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Advocates Scramble To Help Mississippi Families Caught Up In ICE Raids


Immigration lawyers and social workers are scrambling to help families in Mississippi caught up in last week's ICE raids at poultry plants. Makeshift legal clinics have now been set up at churches in the affected communities. Here's more from NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Parishioners at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Carthage, Miss., kneeled in collective prayer at a somber service over the weekend.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

ELLIOTT: Many church members are absent, swept up in the ICE sting that netted 680 people who were working at food processors despite not having legal authorization to be in the United States.

ANGEL LOPEZ: One of those is my dad.

ELLIOTT: Angel Lopez is a 15-year-old sophomore and member of his high school marching band.

LOPEZ: These past few days have just been hard because I have had to stay strong for my family.

ELLIOTT: He's trying to help with two younger brothers. All three were born in the U.S.

LOPEZ: My mom's afraid now because ever since they got my father, there has been no calls from him, no contact. And we've tried to see where he is, but the most we've gotten is that he's in Louisiana.

ELLIOTT: His parents came into the country illegally from Guatemala 18 years ago and settled in Mississippi. Lopez now fears his father will be deported.

LOPEZ: I've just been mad about the whole thing, really, because the El Paso shooting had just happened a week ago, and then why would you give an order like that for the raids to just happen like that when people are still grieving?

ELLIOTT: The Department of Homeland Security says the operation had been in the works for months, and the timing was unfortunate.

The fellowship hall at St. Anne's has been transformed into a triage of sorts, where people can get legal advice, a hot meal and meet with a social worker or child psychologist. Angel Lopez's mother has come here seeking guidance.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

LOPEZ: Basically, it's that my mom doesn't know what to do at this point because my dad was the one bringing in everything for us. And seeing the way things are now, she's confused at what to do because she has to take care of her autistic son, and she has to provide for me and my brother.

ELLIOTT: Father Odel Medina estimates at least 100 families from the 800-person parish are affected one way or another. Some are back after being released, but others have not been heard from.

ODEL MEDINA: The system see numbers. I know the people by name. I know that they are hardworking. They are people of faith. They are family people, community people. They were not at Wal-Mart killing somebody else. They were working.

ELLIOTT: But federal authorities say the arrests should not come as a surprise. Mike Hurst is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. He says the raids were about enforcing law and order.


MIKE HURST: But while we do welcome folks from other countries, they have to follow our laws. They have to abide by our rules. They have to come here legally, or they shouldn't come here at all.

ELLIOTT: Hurst had a warning for employers as well.


HURST: To those who use illegal aliens for a competitive advantage or to make a quick buck, if we find that you have violated federal criminal law, we're coming after you.

ELLIOTT: The enforcement has left the community gripped with fear.

EVELYN: Everybody's, like, paranoid.

ELLIOTT: Evelyn is a 20-year-old born in Mississippi to parents who came here from Guatemala.

EVELYN: Has everybody worried and scared because now they don't want to come out the house. They don't want to go get anything now, even go to the store.

HURST: She doesn't want to use her last name because her father was arrested, and she says her family is traumatized and fears further repercussions. Her 10-year-old brother Darby is distraught from what happened last Wednesday.

DARBY: It was, like, the second day of school. I came back because I was knocking on the door. Nobody answered.

ELLIOTT: He eventually found his mother hiding in a car with some relatives. She had been running late for work the day of the raids and avoided arrest. Now she's afraid to go back to her job.

Evelyn says it took three days to find out that her father is being held at a detention center in Natchez, Miss. They're not sure what's next, so they've come to the church to seek answers. Lawyers are staffing these makeshift legal clinics in several of the towns hit by the ICE raids. Attorney Amelia McGowan with the Mississippi Center for Justice says there are few pro bono immigration lawyers practicing in Mississippi, but now, several hundred attorneys from around the country have signed up to help.

AMELIA MCGOWAN: Many of these cases are going to be very long. They might take years to finish. And so we want to make sure that we have a sustainable network in place to really support people through the entire process.

ELLIOTT: As lawyers scramble to help people navigate the immigration system, back at St. Anne's Church, Father Medina is working to set up humanitarian aid for the long term.


MEDINA: Freddie, OK. Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Carthage, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "MY FRIEND COMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.