LAUREL, Miss. — The largest single-workplace immigration raid in U.S. history has caused panic among Hispanic families in this southern Mississippi town, where federal agents rounded up nearly 600 plant workers suspected of being in the country illegally.
One worker caught in Monday's sweep at the Howard Industries transformer 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.
The chaotic scene at the plant as the raid began was followed by clapping.
"I was crying the whole time. I didn't know what to do," said Fabiola Pena, 21. "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 those detained 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 workers were transferred to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Jena, La. Nine who were younger than 18 were transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
John Foxworth, an attorney for 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.
The superintendent of the county school district said about half of the district's approximately 160 Hispanic students were absent Tuesday.
Roberto Velez, pastor at Iglesia Cristiana Peniel, where an estimated 30 to 40 percent the 200 parishioners were caught up in the raid, said that's because parents were afraid immigration officials would take them.
Those detained were from Brazil, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru, said Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokeswoman.
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.