is ugly. I hate how Americans do them.”

And the raid was on the minds of many residents on Canton’s pretty town square on Thursday. At the Chandler O’Cain Barber Shop, where the front door was festooned with pro-America signs and a Make American Great Again hat sat by the mirror, Robert Chandler, a barber, declined to speak much about the raid itself. But he said he suspected Democrats of supporting immigration laws that would help undocumented immigrants attain citizenship.

“That’s all they want them for is the votes,” he said.

Handcuffed workers are escorted by ICE agents.
Handcuffed workers are escorted by ICE agents.
AP

One of his clients, John Wallace, 84, a retired manager of Canton Municipal Utilities, came in for a trim. Mr. Wallace said that sometime in the mid-2000s, a community meeting took place because a group of residents, he recalled, “were raising hell because the Mexicans were taking their jobs.”

At the meeting, he said, the plant manager explained that he was short more than 100 employees the week before the plant was set to reopen, and that he was having trouble filling the jobs.

Those jobs were filled by Hispanics, he said, and the plant opened on time. “The whole 

By Adeel Hassan and Richard Fausset © 2019 The New York Times 

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