STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
People in Mississippi are used to dealing with natural disasters, like hurricanes and floods. Three months ago, small towns across the state went through a different kind of upheaval, something manmade, something they were not prepared for. Ari Shapiro, the co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, visited Morton, Miss., to look at how the community is adapting.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The student body of Morton Elementary is as diverse as any school I've ever visited. Lots of the Latino kids here have parents who moved to the area to work at a chicken plant nearby. This year, August 7 was the second day of school. As Superintendent Tony McGee drove across town that morning, he saw something unusual outside one of the plants.
TONY MCGEE: I noticed that there was some activity there with some law enforcement. I actually called one of our assistant superintendents because it's relatively close to the school.
SHAPIRO: He was watching the biggest workplace immigration raid ever in a single state. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 680 people at seven plants across Mississippi. In Morton alone, more than 340 were arrested. And this is a town of just over 3,000 people.
MCGEE: You know, we have plans for tornadoes. We have plans for fire. We have schools practice nowadays for active shooters. We have all that. But, you know, ICE raid is not one that is really on the radar.
SHAPIRO: From the perspective of the school system, did it feel like responding to a natural disaster like a tornado?
MCGEE: Well, it does. I mean, we've had a lot of communities contact us since this happened, and a lot of communities are putting together a plan for this very thing. How do you handle that?
SHAPIRO: Almost a quarter of the kids here are Latino. A 17-year-old who we'll call Luis (ph) because of his family's immigration status had just started his senior year.
LUIS: My grandmother, she went to school. She checked me out, and that is not normal. So I was like, what happened? And she didn't want to tell me.
SHAPIRO: She didn't want to tell you that there had been an ICE raid.
LUIS: Yeah. She started crying, so I know something was wrong.
SHAPIRO: His parents were both working at the plant when the ICE agents started arresting people. We're referring to his mother as Maria (ph).
MARIA: (Through interpreter) I didn't know what was going to happen with my kids because I've seen kids locked up. That was my biggest fear.
SHAPIRO: Maria and her husband are prohibited from working while they await a court date.
MARIA: (Through interpreter) I'm desperate not being able to work. Our future is totally up in the air.
SHAPIRO: While the family feels like victims, law enforcement sees them as perpetrators. In Jackson, I sat down with U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst. He was involved in the investigation for 18 months leading up to the raids. His office is now prosecuting more than 100 of the immigrants picked up in August for crimes ranging from stealing Americans' identities to falsifying immigration documents. He says the experience of children in Morton was unfortunate but unavoidable.
MIKE HURST: Anytime I see a child or a family who are adversely affected by their family member's criminal actions, it concerns me. It bothers me. But at the end of the day, we have laws on the books, and so our job is to enforce those laws.
SHAPIRO: The sheriff was angry he wasn't notified. School superintendents we talked to felt the same way. Do you think more could have been done to bring in local officials?
HURST: Well, I think in any time you execute criminal search warrants, you have to be completely secret.
SHAPIRO: No company executives have been arrested, and Koch Foods, the company that owns the largest processing plant in Morton, didn't respond to our interview request. The U.S. attorney, Hurst, says the investigation is ongoing. From the day of the raids, the community has rallied behind immigrant families. All over town, you find the kind of relief efforts you might see after a natural disaster.
SHAPIRO: The Morton United Methodist Church is paying people's bills. Maria brought in a handful of them last Monday.
MARIA: (Through interpreter) I came to pay my bills, gas, electric and water.
SHAPIRO: For the last three months, the church has been collecting donations to pay these bills, $100,000 so far. Sheila Cumbest is the pastor.
SHEILA CUMBEST: The poor are the poor, no matter what their race is or legal status.
SHAPIRO: She started this job three weeks before the raids. And she says the early days felt like the work she did after Hurricane Katrina.
CUMBEST: It's not the same because you can't just put a blue tarp on a roof and have people OK, you know? But it was much like a natural disaster. We did the very same things we would have done in a natural disaster as far as emergency, find out where everybody is. Are they safe?
SHAPIRO: Except natural disasters cannot be controlled or predicted, and they come out of nowhere. This was something that the government decided to do.
CUMBEST: True, true, but we didn't know it. I mean, it was a natural - felt like a natural disaster to us because we had no idea it was coming.
SHAPIRO: At first, she thought this relief effort would last about six months. Now she says it seems like it will be a lot longer.
INSKEEP: That's our colleague, Ari Shapiro of All Things Considered. This afternoon, he reports on how the city of Morton has changed since the raids three months ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.