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‘How as a Community Can We Move Forward?’ Uncertainty Lingers After Mississippi ICE Raids

8 minute read

Since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests of 680 undocumented immigrants in Mississippi, the phones at the Scott County Baptist Association in Forest, Miss. have been ringing non stop as calls come in from across the country asking for information on how to help the families affected by the raids.

Reggie Williams, director of missions at the Scott County Baptist Association, says the group has been collecting nonperishable food items for families who have lost a source of income since the arrests on Wednesday in Jackson and several neighboring counties.

“They’re at their homes with no way to make a living, no way to buy groceries, no way to do anything,” Williams tells TIME. “We’re typically not open on Friday but I had to come in [to work] because there’s people that are bringing things and I wanted to be here…The overwhelming support from the community has just been unbelievable.”

The association is only one of many groups and networks of people across the state who have stepped up in support of the families affected by the raids. Networks of lawyers, school administrators, the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services (MDCPS) and local church groups have gathered to provide aid as now 680 people face unemployment and possible deportation.

What were the ICE raids exactly?

The raids took place at seven agricultural food processing plants and the U.S. Department of Justice says they made up the largest ever worksite action in a single state. Almost 300 of those detained were from Mexico and Guatemala, according to Reuters.

The raids took place on the first day of school for Mississippi children and images of children crying over their missing parents at a local gymnasium made national news. Lea Anne Brandon director of communications at MDCPS tells TIME that the agency has not been contacted at any point before or after the raids by the federal agencies involved that left potentially hundreds of children displaced on Wednesday after school.

“We didn’t have any idea, because no one knew the numbers at that point, how many families or children might be effected and what we might be called upon to do… we still don’t know the numbers,” she says. “We have not been officially asked to provide any services or be involved in any way. That doesn’t mean we’re just sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”

According to CBS News, school districts were also left in the dark about the planned raids.

In a statement to TIME, Bryan Cox, ICE Southern Region Communications Director, says 303 undocumented immigrants have been released and 377 remain detained as of Friday. According to Cox, the people who were released were placed into removal proceedings before federal immigration courts requiring them to reappear at a later date before an immigration judge.

“In general, ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis based on the totality of the circumstances and this operation was no different,” Cox said. “Every person on the premises was treated exactly the same way and all persons were screened for immigration status.”

ICE worked in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of Mississippi, which executed multiple federal criminal search warrants for evidence relating to various federal crimes, and administrative search warrants searching for individuals illegally present in the United States, according to a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Impact on communities

The arrests left 680 people without a job, which Brandon says will have immediate effects on the local economies of the counties where the arrests took place.

“It’s not like these food processing plants are in communities that have multiple industrial bases, so there will be the initial impact of 700 job slots that are vacant,” she says. “For every family — they put money back into this community in the local restaurants and that type of thing.”

The local school districts, Brandon adds, are funded in part based on daily attendance rates, potentially impacting school funding. Scott County School District Superintendent Todd McGee told MSNBC’s Morning Joe that about 154 students didn’t show up for class the day after the raids.

“Of course right now there is some fear,” McGee said. “There is a fear of getting out and coming to school and being out in the community.”

Brandon says MDCPS will continue to focus on the wellbeing of children instead of politics.

“Mississippi is a big small town,” she says. “People know people, they go to church with them, they shop with them, and everyone is effected. Everything from our economies to our school systems, to our church and religious and civic groups. We’re all being touched by this in one way or another.”

‘An air of uncertainty’ despite community support

“I am completely overwhelmed,” Williams says. He tells TIME that after 24-hours of nonstop calls, he gave up answering his phone at 11 p.m. Thursday night to try to get some rest. “The overwhelming support from the community has just been unbelievable.”

The Baptists association is now asking people to wait to donate food supplies until Monday because the more immediate need is financial contributions — between two GoFundMe accounts, the association has raised about $24,000.

“If you’re not working, pretty soon their power company is gonna want their money and so we’re gonna try to use [donations] to help them through this process and keep the power on so they can cook,” Williams says. “I’m just overwhelmed at the goodness of the American people, the heart, it’s great.”

Other organizations have partnered with local school districts to provide resources to families in need. Jackson Public Schools announced Thursday that it had partnered with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance to “ensure all of our families and students feel safe in their school communities,” according to a public statement. “Recent raids and arrests by federal immigration officials in Mississippi have heightened a sense of anxiety for families and students. Jackson Public Schools is committed to educating children regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, country of origin, or a student’s immigration status,” the district added.

“The communities surrounding these workplaces have really stepped up to take care of their own,” Brandon says. “Neighbors and extended family members, church members, from the heartwarming stories that we are hearing, have really wrapped these families in their arms.”

Attorneys mobilize

Immigration attorney Amelia McGowan says she didn’t know the severity of Wednesday’s raids when she received her first call from a client who said relatives hadn’t come home from work.

She says immediately immigration attorneys began to mobilize to figure out where immigrants were being processed and detained. McGowan says lawyers began identifying people, their location and how to get them released on bond.

“I have a lot of faith in my fellow members of the bar,” she says. “We put out a call for legal volunteers and we got 258 lawyers who are willing to help in some capacity. Many are from Mississippi, but others are from other areas of the country who are willing to help remotely.”

McGowan says she’s seen Mississippi community members attend local meetings in Mortan, Miss., to figure out what they can do to help.

“It’s a very tight-knit, very supportive community,” she says. “It’s just phenomenal, it was really a boost to be there.”

Still, she says, many people remain concerned for the future. Many lawyers are still helping some people figure out where their relatives are, or helping some immigrants secure a bond for release from detention. The lawyers are also preparing to help those facing removal proceedings, McGowan says.

“The longterm need is providing longterm legal assistance to people,” she says. “Obviously, they’re still terrified about if this is going to happen again.”

Many are also concerned about the trauma that children have experienced. “How as a community can we move forward?” she says. “Because businesses are harmed, people are harmed, families are harmed, churches are harmed, truly every level of the community has been torn apart and they’re doing their best to stick together through this crisis.”

Now as the undocumented immigrants who were detained face deportation proceedings, MDCPS is in the process of planning out what will happen to the potentially hundreds of children who could be displaced by the removal of their parents. Brandon says MDCPS believes most of the children being impacted by the raids are American citizens.

“We want to provide as much support and assistance to these adults and to these children, to work with legal volunteers in our state to inform them that even though they are detained and they may have been arrested, that they as parents have the legal right to determine what happens with their children.”

What happens next remains unclear for the many families who now have to plan for the worst case scenario.

“We don’t know what the end game is, we don’t know, I mean, is more coming next week?” Brandon says. “It’s a very anxious time right now…There’s an air of uncertainty.”

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com