Fear Grips Immigrants After Miss. Plant Raid

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Associated Press

Fear Grips Immigrants After Miss. Plant Raid

by
Holbrook Mohr

Danielle Martinez, 24, of Laurel, Miss., complains Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008, about the unfairness of the immigration raid at the Howard Industries plant in Laurel which netted about 600 suspected illegal immigrants Monday. Martinez was assisting some immigrant families in removing their vehicles from the employee parking lot before they were towed. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

LAUREL, Miss. - A day after the largest single-workplace
immigration raid in U.S. history, Elizabeth Alegria was too scared to
send her son to school and worried about when she'd see her husband
again.

Nearly 600 immigrants suspected of being in the country
illegally were detained, creating panic among dozens of families in
this small southern Mississippi town.

Alegria, 26, a Mexican
immigrant, was working at the Howard Industries transformer plant
Monday when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stormed in.
When they found out she has two sons, ages 4 and 9, she was fitted with
a bracelet and told to appear in federal court next month. But her
husband, Andres, wasn't so lucky.

"I'm very traumatized because I
don't know if they are going to let my husband go and when I will see
him," Alegria said through a translator Tuesday as she returned to the
Howard Industries parking lot to retrieve her sport utility vehicle.

The superintendent of the county school district said about half of approximately 160 Hispanic students were absent Tuesday.

Roberto
Velez, pastor at Iglesia Cristiana Peniel, where an estimated 30 to 40
percent of the 200 parishioners were caught up in the raid, said
parents were afraid immigration officials would take them.

"They didn't send their kids to school today," he said. "How scared is that?"

One
worker caught in Monday's sweep at the plant said fellow workers
applauded as immigrants were taken into custody. Federal officials said
a tip from a union member prompted them to start investigating several
years ago.

Fabiola Pena, 21, cradled her 2-year-old daughter as
she described a chaotic scene at the plant as the raid began, followed
by clapping.

"I was crying the whole time. I didn't know what to
do," Pena said. "We didn't know what was happening because everyone
started running. Some people thought it was a bomb but then we figured
out it was immigration."

About 100 of the 595 detained workers
were released for humanitarian reasons, many of them mothers who were
fitted with electronic monitoring bracelets and allowed to go home to
their children, officials said.

About 475 other workers were
transferred to an ICE facility in Jena, La. Nine who were under 18 were
transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

John
Foxworth, an attorney representing some of the immigrants, said eight
appeared in federal court in Hattiesburg on Tuesday because they face
criminal charges for allegedly using false Social Security and
residency identification.

He said the raid was traumatic for families.

"There
was no communication, an immediate loss of any kind of news and a lack
of understanding of what's happening to their loved ones," he said. "A
complete and utter feeling of helplessness."

Those detained were
from Brazil, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama,
and Peru, said Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokeswoman.

"We have
kids without dads and pregnant mothers who got their husbands taken
away," said Velez's son, Robert, youth pastor at the church. "It was
like a horror story. They got handled like they were criminals."

Howard
Industries is in Mississippi's Pine Belt region, known for commercial
timber growth and chicken processing plants. The tech company produces
dozens of products ranging from electrical transformers to medical
supplies, according to its Web site.

Gonzalez said agents had
executed search warrants at both the plant and the company headquarters
in nearby Ellisville. She said no company executives had been detained,
but this was an "ongoing investigation and yesterday's action was just
the first part."

A woman at the Ellisville headquarters told The Associated Press on Tuesday that no one was available to answer questions.

In
a statement to the Laurel Leader-Call newspaper, Howard Industries said
the company "runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration
status of all applicants for its jobs."

Gov. Haley Barbour
recently signed a law requiring Mississippi employers to use a U.S.
Homeland Security system to check new workers' immigration status.

The
law took effect July 1 for businesses with state contracts and takes
effect Jan. 1 for other businesses. Mississippi lawmakers once used
laptops made by Howard Industries, but it's not clear whether the
company has current state contracts.

Under the law, a company
found guilty of employing illegal immigrants could lose public
contracts for three years and the right to do business in Mississippi
for a year.

The law also makes it a felony for an illegal
immigrant to accept a job in Mississippi. A message was left with the
district attorney's office after hours seeking comment on whether he
would use the law to bring state charges against Howard Industries or
the workers.

The Mississippi raid is one of several nationwide in recent years.

On
May 12, federal immigration officials swept into Agriprocessors, the
nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Iowa. Nearly 400 workers
were detained and dozens of fraudulent permanent resident alien cards
were seized from the plant's human resources department, according to
court records. In December 2006, 1,297 were arrested at Swift
meatpacking plants in Nebraska and five other states.

Associated Press Writers Shelia Byrd in Hattiesburg, Emily
Wagster Pettus in Jackson and Eileen Sullivan in Washington, D.C.,
contributed to this report.

 

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