United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested an estimated 680 people after raiding seven work sites in six cities across Mississippi on Wednesday (August 7), The Washington Post reports. The secret operation, which officials call the “largest single-state workplace enforcement action in U.S. history,” left a wave of weeping children desperately searching for their parents.

U.S. officials are defending the operation to arrest immigrants of undocumented status, which involved ICE flying 600 agents to Mississippi to raid workplaces. “This was a textbook operation, carried out in a safe manner and done securely,” Matthew Albence, ICE’s acting director, told press. “Officers were able to execute these warrants in a safe fashion.”

Local officials, however, stress that the federal government once again failed to protect the children affected by these raids. From The Post:

The arrests again exposed what state and local officials say is a major shortcoming in ICE procedures for dealing with children, as parents who were caught up in immigration-related enforcement activities while at work were unable to pick their children up from school, day-care centers and elsewhere, leaving some of them deserted and scared.

In Forest, Mississippi, local news reporters broadcast images of children huddled on the floor of a gymnasium on Wednesday evening because they returned home from school to find no one was there to take care of them. In other Mississippi towns, children had to be taken in by neighbors after they walked home from school but were locked out because their parents were detained in the raids. 

Lea Anne Brandon, a spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, told The Post that her agency was not notified about the raids. “It is frustrating because we have resources on the ground, trained, ready and licensed to respond to emergency situations,” she said. “We could have provided services that instead appeared to be put together in a makeshift fashion.”

Tony McGee, superintendent of the Scott County School District, which was involved in several of the raids, told The Post that his school system had roughly 35 children whose parents were arrested. “We started working hard to make sure every kid had an opportunity or a safe place to go home last night, and we didn’t have any children left at school,” he said. McGee also noted that members of heavily Latinx communities remain fearful of what will happen next. 

According to The Post:

About 15 percent of the district’s 4,300 students are Hispanic or Latino, and 154 of those students stayed home from school Thursday, he added. Teachers, counselors and administrators spent the afternoon making phone calls and going door-to-door to try to convince families that it is safe to go to school.

The National Education Association and the Mississippi Association of Educators released a joint statement slamming the ICE raids. “The trauma these students are enduring is inconceivable,” the statement said. “The effect the raids will have on their long-term mental and emotional health is profound.”

Roughly half of the people arrested in the ICE raids were released by Thursday (August 8), with officials acknowledging they did not pose a threat to the public.