Lost in a crowd of weeping immigrants, 7-year-old Gaspar Diego and his two brothers sat on a curb outside the House of Raeford Farms poultry plant Tuesday and waited for their mother to come out.
Matteo Matias, a family friend, said he took Gaspar out of school in hopes that the sight of the children at the plant would convince immigration agents to free their mother
“They need to release her,” Matias said. “Their father is in Guatemala. They have no one else. I don't know what will happen to them.”
In one morning, the rumors and dread that had accumulated for months among plant workers came true. About 300 workers were arrested as the morning shift arrived to replace night workers. Fifty-eight were later released for humanitarian reasons, such as illnesses or caring for children.
Never miss a local story.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept into the plant at about 9 a.m. Gaspar Domingo, whose four neighbors were arrested, said he was outside his apartment near the plant when a line of about 50 cars and vans, some with blue lights flashing, sped by.
Domingo called a friend inside the plant to warn him of a possible raid.
“Don't worry, we are fine,” the plant worker said, but paused.
“I then heard screaming,” Domingo said. “When I called back 10 minutes later, no one answered.”
Inside the plant, panicked workers screamed and ran through the halls.
Samuel Lorenzo, a 38-year-old native of Guatemala, arrived at the plant soon after the raid began, when his panicked cousin called from inside. He said some immigration agents were positioned on the plant's roof, looking for those who tried to escape.
The arrests created a wave of panic throughout the community, where many are from the same region of Guatemala.
Two hours after the raid began, 30 to 40 family members huddled in clusters outside the plant's gates. Some talked on cell phones, trying to find relatives. Many worried about children whose parents were arrested.
Francisco Baltazar Matteo, 35, held his 6-month-old daughter, Leticia, as he waited for information about his wife, Isabel, 31. She was being held inside the plant.
“They took my wife,” he said. “I'm very sad, I'm very nervous, I don't know what is going to happen. I don't know what to do.”
Hector Melendez, 39, a community leader, estimated that about 200 Guatemalans, many of them women with children, were detained. At least two were nursing mothers, he said.
“We need to figure out how to help these children,” Melendez said. “A lot of children will be suffering. What is going to happen to them? Are they going to take them to DSS?”
Federal officials said juveniles in the country illegally, who could not be released to the custody of an adult, will be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cares for “unaccompanied” children until they are reunited with family members or sponsors, or are deported.
Plant workers who were not arrested were too afraid to go to day care centers to pick up their children after work, said a former supervisor at the plant who did not want to be identified. Local attorneys, she said, were charging $100 to pick up the kids themselves after parents had given written approval.
“There are no words that can console the people,” said the Rev. Abel Diaz of Iglesia Baptista Hispano. “There is so much suffering happening.”
Diaz estimated that about half the 80 members of his church had been arrested. On Tuesday afternoon, he visited the homes of those arrested to help collect their belongings.
One of his members said: “We're not going to return.”