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How Mississippi is caring for kids left behind after an ICE operation

An ICE operation detained almost 700 food plant workers, so locals stepped in to help kids in need.
Annie Rose Ramos/NBC
/ Source: TODAY

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation this week swept up nearly 700 workers across seven Mississippi food processing plants. However, no protocols were in place for the children who were affected by the sudden detainment of their parents.

For Chad Harrison, assistant superintendent to the Scott County School District, it was the second day of school. He said he first realized something had happened when nearly 50 percent of kids in the Morton area zone of the district were checked out of school that day.

"Obviously, we felt like something was going on, we didn't quite know what, but then we had some telephone calls from citizens that were letting us know what was going on...That's when the superintendent [Tony McGee] and myself became aware of it."

Schools weren't the only organizations caught off-guard — according to LeAnn Brandon, the director of communications for Mississippi's Department of Child Protection Services (CPS), ICE did not notify state agencies about the operation, citing security concerns and a fear of potential leaks, which could tip off undocumented workers.

"We were not notified beforehand, or had any direct communication with ICE afterwards," said Brandon. "I don't think any state officials were notified that it was happening. We heard about the raids through local and state media, just like everyone else, and then got busy and got to work."

According to Brandon, the agency used protocols similar to their natural disaster responses to reach out to staff and local organizations, like schools, churches, and resource groups, to make their services available throughout the state. CPS also called in translators and reached out to licensed foster homes, group homes, and emergency shelters to put them on standby for any children who might need a place to go.

Harrison said that the Scott County School District worked to make sure that no kids would be left unsupervised overnight.

"We didn't know what was going to be happening," he explained. "We instructed all of our bus drivers to make sure that we had visual confirmation of an adult that the kids knew and was comfortable with was at home before they let the kids off the buses. We made sure that if we had any car riders who didn't have anyone come get them that we would take care of those kids."

Harrison said that while the plans were in place and teachers were volunteering to stay at the schools overnight, all children had somewhere to go. Brandon said that no children spent any time in temporary foster care, instead being "absorbed" into the community.

"What we found was that the local communities, especially the Hispanic communities, absorbed the children," Brandon said. "They made sure that they were taken care of. Neighbors took care of neighbors, and extended family members and relatives made sure that children were cared for."

According to Brandon, ICE allowed detainees who had children to make a call to arrange childcare. A Twitter thread from ICE's verified account confirmed as much, saying that "All the unlawfully present foreign nationals arrested Wednesday were interviewed by ICE staff to record any potential mitigating humanitarian situations to include adults who may have children at home or school."

Jere Miles, the special agent in charge for ICE New Orleans (whose jurisdiction includes Mississippi), told NBC News that schools were made aware of the operation once it had been completed, and knew how to get in touch with ICE about parents who were detained. Harrison credited ICE's reaching out to the school as part of why no students were left with nowhere to go overnight.

"Federal officers did, throughout the day, contact the school," Harrison said. "We worked back and forth with them about parents that had been apprehended, and we worked to make sure that we could verify that this particular parent belonged with this particular kid. I do know that some parents were released so that they could be home with their kids."

While Miles could not say if all parents have been released, he said that of the 680 people arrested, 387 remain in custody. Those released will still face immigration court proceedings.

In the meantime, the community in Mississippi is working to make sure that children and families are taken care of.

Inside the Trinity United Methodist Church in Forest, Mississippi, a makeshift food bank was assembled. Legal experts were brought in to answer any questions that families might have about detained loved ones.

"We're in crisis mode," Pat Dilley, a board member of the Trinity United Methodist Church, told NBC reporter Annie Rose Ramos. "We're trying to get [families] through this situation."

Harrison explained that the Scott County School District is doing everything it can to reach out to families. He said that of the 500 Hispanic students in the Morton school area, 154 were absent from school on Thursday. While a majority returned for classes Friday, about 50 were still absent.

"We've made a concentrated effort to reach out to those families whose kids were absent [Thursday]," he explained. "We visited homes, we made phone calls, we texted. We've done everything we can. We probably made contact with 100 of 154 kids who were out, and just reassured them that school was a safe place."

He also said that the district is expecting to provide further support in the future, since parents will not be able to work until their cases have been decided and visas reinstated.

Brandon said that CPS isn't sure if there will be more raids in the future. She said that the organization is also preparing to work with families who will be facing court proceedings and potential deportations.

"Even with the number of parents that were processed and returned to the community because they did have children in their care, they still have a court date," Brandon said. "Their future is uncertain. We are being prepared and ramping up to make sure that, if we are called on, we are still available."

Brandon said that CPS is also emphasizing that parents have ultimate control over their children's future in almost all cases, even if the parents are deported. If parents see fit, they have the option to make arrangements to ensure their children stay in Mississippi.

"They retain their parental discretion on what happens with their children," Brandon said. "They can place them with a neighbor and give legal guardianship to them. Many of these children were born here. They are U.S. citizens. These parents have been here for a decade or more. We have gotten lots of anecdotal examples of people who have been here 12, 15 years, so Mississippi is all these children have ever known. This is their community."

Annie Rose Ramos contributed reporting to this story.