In tearful videos and images that ricocheted across social media, children whose migrant parents were rounded up by federal authorities in Mississippi pleaded with the U.S. government to release their mothers and fathers.
“Government, please show some heart,” begged an 11-year-old girl whose father was apprehended Wednesday in targeted immigration raids that authorities said were the largest ever in a single state.
Dozens of children, some as young as toddlers, were bewildered when they were picked up from school and taken to makeshift shelters. 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 happened to those children or who took custody of them.
The Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services said that no child was in its custody.
“We have no idea what the number of children is or where they are,” said Lea Anne Brandon, an agency spokeswoman.
Brandon said the department, which was not notified in advance of the raids by federal officials and still knew nothing Thursday, learned of the sting operation from news reports Wednesday.
On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi said that all detainees were asked if they had a child at school or day care. Those that did were allowed to call to make arrangements, it said, and federal agents worked with schools to help ensure the children’s safety.
The office added that in cases where two parents were 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.
Federal agents fanned out across the state Wednesday and detained about 680 workers at poultry and other food-processing plants. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday that 300 people had been released, as they had no criminal record or any other reason to remain detained.
In Forest, Mississippi, a city of about 6,000 residents, children whose parents had been picked up were sent to a community center that served as the shelter. A Forest City Hall clerk said many of the children were later reunited with their mothers after federal authorities released them.
Other children were taken to Clear Creek Boot Camp, a 24-hour gym in Forest, where the owner fed them dinner with food donated by residents.
“I understand the law and how everything works, and everything needs to have a system,” the owner, Jordan Barnes, told a televisions news station. “But everybody needs to hold the kids first and foremost in their minds, and that’s what we’ve tried to do here is give them a place to stay and ease the pain a little bit.”
Amelia McGowan, a lawyer at the Mississippi Center for Justice who is representing many families affected by the raid, called the situation “a mess.”
On Thursday, she confirmed that some of those who had been arrested were released. She said that she heard some had been given ankle monitors. Others who were not released were put on buses and driven to Louisiana.
That state has more detention beds available, according to Julia Solórzano, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.