STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Throughout the negotiations on immigration, many on Capitol Hill have called for tighter enforcement of the immigration laws that already exist.
The Bush administration has responded, arresting and detaining and deporting more illegal immigrants, which has produced a backlash in some places where displaced families present their communities with a sudden crisis. That was the message that church leaders and mayors brought to Capitol Hill last week, accompanied by families in distress.
Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: The immigrants and their supporters had wanted a congressional hearing, but it never happened. So they staged a press conference before a panel of child welfare and women's rights groups.
Ms. SANDRA CRUZ(ph): (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: Sandra Cruz spoke while cradling her 15-month-old daughter. Cruz is from Cape Verde, off the West African coast, and was among some 300 immigrants arrested during a raid on a garment factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, last March. Cruz says she was handcuffed and flown to a detention center in El Paso, Texas.
Ms. CRUZ: (Through translator) And while I was in Texas, I didn't know anything about my daughter because I couldn't talk to anybody. Three days later, when I managed to talk to my brother, my daughter was already sick.
LUDDEN: Several other immigrants described painful separations from children. And church leaders told of how they're struggling to support these families. Sole providers with dependents are often released on humanitarian grounds, but they can't work while they await their deportation hearings.
Tom Selders is mayor of Greeley, Colorado. He says a December raid on a Swift meatpacking plant left some 200 families with no income.
Mayor TOM SELDERS (Greeley, Colorado): Approximately $200,000 generously donated by local churches, Swift & Company, and individuals was distributed to help families purchase food, pay rent and utilities. To this day, needs continue for many of these people but the money has run out.
LUDDEN: In and around Richmond, California, 119 people were arrested in January in a series of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin says only 18 of them had criminal convictions.
Mayor GAYLE MCLAUGHLIN (Richmond, California): I must say, I was shocked and disgusted by the characterization of the undocumented immigrants as criminals and gang bangers, which ICE has used as a pretext, while the overwhelming majority of their sweeps arrested hard-working men, mothers and schoolchildren.
LUDDEN: Demographers say about half of working-age illegal immigrants here have children and most of them are U.S. citizens, born here. Now nonprofit groups are helping these families prepare for the worst. Immigrant parents are signing forms designating who should get custody of their children if they're detained or even deported. Often it's a relative who has legal status.
Jamie Zwieback of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the agency takes great care not to leave children abandoned.
Ms. JAMIE ZWIEBACK (Acting Director, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): When we have an operation that takes place early in the morning and we have people working, we check to find out what time school gets out. So that if we have to process people more quickly we can get those people expedited and really minimize that amount of time.
LUDDEN: Zwieback says ICE does target criminals, but that agents would be remiss if they didn't also arrest others they encounter who were here illegally as well.
Rosemary Jenks is with Numbers USA, which seeks to reduce immigration. She says it's wrong to complain about an agency that's simply enforcing the law.
Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (Director of Government Affairs, Numbers USA): Yes, it is unfortunate for the children to be stuck in the middle. But it is based on the choices of the parents. So if these parents had thought about this issue before they crossed the border illegally, they wouldn't be in this position.
Lexiere Antonio(ph) says he doesn't think Americans appreciate the contributions of illegal immigrants. He and his wife were both arrested during the New Bedford raid. We were exploited every day in that factory, he says, and still we moved this country forward. Now they both face possible deportation.
Mr. LEXIERE ANTONIO: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: I say farewell with pain in my heart, he says, but with the same hope that I came to this country with, to make sure my wife and my son have a better future.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.