U.S. immigration authorities took eight days before they realized they had detained both parents of two children in Mississippi earlier this month when it launched what became the biggest single-state workplace immigration raid in history, according to interviews with the family.
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Ana, a mom of two children, ages 12 and 14, and her brother Pedro spoke with ABC News this week on the condition that only their first names be used because they are both still shaken from the raids. Ana, whose husband remains detained and their cases still pending, was released Aug. 15.
“She’s just wants to be with her brother. She’s really scared,” said Dalila Reynoso, a Texas immigration advocate who works with families.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said everyone that day who told authorities they had children at home was given priority processing. If both parents were arrested, one parent was sent home within 24 hours, a spokesman said.
Bryan Cox, the ICE spokesman, said he was aware of one case involving a couple in which they were both detained for eight days. He said in that case, the woman involved made no claim of children and was released soon after alerting authorities.
“Every person who was processed that day was asked explicitly, ‘Do you have any children at home?’” said Cox.
MORE: ICE releases hundreds rounded up in Mississippi as children left behind
The agents would even ask specifics, he said, like, “Do you have a child in school who is depending upon you to give them a ride?”
Law enforcement officials say they had reason to believe the employers of seven Mississippi poultry plants had knowingly hired undocumented workers, which is a federal crime. So on Aug. 7, hundreds of agents swept through six rural towns, rounding up workers and asking them for documentation.
Both Ana and her husband were among the 680 arrested. They had both worked at the Koch Foods plant in Morton, Mississippi, some 30 miles east of Jackson, for seven years.
(MORE: Thousands protest ICE across cities targeted for weekend raids)
Ana said she arrived about 8 a.m. for her shift that morning — as her husband’s graveyard shift was ending — when she realized something was happening. Immigration authorities appeared, telling the workers to line up and board a bus.
At one point, she saw her husband being arrested and taken away. When agents got to Ana, she was asked her name, address and whether she had children. Pedro said Ana told the authorities she did have children.
But it wasn’t until eight days later when she said told an ICE official where she was being held that both she and her husband were still detained with two children at home.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement/AFP/Getty Images
This image released by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shows a Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officer guarding suspected illegal aliens on August 7, 2019.
That’s when the ICE officer asked her the children’s names and their dates of birth, Pedro said. Ana was then released to her family.
Immigration is a top priority for the Trump administration. Despite a spotlight on the border crisis, officials have also stressed the importance of ramping up enforcement within the United States.
Although past administrations have deported immigrants who are in the country illegally, the focus on who should be deported has shifted under Trump’s purview – and the Mississippi raid demonstrated that.
Pedro said his family came to the United States to work and for a better future.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan defended the administration’s tactic of going after nonviolent undocumented immigrants in a recent interview, saying it’s part of a broader, comprehensive immigration enforcement strategy.
“We’ve got to start with our partners in Central America and Mexico. We’ve got to secure the border,” he told NBC News. “But we also have to have interior enforcement to stop this incentive, this work opportunity, that we have in the U.S. that employers are exploiting. And we’ve seen that in this case.”