Aug. 29, 2008 — -- 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.
Like Paula, about 100 of the workers were released for humanitarian reasons and were fitted with electronic monitoring bracelets and allowed to go home to their children. Many of them are now seeking refuge at the Spanish-speaking church in Laurel, as Hurricane Gustav heads their way.
"I have two children, and I don't have a job," said Paula, who had only been working at the site for three weeks. "I can't leave because I have the bracelet around my ankles. But my children need food, milk, Pampers."
Caught in the maelstrom of national paranoia about illegal immigration and the crackdown on enforcement, immigrants -- legal and illegal -- are paralyzed with fear, say immigration lawyers and church leaders.
Even those who applaud stepped-up enforcement say the raids have ripple effects across the country, crippling local economies, trampling on civil rights and crushing the human spirit.
In April, 280 workers were apprehended at five Pilgrim's Pride plants in five states. Earlier in the year, 114 workers were detained in a raid at Micro Solutions Enterprises in Van Nuys, Calif. Last year, raids on Swift & Co. plants across six states netted 1,297 arrests.
In Laurel, where Howard Industries is the largest employer, stores and restaurants are emptier and some of the trailers where immigrants live were vandalized after they were arrested.
"They took our consumers away, not just our workers," said Roberto Velez, pastor at Inglesia Cristiana Peniel, the church where immigrants are arriving daily.
"All the baby businesses, the rental properties. It's had a big impact on the whole community," he told ABCNews.com. "People are traumatized and hiding under their beds. They don't want to go to work."
A Wal-Mart and other shopping centers have been a "dead zone" since the raids, according to Velez. "It's empty, like going to the desert."
The sweeping raid came as a surprise to school officials, who deal with about 300 immigrant children -- most of them American citizens.
"We had no notification," said Jones County Superintendent of Schools Steve Thrash. "My first concern was for the children's safety. We had people in the Spanish program as interpreters, contacting every parent so when they got home a parent would be there."
The day after the raid, about 100 of the 300 Hispanic children -- most of them American -- were absent from the 8,000-student district, according to Thrash. More had returned the next day when school officials assured parents, "it's safe and we can protect them," he said. "It's tough on the kids."
But Thrash's stance against illegal immigration reflects much of the sentiment across the country: "I have known students of illegals before, and can you believe it's against the law for me to report them? That's a shame."
"The truth is we need workers and that's why 12 million are here," he told ABCNews.com. "We are stuck. There is no option for an unskilled person, no path for them."
Chaney and pro-immigration groups are supporting a moratorium on the raids, which he calls a "draconian way to force the country behind immigration."
"ICE gives the party line that they are enforcing law," he said. "But the real point they make is a political point."
So far, presidential nominees Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have been largely silent on the issue of immigration. But experts say that when small towns lose hundreds of residents overnight, politicians will soon hear about it.
"They have nothing to gain by taking sides on this controversial issue," said federal interpreter Camayd-Freixas, who is a language professor at Florida International University. "But that isn't to say they won't take a stand once elected."
"I am hopeful," he said. "I think they will put a stop to this nonsense."
ABC's Nancy Ayala and researcher Melissa Lenderman contributed to this report.