When federal agents swooped down on an electrical transformer plant in Lauren, Miss., this week, seizing 595 immigrants, the scene resembled a paramilitary operation: sealed exits, workers shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles.
The dramatic raid -- the nation's biggest in a search for evidence of identity theft, Social Security fraud and individuals living illegally in the United States -- sent echoes throughout the town of 20,000 and beyond.
"They've 'Postvilled' again," said Erik Camayd-Freixas, a federal translator who witnessed the second-biggest immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, in May when 389 were arrested at a kosher meat processing plant.
Three months later, Postville is a "ghost town," according to Camayd-Freixas, having lost one-quarter of its 2,300 population. Agriprocessors Inc., the plant, runs at half-capacity, lunch counters are empty and property values have plummeted in an already strained economy.
In the last two years, raids have intensified in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has publicly said he will enforce laws on the books, not ignore them.
The result has been felt in towns like Laurel and Postville, which have lost workers, taxpayers, tenants and businesses.
Officials point to a slight downturn in people sneaking across the border, but there is still no solution to the nation's immigration crisis. And in a contentious election year, both presidential candidates treat the issue like a political hot potato.
"Enforcement belongs at the border and not at the American heartland, because there is immense collateral damage on American citizens and communities like Laurel and Postville," said Freixas. "It brings out the best and worst of humanity."
Paula, an undocumented Mexican who did not want her last name to be used, described the terror among immigrants at Monday's raid at Laurel's Howard Industries Inc.
By 8 a.m., supervisors told workers that a "hurricane was coming," she told ABCNews.com, and people started to move away from their work sites. "We couldn't do anything."
"We looked like animals," Paula, a mother of a 9-month-old and a 2-year-old, said in Spanish. "They surrounded us in front, all around. We were all in one place. It was so awful the way they locked us up together."
The 32-year-old said the workers were threatened, and some were kicked and pushed as helicopters flew overhead. Agents taunted them, saying, "We must have looked like ducks ? swimming" to America, according to Paula, who has lived in Mississippi for 10 years and has no idea what she will happen if she is deported.
"We work because we have to, not for any other reason," she said.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a union member at the factory was helping the government build its case against the employer. Legal workers cheered as immigrants were herded out in manacles, witnesses said.
"There's been a steady increase in the raids," said ICE spokesman Richard Rocha. "We focus on egregious employers who are in violation of the law and people who are in the country illegally, regardless of their nationality," he told ABCNews.com.
"I definitely think it's working," Rocha said. "There is a culture of compliance with more employers coming and asking how they can ensure legal workers."
Rocha said ICE "goes above and beyond" to make sure dependent children are not left without parents.