Mississippi residents rallied around terrified children left with no parents and migrants locked themselves in their homes for fear of being arrested Thursday, a day after the United States' largest immigration raid in a decade.
A total of 680 people were arrested in Wednesday's raids, but more than 300 had been released by Thursday morning with notices to appear before immigration judges, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox.
About 270 were released after being taken to a military hangar where they had been brought, and 30 were released at the plants, Cox said. He did not give a reason except to say that those released at the plants were let go due to "humanitarian factors."
Those released included 18 juveniles, with the youngest being 14 years old, said Jere Miles, special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit in New Orleans. Workers were assessed before they were released, including for whether they had any young children at home.
A small group seeking information about immigrants caught up in the raids gathered Thursday morning outside one of the targeted companies: the Koch Foods Inc. plant in Morton, a small town of roughly 3,000 people about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of the capital of Jackson.
"The children are scared," said Ronaldo Tomas, who identified himself as a worker at another Koch Foods plant in town that wasn't raided. Tomas, speaking in Spanish, said he has a cousin with two children who was detained in one of the raids.
Gabriela Rosales, a six-year resident of Morton who knows some of those detained, said she understands that "there's a process and a law" for those living in the country illegally. "But the thing that they (ICE) did is devastating," she said. "It was very devastating to see all those kids crying, having seen their parents for the last time."
On Wednesday, about 600 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents fanned out across plants operated by five companies, surrounding the perimeters to prevent workers from fleeing. Those arrested were taken to the military hangar to be processed for immigration violations.
Before the raid, ICE officials indicated many people would be released with a notice to appear in court because they had never before been through deportation proceedings. Those people were not held, but probably won't be able to resume their old jobs because the federal government alleges they are here illegally. ICE officials said others would be released if they were pregnant, had small children at home, or had serious health problems.
ICE didn't have much space to detain workers, even overnight, because the number of people in custody is hovering near all-time highs. The agency has been housing thousands more than its budgeted capacity of 45,274 people, largely because of an unprecedented surge of Central American families arriving at the Mexican border.
Koch Foods, one of the country's largest poultry producers based in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, said in a statement Thursday that it follows strict procedures to make sure full-time employees are eligible to work in the country. The company said it vets the employees through the federal government database E-Verify. The company also relies on temporary workers that come through a third-party service tasked with checking employee eligibility, said company spokesman Jim Gilliland.
More than 100 civil rights activists, union organizers and clergy members in Mississippi denounced the raid, but the state's Republican Gov. Phil Bryant commended ICE for the arrests, tweeting that anyone in the country illegally has to "bear the responsibility of that federal violation."
In Morton, workers were loaded into multiple buses on Wednesday — some for men and some for women — at the Koch Foods plant. At one point, about 70 family, friends and residents waved goodbye and shouted, "Let them go! Let them go!"
Scott County Superintendent Tony McGee said more than 150 students were absent Thursday from the 4,000-student district, including a number of students in Morton, where the enrollment is about 30% Latino.
School officials are trying to coax parents into letting their children return through phone calls and home visits. McGee said some longtime teachers told him that Wednesday "was by far the worst day they have ever spent as educators."
The Rev. Mike O'Brien, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Canton, said he waited outside the Peco Foods plant in the city until 4 a.m. Thursday for workers returning by bus. O'Brien said he visited a number of parishioners whose relatives had been arrested. He said he also drove home a person who had hidden from authorities inside the plant.
"The people are all afraid," he said. "Their doors are locked, and they won't answer their doors."
Children whose parents were detained were being cared for by other family members and friends, O'Brien said.
"They're circling the wagons that way and taking care of each other," he said.
The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services is investigating whether any immigrant children are in need of foster care while their parents are in detention, spokeswoman Lea Ann Brandon said.
Martha Rogers, the chairman and CEO of the Bank of Morton, said businesses across town will be affected. Rogers said many Spanish-speaking residents have become customers.
"We've all been greatly upset," Rogers said. "We know these people."
Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen, Elliot Spagat and Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report.