When federal immigration agents performed a workplace raid at an electronics repair company in Texas this week, they distributed color-coded bracelets. People who they considered authorized to work in the United States received green bracelets. The suspects to be unoccupied were yellow.
It was an emotional scene marked by arrests of more than 280 employees detained by immigration violations – the biggest single job sweeping since 2008, officials said, and most since President Trump took office with a promise of to strike down on illegal immigration.
The operation on Wednesday in Allen, a suburb of Dallas, provoked strong reactions as families ran to the place of raid, gathered demonstrators outside of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office in Dallas, and immigrant advocacy groups condemned the operation to throw the families' lives into turmoil within hours.
The employees arrested, who were predominantly women, welcomed 15 countries, including El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria and Venezuela, according to ICE. The agency said more than half of the workers had been released with orders to appear for a federal immigration judge, but 110 people were left on Thursday.
Katrina W. Berger, head of the agency's Homeland Security Investigations Unit in Dallas, said its focus was on a criminal investigation of the company, the CVE Technology Group. But she said the authorities could not "blind eyes" to the unauthorized workers found there.
The authorities performed a criminal keyword by the company, which renovates and repairs mobile phones and other technology equipment after receiving "many tips" that the company was employed by workers who used false documents, said Mrs Berger.
"Companies that deliberately employ illegal aliens create an unfair advantage over their competing companies," Berger said on a press conference after raid. "They take jobs away from US citizens and legitimate residents, creating an atmosphere ready to exploit an illegal workforce."
On Thursday, hectic families sought help from Raices, a Texas-based organization offering free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, said Felix Villalobos, a lawyer in the organization's Dallas office. He said the group was flooded with requests as many employees were detained.
United We Dream Texas, an organization led by young immigrants, condemned the ICE in a statement on "targeting black and brown immigrant workers". "Within a few hours, hundreds of lives have sprouted in turmoil and anxiety," said the group. "These workers are now in the hands of an agency that is insulting and negligent to the physical and mental well-being of the people they target."
In an email on Thursday, Edward Cho, CEO of the CVE Technology Group, said the company has a strong history of complying with federal immigration and employment legislation.
"We work with the authorities and intend to continue doing so," he said. "We are also focused on providing support to affected employees and their families for whom this is a major disruptive development."
Workplace reports have become more common during Mr. Trump, whose strict enforcement agenda has pushed the people of detained immigrants to the highest levels in history. Homeland Security Investigations opened about 6,850 workplace surveys last year, a leap from around 1700 the year before. Officials also made almost 800 criminal arrests, from around 140 in 2017, according to figures released by ICE in December.
The operations are reminiscent of the senior immigration reports that made headlines during the presidential election in George W. Bush. One of the largest workplace reports in May 2008 resulted in the detention of nearly 400 unrecorded immigrants, including several children, on a Iowa meat package.
About eight million of the nearly 11 million immigrants illegally participating in the US workforce. They account for about 5 percent of all workers, according to the Pew Research Center.
Experts say workplace reports primarily serve as deterrent to employees – deterring workers in the country illegally from appearing in their jobs and warning unconscious immigrants that even if they do so across the border, they can become trapped in the workplace.
Although the assaults can also cause employers to think twice, it has traditionally been difficult for the government to make criminal acts against companies hiring unauthorized immigrants.
A handful of employers face prominent criminal cases in recent years. Last year, after federal agents rounded off about 100 workers at a meat parcel factory in Tennessee, the owner of the company pleaded guilty to the federal law of fraud and uses unauthorized immigrants.
But many companies avoid serious costs because it is often unable to prove that they knew someone was unauthorized to work.
Kathleen Campbell Walker, who is on the board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said that unauthorized immigrants seeking employment can provide false documents and it is up to employers to verify that paperwork is legitimate.
In some cases, she said companies are hiring and recruiting unrecorded workers to try to reduce costs and remain competitive. But there are other situations where companies do not properly assess the documents – or are fooled by realistic errors. "Many employers have no idea of seeing anything that is false," she said.
The law only requires employers to ensure that the documents appear to be valid and federal law prohibits them from requiring certain types of worker identification.
The standard is: "To a reasonable employer, on their face, do they seem to be valid?" Ms. Campbell Walker said.
Immigration officials said the CVE Technology Group had "deliberately" hired unauthorized immigrants. Following a review earlier this year, "many hiring irregularities" found that officials performed a criminal keyword on Wednesday.
The comprehensive and complex operation involved more than 200 law enforcement officials arresting people suspected of being unproven while also working to identify the only caregivers of children and others who should be released quickly on "humanitarian grounds" said Mrs Berger.
Mr. Villalobos of Raices said his group worked to independently confirm what had happened and to reject panic that crumbled among immigrants locally and externally. "Although they do not live near that city," he said, an operation like this can scare families from changing their habits, including their driving patterns.
The families who rushed to the place of raid on Wednesday "were pretty emotional," he said. Some were left waiting for hours or more for their loved ones to be released.
A man told a local television station, WFAA, that his fiance had been detained. They were planning to get married in May, he said, but he feared that she would now be expelled.