Friends, coworkers and family wave to one of several buses that are filled with detainees, following a U.S. Immigration raid at several Mississippi food processing plants, including this Koch Foods Inc., plant in Morton, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The early morning raids were part of a large-scale operation targeting owners as well as undocumented employees.

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As immigration officials processed 680 people in a military hangar Wednesday, caught up in what U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst called “the largest single-state immigration enforcement operation in our nation’s history,” they were supposed asked each detainee a question: is there a child in their care?

According to an email from federal immigration officials, based on those answers, federal immigration agents would process those with children first and continue to detain those without children. Nearly 400 people still had not been released as of Thursday. The letter, the contents of which Mississippi Today reviewed, included the following information about how people with children had been processed after being detained:

  • “All of the arrestees were advised when they arrived at the processing center to let ICE officers know if they had any children who were at school or childcare and needed to be picked up.
  • In order to make it possible for arrestees to contact other family members and address childcare issues, HSI procured 10 cell phones that are available at the processing site for use by arrestees to make arrangements for the care of their children or other dependents.
  • During processing and the completion of DHS Form I-213, each alien is asked if they have any dependents that need to be cared for.
  • Any arrestee who identifies a child care issue, and is not being criminally arrested or is subject to mandatory detention, will be expeditiously processed and returned to the point of apprehension so that they can get to their child or other dependent.
  • When the enforcement operation commenced, two HSI employees were designated to contact schools in the area of the businesses being searched to notify them of the operation and provide contact information in the event that the schools became aware of any children whose parents did not pick them up.

The above came from an email sent shortly before midnight Wednesday by Matthew Allen, executive director of Homeland Security Investigations, informing federal agencies of the policies put in place to “to address the contingency of our arrestees having dependent children that need to be cared for.”

Whether Department of Homeland Security agents adhered to those policies, however, remains unknown. Mississippi’s child welfare agency said federal immigration officials had not reached out to them either before the record-breaking raid or in the day since. Child Protection Services found out about the raid on Wednesday the same way most Mississippians did—from the media.

On Thursday, Hurst’s office in cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement provided a more general overview of the above to the media in a press release, saying “it is believed that all children were with at least one of their parents as of last night.” In that release Hurst also confirmed that 30 people had been released Wednesday and an additional 270 people released Thursday from the National Guard base in Pearl.

But this process, of not putting safeguards in place for the children of people detained before conducting raids, runs counter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s own policy, created in 2007 under the George W. Bush Administration, as a way to reduce harm to the children of detainees during immigration raids.

Federal officials planned this raid for a year, and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, criticized the agency for not putting protections in place for the children first.

“Despite the reported time spent in the lead up, ICE seems to have deliberately ignored its own guidelines on minimizing the impact on children and vulnerable populations when it planned this raid. Now hundreds of children are without parents.  This is another form of family separation – and an unfortunate common thread in this Administration’s cruel immigration policies,” Thompson said in an emailed statement Thursday.

As news of the raid, which took place at seven food processing plants in six cities, spread Wednesday, photos of children whose parents had been detained and were being held in a make-shift shelter, circulated. Behind the scenes, CPS scrambled to fill gaps, unaware of the policy or even of how many children had been left without caregivers. Some school principals ordered school bus drivers, who were dropping children off from their first day of school, to bring children back to the school if it appeared their parents weren’t at home.

“CPS was very surprised and concerned,” said Lea Anne Brandon, communications director of Child Protection Services.

“We were not notified beforehand and we have not gotten any contact or request for assistance or notification or the number of children involved from ICE,” Brandon added. “The federal government in this instance has not communicated with us at all.”

On Wednesday, Child Protection Services notified offices in all six counties where people had been detained. And they put an immediate notification request on social media and television, asking anyone aware of a child affected by the raid to contact the agency, bypassing the usual screening process. Brandon said that as of Thursday morning, no children had been sent to Child Protection Services.

“We had hundreds of beds ready – not just in those counties but in surrounding counties as well. So we would have been able to take care of the children, if they needed us,” Brandon told Mississippi Today.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.