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JACKSON, Miss. – Immigration officials raided seven food processing plants in Mississippi last week, arresting hundreds of suspected undocumented workers – including the parents of young children.
Five days later, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services said the agency is receiving hotline reports that some children have not been reunited with either one of their parents.
The children the agency has been able to locate are being cared for by extended family members and neighbors, Lea Anne Brandon said in an email Monday, and none has been brought into the custody of CPS.
Brandon said workers have not been able to find some children believed to be without their parents. They continued to search for them.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst's office indicated it believed all children were reunited with at least one parent.
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In a news release Thursday announcing the release of 300 of the approximately 680 detained immigrants on "humanitarian grounds," Hurst's office said that if immigration officials encountered two suspected undocumented immigrant parents with minor children at home, one was released and returned to the place he or she was arrested. The same thing was done for single parents with minor children, the release said.
"Based on these procedures, it is believed that all children were with at least one of their parents as of last night," the release said.
The office provided a hotline number, noting that people are required by state law to report any children without parents. The number to call is 1-800-222-8000.
Monday morning, Hurst said CPS Commissioner Jeff Dickinson informed him he had not received calls about children without their parents.
"No one contacted CPS about an unaccompanied child in response to this operation. Not a single person," Hurst said.
Brandon said CPS received "several" notifications through its hotline as of Monday.
Anonymous callers, family members and friends of people affected by the raids called CPS' hotline, asking for workers to check on kids who may have been left without a parent, she said.
CPS cannot confirm specific children because the agency does not have a list of names of children, detainees and people who have been released to their families after processing, Brandon said.
"Our staff are responding to those calls – and did, throughout the weekend," Brandon said. "To date, no children have been brought into our custody, and we have confirmed that children we have been able to locate are being cared for by neighbors or extended family members."
The safety checks are ongoing because Child Protection Services workers have not been able to find some of the children who were brought to their attention, Brandon said. CPS shared the safety checklist with county offices and volunteer groups in the impacted communities.
Brandon said that because of confidentiality requirements set by state law, the agency cannot release any case-specific or call-specific information. She could not specify how many hotline calls the agency received about children being separated from both their parents.
Children who are under the care of extended family and neighbors can remain where they are, Brandon said.
"Our primary focus at (Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services), in this situation, is keeping affected children with people they know and are familiar and comfortable with – and then supporting both the children and their families/caregivers," she said.
If the situation warrants, she said, the agency can provide temporary foster care for children who have no one to care for them while their parents are detained.
Most of the calls the agency received through the hotline were from people volunteering to help and donate to families, Brandon said. The agency is compiling those offers and passing the information on to groups such as Catholic Charities and legal assistance, she said.
ICE raids were months in the making, Hurst says
Wednesday morning, immigration officials – including 650 brought in from out of state, Hurst said – raided seven food processing plants in six Mississippi communities: Morton, Canton, Bay Springs, Carthage, Pelahatchie and Sebastapol.
Hurst said his office planned the operation for months. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigated for more than a year. Affidavits attached to search warrants reveal that detained undocumented immigrants told federal authorities for more than a decade that they worked at food processing plants in Mississippi.
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Workers at Morton's Koch Foods plant said mostly Latino employees were rounded up for questioning and taken away by the busload.
Thirty-two people were released on site for humanitarian reasons, Hurst said. An additional 271 were processed at the National Guard base in Pearl before being released with ankle monitors.
ICE considered different factors, including whether the detainees had minor children at home or whether they were pregnant, in deciding whom to release. Hurst said anyone with a criminal history remained in custody.
The other 380 people are held in detention facilities in southwest Mississippi and Louisiana, Hurst said.
Homeland Security investigations agents will look at evidence and present it to Hurst's office for possible criminal prosecutions, he said.
Last week, videos of weeping children, crying out for their parents, were shown by national media.
Hurst agreed that they elicited sympathy.
"It's heartbreaking, it is, but what I would say to folks is, we indicted almost 500 individuals in the Southern District of Mississippi last year. And a lot of those had families. And a lot of those had children. And I want the same outrage and the same uprising for these families caught up in these parents' illegal activities, to make our citizens rise up and help other children, other victims of crime. I hope this does that, but I guess we'll see," he said.
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What's going to happen to the companies suspected of employing undocumented workers?
None of the people who may have been responsible for hiring has been charged, though officials said employers are part of their investigation.
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About a decade ago, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Hurst worked on prosecuting the Country Club of Jackson, where 18 undocumented workers were arrested, he said.
There was a deferred prosecution agreement for the business, he said. If the Country Club of Jackson complied with certain requirements – such as paying a $200,000 fine, submitting to an ICE audit and teaching other employers in the state how to recognize fraudulent documents and use E-Verify – for two years, then charges against it would be dropped.
"That was just the beginning," he said.
In 2011, Howard Industries pleaded guilty to employing undocumented immigrants after a raid resulted in nearly 600 arrests in 2008. In that case, a human resources manager went to prison, Hurst said.
"At the end of the day, all that we can do in the U.S. Attorney's Office is prosecute when we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that federal crimes have been committed. But, I think, if you look at our history, if you look at the cases we've prosecuted ... we prosecute employers in this district who break our federal criminal immigration laws," Hurst said.
Hurst said he believes the ICE raids last week are having a deterring effect.
If companies "don't have access" to undocumented workers, they'll hire more documented residents, Hurst said.
"By doing these operations, I think it's good for American citizens. Even though I know a lot of people complain that people won't take these jobs. If employers pay them well, they'll take these jobs," he said.
Follow Alissa Zhu on Twitter: @AlissaZhu
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Mississippi ICE raids: Some children still not reunited with parents