A day after hundreds of immigration agents fanned out across Mississippi, arresting a record number of suspected unauthorized workers, communities were reeling as they faced the aftermath of the massive operation. Nowhere was that more evident than in the area’s schools, where administrators reported significant drops in attendance.
Leake County School District in central Mississippi reported that 50 students — one-fourth of all who attend — were absent Thursday, while Scott County School District officials said more than 150 Latino children did not show up for class. The Canton Public School District saw 63 of its 400 English as a second language students fail to appear following the raid, which occurred during the first week of school.
While educators could not pinpoint the exact reason each student was missing, it wasn’t hard for them to surmise. Local advocates reported that many children stayed home for fear of additional arrests, and community officials worry it will be some time before immigrant families feel safe to go out in public again. In other communities struck by worksite raids, workers have left, jobs have faded, and many have depended on charitable donations for support.
“We’ve reached out to them,” said Tony McGee, superintendent of the Scott County School District. “Part of it is fear, the fear of coming to school. There is an uneasiness of moving around the community, moving about schools, but we are trying to reassure them: School is a safe harbor.”
Dianne, whose fiancé was one of 680 workers arrested in the operation at a local agricultural processing plant and who asked that she be identified only by her first name, said that her family was reunited after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers released nearly 300 workers late Wednesday. Her fiancé and his ex-wife, who are the parents of a 13, 15, and 19-year-old, were brought back late into the night after they were processed.
Still, all three teenagers remained at home from school because of a rumor that ICE officers were planning to show up and take children of arrested parents into custody, while some people claimed to have seen ICE agents roaming another part of the state.
“It’s a sad situation. I’m a mother and I’m just imagining my child in that situation. It’s heartbreaking,” said Beverly Luckett, a spokeswoman for the Canton Public School District. “We need to make sure children are taken care of, and we are trying to reduce the trauma this could cause.”
On Thursday, ICE officials said that they had released parents who had minor children at home and that "it is believed that all children were with at least one of their parents as of last night."
Officials from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services said they had not taken any children into their custody, and school officials in the areas hit by the operation reported that all of their children had been released to a caregiver.
Authorities said they came across 18 child workers at the seven food processing plants raided Thursday, all of whom were released from their custody. Officials did not release any more information about the background of the operation, such as specific targets or reasons for the raids. ICE officials claim that employers who hire undocumented workers gain an “unfair advantage” over others and take jobs from US citizens and legal residents.
While the Trump administration has placed renewed focus on cracking down on businesses suspected of employing undocumented workers, the prosecution of those in charge has been rare. Researchers at Syracuse University found that in the 12 months before March, just 11 employers had been prosecuted.
At the same time, arrests of workers have soared: ICE agents made nearly 10 times as many immigration arrests at workplaces in fiscal year 2018 as they did the previous year.
Advocates criticized the administration for the arrests, saying it further traumatized immigrants who were already living in fear.
“The raids in Mississippi are immoral and part of a war the Trump administration has started against immigrant families,” said Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Once again, this administration has separated families and left innocent children without their parents, simply for political purposes motivated by racism and prejudice.”
For those in the community, like Luis Cartagena, a pastor in Morton, Mississippi, it was clear that things would not be the same.
“This is the worst thing to happen to our community,” he said. “People are very scared that we will have more bad news soon.”
Meanwhile, local school leaders like McGee said they were focused on helping children who were anxious after the operation and others they hoped would return this week.
“This is not like a tornado where you can see the damage,” he said. “The population affected has pulled back. It has been tough for our teachers and all of our administrators. We love our kids. They are our kids. When you see kids hurting, you hurt, like when it’s your own children at home.”