Nearly 600 undocumented workers were rounded up Aug. 25 by federal agents in the small town of Laurel, Miss., the largest single workplace raid in U.S. history.

According to news reports, 595 workers were detained at the Howard Industries electrical transformer plant, with some forced to stay at the factory overnight.

About 100 of those arrested were released for “humanitarian reasons,” most of them mothers who were strapped with electronic monitoring bracelets and allowed to return to their children.

Those detained were from Brazil, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Peru.

Some 475 were taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Jena, La., and about nine under age 18 were put in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Eight appeared in federal court the day after the sweep and face criminal charges for allegedly using false Social Security and residency identification.

Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance (MIRA), based in Jackson, Miss., met with 100 of the workers and their families in Laurel after the raid. Some of the workers showed up with ankle monitors strapped on, Chandler said in a phone interview.

“As far as we know nobody has been charged with anything yet,” said Chandler, referring to the hundreds of workers who were transported to the Jena holding facility. “That’s the major question.” His group has a legal team looking into the matter. “We suspect they are scaring the workers detained to sign documents they should not be signing,” he said, adding, “We still need pro-bono immigration attorneys to come here and help.”

Chandler said the workers were completely terrified by the raid and families were traumatized, including children who were left at school with teachers.

“It’s ironic that we have a Department of Homeland Security that supposedly fights against terrorism, yet it continues to inflict terror on the poor families of undocumented workers,” he said.

Immigration agents were seen arriving in Mississippi weeks before the raid, according to Chandler. He said MIRA members saw federal officials at hotels and restaurants in Hattiesburg, which is 35 miles from Laurel.

“Something was going down,” said Chandler. “So we very quickly initiated a ‘know your rights campaign.’ We went door knocking and met with the small Latino businesses and had house meetings after church to inform people what they need to do should they encounter immigration officials at work or at home. On Monday, the day of the raid, we got hundreds of calls from workers.”

The Howard Industries factory, which is owned by a wealthy family, employs about 1,000 workers. It is one of the nation’s top producers of transformers, said Chandler.

The federal agents “just burst into the plant. The workers thought it was a tornado or something and not a raid,” he said.

Chandler said the immigration agents shut down the plant and began segregating the Latino workers from the Black and white workers. “Then they began to interrogate the Latino workers.”

Referring to media reports that white workers cheered the raid, Chandler said, “It’s true that some, not all, of the white workers began to applaud while the undocumented workers were being arrested.”

The union at that factory is International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1317. The local did not return calls for comment on the situation.

Chandler, a 50-year union member and labor activist, noted that Mississippi is an anti-union “right-to-work” state dominated by Republicans who fan anti-immigrant tensions. This context may make some in local unions slow to organize Latino workers, he said, and there might be tension over the issue of undocumented workers. It doesn’t help, he said, when the media spreads divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric in the news.

One of the biggest challenges facing the labor movement is the fight against racism and white supremacy, said Chandler, noting that organizing workers in the Deep South has been considered a tough job. But, he said, “Let me be clear that the national leadership in the labor movement is doing great things to fight against racism in its rank and file membership, especially by working to elect Barack Obama as president.” But in some places the issue of immigration continues to play a divisive role that needs to be addressed, he added.

MIRA was founded in 2000 in an organizing drive among casino workers, said Chandler, and evolved into an advocacy group for immigrant families whose children were being denied entry into local schools because they did not have immigration papers. MIRA’s current board of directors consists of a coalition of state officials, faith-based, labor and community leaders.

“Most of us on the board of MIRA have a long history of working together on workers’ rights issues,” said Chandler. “Our mission is to connect the immigrant rights struggle and the general Latino community with the broader social justice movement, especially within the African American communities,” he said.

“We all have to work extremely hard to make sure Obama wins in November and elect more Democrats to Congress. The more Democrats we have in power, it will be easier to persuade them to move a more progressive and people’s agenda forward,” including immigration reform and workers’ rights, he added.

The raid in Laurel follows a similar one at a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, in May when nearly 400 workers were arrested. In December 2006, 1,297 were detained at Swift meatpacking plants in Nebraska and five other states. The pace of workplace immigration raids has ratcheted up, with more than 4,000 people nationwide have been arrested in workplace raids since October of last year. It has spurred a growing mass movement to demand a halt to the raids, and immigration reform that guarantees human and worker rights with a path to citizenship for immigrant workers.

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