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PHOENIX (Reuters) - U.S. immigration agents have arrested 595 people at a Mississippi factory in what was the largest workplace enforcement raid in the United States to date, an immigration official said on Tuesday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said federal agents arrested the workers in a raid at the Howard Industries Inc. factory in Laurel, Miss, on Monday,
"This is the largest targeted workplace enforcement operation we have carried out in the United States to date," Gonzalez told Reuters by telephone.
The swoop at the plant, which makes electrical equipment including transformers, was part of an ongoing crackdown on identity theft and fraudulent use of Social Security numbers by illegal immigrants.
Those arrested included citizens of Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Brazil and one from Germany, ICE said in a press release.
The detainees were interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed by ICE agents, and processed for deportation from the United States.
Gonzalez said 475 detainees were transferred to an ICE detention facility in Jena, Louisiana, while nine unaccompanied minors -- eight males and one female -- were placed in the custody of the office of refugee resettlement.
A further 106 people were released based on "humanitarian concerns," Gonzalez said.
The raid comes amid a toughening stance toward illegal immigrants in the United States, where some 12 million live and work in the shadows.
Since October 1 last year, more than 4,000 people have been nabbed in stepped-up enforcement raids across the country.
In the largest previous sweep by ICE at Agriprocessors Inc, a kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa in May, 390 people were arrested. Many were subsequently held for months on charges relating to document fraud and identity theft.
Immigration activists said the raid in Laurel had left an unknown number of children without one or both of their parents and many Hispanic residents afraid to leave their homes.
"We have seen several situations where both breadwinners, the mother and the father, have been detained," Bill Chandler, the executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants' Rights Alliance said in a telephone interview.
"If you have young children going to school, and they come home and find their parents gone, that is a major crisis," he added.
Chandler said the organization had a team helping affected families in the city of 65,000 residents, as well as lawyers working with detainees held in the sweep.
"People are very, very fearful," Chandler said. "People in the Latino community are afraid to go out of their homes. In many cases they are afraid to go to work."
Reporting by Tim Gaynor, editing by Anthony Boadle