Amid negotiations between Congress and the White House on a new immigration bill, the Justice Department. has stepped up the arrest and deportation of undocumented workers.
It has caused a backlash in some communities and last week church leaders and mayors came to Capitol Hill asking for a hearing. That didn't happen, so instead they staged a news conference before a panel of child welfare and women's rights groups.
Sandra Cruz from Cape Verde, off the West African coast, addressed the panel while cradling her 15-month-old daughter. Cruz was among 300 immigrants arrested during a raid on a garment factory in New Bedford, Mass., last March.
She said she was handcuffed and flown to a detention center in El Paso, Texas.
"While I was in Texas, I didn't know anything about my daughter because I couldn't talk to anyone," Cruz said.
Several other immigrants described painful separations from children.
Cruz and other sole providers with dependents are typically released on humanitarian grounds, but they can't work while they await their deportation hearings, putting them at the mercy of church leaders and local officials.
Greeley, Colo., Mayor Tom Selders said a December raid on a Swift & Company meat packing plant left about 200 families in his city with no income.
"Approximately $200,000 generously donated by local churches, Swift & Company, and individuals was distributed to help families pay for rent, food and utilities," Selders said. "To this day, needs continue for many of these people but the money has run out."
In and around Richmond, Calif., 119 people were arrested in January in a series of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Richmond Mayor Gail McLaughlin said that although authorities characterized those arrested as "criminals and gang bangers," only 18 had criminal convictions.
"I was shocked and disgusted," she said. "The overwhelming majority of their sweeps arrested hard-working men, mothers and school children."
Demographers say about half of working-age illegal immigrants in the United States have children, most of whom are U.S.-born and therefore citizens. Non-profit 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 deported. Often, that means a relative with legal status.
Jamie Zwieback, of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said the agency is careful not to leave children abandoned.
"When we have an operation that takes place early in the morning, we check to find out what time school gets out (in case) ... we have to process people more quickly," he said.
Rosemary Jenks is with a group called Numbers USA, which seeks to reduce immigration. She said it is wrong to complain about an agency that is simply trying to enforce the law.
"Yes, it is unfortunate for the children to be stuck in the middle," she acknowledges. "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, who was arrested along with his wife in the New Bedford raid, said he doesn't think Americans appreciate the contributions of illegal immigrants.
"We were exploited every day in that factory, and still we moved this country forward," he said.
Now he and his wife face deportation.
"I say farewell with pain in my heart, but with the same hope that I came to this country with — to make sure my wife and my son have a better future," he said.