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680 undocumented workers arrested in record-setting immigration sweep on the first day of school

US immigration authorities arrested about 680 undocumented immigrants at seven sites in six different cities in Mississippi. A Facebook video recorded outside a plant in Morton, Mississippi, shows an 11-year-old girl sobbing and begging an officer for a chance to see her mother who was detained.

Posted: Aug 8, 2019 9:50 AM
Updated: Aug 8, 2019 9:50 AM

After immigration authorities rounded up hundreds of workers in a massive sweep at seven Mississippi food processing plants, friends and family members are desperately searching for answers.

A crowd waited outside a plant in Morton, Mississippi, Thursday morning, hoping authorities would release their loved ones.

In this same spot, a day earlier, an 11-year-old girl sobbed and begged an officer for a chance to see her mom as bystanders tried to comfort her.

"Please, can I just see my mother?" the girl cried out in video broadcast live Wednesday on Facebook.

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Elizabeth Iraheta told CNN she shared the video so people would see what was happening at the plant, where she said she's worked legally for 19 years. It was devastating, Iraheta said, to see family and friends suffering "just for coming to work hard in this country, and to see so many families separated."

The video later shows an officer noting that the mother is being processed "because she doesn't have papers to be here legally," then later telling the crying girl that her mother would be released and wouldn't be deported. And eventually, Iraheta said, the girl's mother was able to see her before she was taken away.

But Iraheta said she isn't sure what will happen to the girl's mother, how many people were detained at the plant where she works or what will happen to them now.

Authorities haled the sweep at food processing plants in six cities as a record-setting operation. At least 680 undocumented immigrants were detained.

The arrests came as a result of administrative and criminal search warrants executed by special agents from Homeland Security Investigations, US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Mike Hurst said.

"Today, through the hard work of these men and women, we are once again becoming a nation of laws," Hurst said.

'What happens to the children?'

But immigrant rights advocates and local officials swiftly criticized the raids, noting that a number of children returned to empty homes after the arrests, which occurred on the first day of school.

In Forest, Mississippi, strangers and neighbors volunteered to take children with nowhere to go after their guardians were taken in the raid to a local gym for the night, according to CNN affiliate WJTV. Volunteers distributed donated food and drinks. But according to WJTV, most children sobbed rather than ate.

Speaking to reporters outside a plant in Canton, Mississippi, Mayor William Truly Jr. said he was concerned about the impact the arrests would have on the local economy -- and on the community.

"I recognize that ICE comes under the Department of Homeland Security, and this is an order of the United States. There's nothing I don't think anybody can do about it," he said. "But my main concern is now, what happens to the children?"

Laws and their enforcement 'not new'

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up worksite enforcement since President Donald Trump took office, conducting a number of large-scale raids at food-processing plants and gardening centers in recent years.

"These are not new laws, nor is the enforcement of them new," acting ICE director Matt Albence said Wednesday.

"The arrests today were the result of a year-long criminal investigation. And the arrests and warrants that were executed today are just another step in that investigation."

Albence told reporters Wednesday that some parents will be released and placed on ankle monitoring throughout their immigration proceedings and that in the past the agency has worked with school liaisons to help "find placement" for children when their parents are detained.

Some people have already been released

By Wednesday night, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Bryan Cox told CNN that some of the people detained had been released.

Officials have not specified why some were released.

"Any suggestion that all persons are going to be detained is not correct," Cox said.

Other detainees are still being processed, he said.

Confidential informants helped in raids

A senior immigration official with knowledge of the investigation told CNN that ICE used confidential informants employed at several of the raided food processing plants to identify managers or supervisors who knew they were hiring undocumented workers. In some cases, immigration enforcement received audio and video recordings.

CNN has reached out to the food processing plants for comment.

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