CARTHAGE, MISS. – Every morning, 9-month-old Elizabeth wakes up and reaches across the bed to breastfeed, but her mother isn’t there. Her father, Romeo Ramirez, has tried his best to mimic the process, cradling his wide-eyed girl while slipping her a bottle of formula.
For the first three days, Elizabeth refused, wailing each time as she pushed him away. On the fourth day, when hunger overwhelmed her, she finally accepted the bottle.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Ramirez said. “She kept crying and crying. She was so hungry but she wouldn’t take the bottle. I thought she was going to die.”
Her mother, Norma Cardona Ramirez, was among the 680 people arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Aug. 7 during raids at food processing plants in central Mississippi. She and other parents identified by the USA TODAY NETWORK remain in custody more than two weeks later, despite claims from federal officials that the agency released more than 300 people on humanitarian grounds, including breastfeeding mothers and single parents with children at home.
In all, the USA TODAY Network found at least three cases where a breastfeeding mother is being held in custody. And it has identified two cases where single mothers – each with three minor children – are still detained, their children being cared for by a friend and a sister-in-law.
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The ongoing detentions raise serious questions about the way ICE agents screened the people they arrested, including how many parents with tender-age children remain in custody. It also poses broader questions about the Trump administration’s treatment of families caught up in the president’s escalating efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said that each woman arrested in the Mississippi raids was asked if she was breastfeeding or had minor children that ICE “needed to account for in processing.”
But it’s unclear how ICE determines who to release on humanitarian grounds, and the agency refused to answer questions about who qualifies for such a release.
Mothers separated from their children
Last week, the Clarion Ledger reported a 4-month-old breastfeeding baby was separated from her mom after the ICE raids.
ICE denied that the woman had been breastfeeding. The agency claimed the woman had responded “no” when she was asked if she was breastfeeding. The agency said it had a nurse examine the mother after the story was published – 12 days after her arrest - and that the exam showed she was not lactating.
The woman’s attorneys and her husband maintained that the woman was lactating and had not been asked by agents whether she was.
Ramirez says his wife also was not asked whether she had children or was breastfeeding.
Ramirez said his wife told him during a phone call that when she was first apprehended in Canton, she was only asked for her full name, her date of birth, her country of origin and her parent’s names. As she continued to be transferred, officials again only asked her those four questions, Ramirez said. At no point was she asked whether she had a child that she was breastfeeding, and she repeatedly tried to tell the agents.
“She told them ‘I have children. I have four children. I have one whom I’m breastfeeding,’” Ramirez said. “The official either didn’t hear her or didn’t care.”
When asked if ICE had any women in custody who said they were breastfeeding, Cox replied: “No person of which I am aware who claimed breastfeeding upon their August 7 arrest.”
But that’s not what some families say.
Khalil Bou-Mikael, an attorney at Riguer Silva, LLC, in Louisiana, said he’s representing another woman who was breastfeeding when she was detained. He said he is waiting on permission from the woman’s family to release her name.
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'Hard-working, family people'
Community and business leaders in the affected Mississippi towns – which range from 300 to 12,000 in population – said the ICE raids have turned the communities upside-down and will impact the communities for years. Store owners are worried about loss of business, bankers about mortgages and pastors about loss of large amounts of their parishioners. Chicken plants, an economic anchor for some of these small communities, have been shut down or at reduced capacity and had been struggling to find enough workers before the raids.
Canton Police Chief Otha Brown recently questioned the raids and the long-term impact it will have in his town, and said of those arrested in his town: "We don’t have any problems with them. Most of those folks are hard-working, family people."
Romeo and Norma Ramirez came to Mississippi 16 years ago, after deciding that they couldn’t endure the poor working conditions in Comitancillo, Guatemala – where Romeo was making a little over a dollar a day in his native country.
Shortly after arriving to Mississippi, Norma Ramirez began working at the Peco chicken processing plant in Canton. Eight years ago, Romeo Ramirez, who is also undocumented, was hired there, as well. The two worked opposite schedules to ensure their four children had at least one parent at home, with Norma Ramirez working in the morning and Romeo Ramirez working in the evening.
Ramirez said he was at his house when he heard people yelling that immigration agents were at the chicken plants and later found out his wife was being held in a facility in Louisiana.
It’s been over two weeks since Norma Ramirez was detained. Romeo Ramirez quit his job to care for the kids. Their 16-year-old daughter is now looking for a job to help make ends meet.
Romeo Ramirez said his wife isn’t a criminal and has never had any legal problems before this encounter with ICE.
“She is a hardworking person,” Ramirez said. “She didn’t have problems with the police, with no one. She is a good person.”
Unclear who is being released
In some cases, ICE has released breastfeeding mothers.
Berta Ramirez, 26, said she and her 6-month-old came from Guatemala to the United States through Arizona three months ago.
Her son has a club foot, she said, and her family paid a smuggler so that he could have medical treatment and a better life in America.
Berta Ramirez said she had been working at the chicken processing plant in Carthage for less than two months when the raids took place. She said she was detained, but then agents put a monitor on her ankle and released her the following day. She has no idea why she was released.
Berta Ramirez said she and her son live with a woman she met on Facebook and that while she was detained, that woman looked after her son.
The USA TODAY Network has also identified two cases of single mothers who are still in ICE custody.
That appears to contradict an earlier statement from Mississippi Southern District U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst’s office, which claimed any single parent with minor children at home were released within 27 hours of their arrest. The day after the raids, Hurst’s office announced about 300 suspected undocumented immigrants were released on “humanitarian grounds.”
If immigration officials encountered two alleged undocumented immigrants with minor children at home, they released one of the parents and returned the individual to the place from which they were arrested, said a news release from Hurst’s office. They did the same thing for single parents with minor children at home, the release said.
At least one woman says that’s a lie.
Ingrid, who asked only to be identified by her first name because she is an undocumented immigrant and fears reprisal from the government, was already facing a daunting challenge when her husband was arrested. That left Ingrid to care for her six children alone.
But her sister-in-law was also arrested, leaving her to care for her three young children, as well. Ingrid said her sister-in-law is a single mother who came to the U.S. a few months ago from Guatemala. She was were arrested at the Koch Foods in Morton the morning of Aug. 7.
The children – ages 4, 6 and 10 – cry for their mother, who has been the only parent in their lives for years. Ingrid said she tried telling officials about her sister-in-law’s case, and yet the woman remains in detention.
During a recent phone call, the mother spoke to her children, Ingrid said.
“I love you, forgive me for not being there,” Ingrid’s sister-in-law said through her tears.
The children responded: “Mom, where are you? When are you coming home? We love you, don’t cry mommy.”
Waiting for parents to be released
The sister-in-law, being held in Louisiana, has been indicted on four federal felonies, related to false representation of U.S. citizenship and fraudulent use of a Social Security card.
Back in Mississippi, Ingrid is overwhelmed.
Her husband, who is still in detention, was the breadwinner of the family. He also played a vital role in the life of their 7-year-old son, Nery, who is diagnosed with autism, developmental delays and aggressive behavior.
The father helped Nery get ready in the mornings and fall asleep at night. He had the special ability to calm the boy when he threw tantrums, Ingrid said.
Now, without his father, Nery’s condition has deteriorated, she said. The dad calls his son every day from his detention center, asking about his day at school and urging him to stay calm and relaxed. But Ingrid said that’s not nearly enough.
With no job and nine kids under her care, including a child with special needs, Ingrid said she doesn’t know how long she can continue.
She has considered going out to find a job. But then she wonders: Who will take care of the kids while I’m gone? If I’m arrested, what would happen to them?
Immigration activists around Jackson say there are other cases of single mothers still in detention, but the families are reluctant to go public out of fear of retribution from ICE agents.
In one case, a man is taking care of three young boys whose mother was rounded up in the raids and remains locked up in a federal detention center. The woman had been renting a room in the man’s house, the family of four crammed into one bedroom where they share two beds and one cabinet.
The identities and locations of the man, the woman and her children are being withheld because the family is worried that ICE would seek to detain the woman longer, or state officials would take the children. The USA TODAY NETWORK has verified the story from the man caring for the children, a priest assisting the family and advocates working on behalf of the woman in detention.
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The man has taken time off from work and taken over full-time caretaking duties. He makes the boys breakfast each morning, ensures the older boys get on the school bus and drives the youngest to school. When they get home, the man makes them dinner, washes their clothes and watches over them. Once a day, when the mother calls from her detention center, he hands the phone over to the boys and tries his best to keep their spirits up.
"I’m doing this because I don’t want these boys to end up with the state," Department of Child Protection Services, the man said while showing a reporter around his home. "They would be split up. I want to keep them together so they’re here and waiting when their mother gets out."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mississippi raids: ICE still detaining breastfeeding, single parents