Fabiola Pena considered running away from her factory job when she realized she was being targeted in a federal immigration raid. She was deterred when she noticed the helicopters hovering overhead.
But helicopters were not what shocked Pena the most on her last, fateful day at Howard Industries, the largest employer in this small Southern town. It was the black co-workers who clapped and cheered, Pena said, as she and hundreds of other Latino immigrant laborers were arrested and hauled away.
"They said we took their jobs, but I was working from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.," said Pena, 21, a day after the raid last week that resulted in the arrest of nearly 600 suspected illegal immigrants. "I didn't see them working like us."
The raid at Howard Industries, a manufacturer of electrical distribution equipment, was the largest of its kind in many years, and it exposed some of the rawest emotions that fuel the illegal immigration debate.
It was also carried out during a period of political limbo: Polls suggest that for voters, the immigration issue has been eclipsed by the sputtering economy, and neither of the two major presidential candidates has made much of the topic during the election season.
As the Bush administration winds down its tenure in Washington, it has made efforts to step up immigration enforcement, especially after Congress last year failed to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. Since then, thousands of people have been arrested in raids at dozens of facilities in the nation, generating considerable controversy. Immigrant advocates howl over the coarse treatment of suspects and the breakup of families, and anti-immigrant groups laud the raids, which they say allow for long-overdue enforcement of existing laws.
If the next president decides to curtail or end raids similar to the one at the Howard Industries, it will not sit well with many residents of Laurel. The raid was welcomed by a number of native-born residents in this manufacturing hub of about 25,000 people that has been transformed in recent years by the influx of Latino workers, many of whom are undocumented.
"They need to go and do this in every little town," Tonya Jackson said.
Jackson, who is black, said that over the years she had applied numerous times for a job at the locally owned manufacturer, which employs about 4,000 workers. Jackson, 30, said she never received a callback. The raid, she said, was a welcome purge of illegal Latino laborers who had taken jobs they didn't deserve.
"We've been here all our lives," she said. "And it seems like they have just arrived and are getting the nice cars and the good homes."
Her stance puts her at odds with Obama. The Democratic presidential nominee's website describes such raids as "ineffective" measures that have "placed all the burdens of a broken system onto immigrant families."
It is unclear if raids would increase or decrease under a McCain administration. Like Obama, McCain wants to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and beef up border security. (McCain, of late, has emphasized that border security must come first).
But some illegal-immigration opponents worry that the raids and other enforcement efforts will decline once illegal residents are offered a path to citizenship, since the government will be focusing more on accommodating rather than punishing them.
Immigration advocacy groups, meanwhile, are just as worried that McCain, who has tinkered with his views on immigration, would choose to continue the raids.
The crackdown in Laurel upended the new reality here. The old lumber town, about two hours northeast of New Orleans, boasts a few stately mansions and other remnants of a quaint Southern past. More recently, the city has been transformed by taquerias and grocery stores catering to Latino immigrants who came to work at the electrical equipment factory and nearby chicken plants. The town's population in 2000 was about 18,000, according to census figures, but the Latino newcomers have helped swell that number by thousands.
Their arrival created tension in the town, with black and white residents accusing the undocumented workers of taking the few available jobs and depressing wages.
Monday's raid, part of a two-year investigation of Howard Industries, was triggered by a complaint from a union member, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency conducting the inquiry.
Of the 595 people arrested, about 106 were released and fitted with monitoring devices until their trial date. Among them was Pena, who was freed so she could care for her 2-year-old daughter. A number of 17-year-old workers were put into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the remaining workers were taken to a detention center in Jena, La., about four hours away.
Most of the workers were charged with noncriminal immigration violations and faced possible deportation; eight of them faced criminal charges of identity theft.
No managers were arrested in the raid, said Gonzalez, who noted the case remained open. Immigrant advocates often complain that workers bear a disproportionate brunt of the punishment from such raids, whereas the employers are sometimes overlooked.
Howard Industries released a statement the same day the raid took place, saying that the company performs "every check allowed" to determine the immigration status of all applicants.
After the raid, the company put up a billboard on 16th Avenue, the busy commercial thoroughfare on which it resides, that said: "Howard Industries is now hiring!"
The raid, along with rumors of further enforcement actions, has sent a wave of fear through the Latino community. A number of workers have skipped their shifts at the poultry plants. Mexican restaurants refused to open their doors, with one citing an unexplained "plumbing problem" on a sign to customers.
"There ain't a Mexican place open in this town," said Mark Childress, 49, as he went to a taqueria, only to find it closed.
Childress, a Laurel native, said he was not upset by the Latino immigration, but others said they were glad to see it being rolled back. James Warren, 33, worked at Howard Industries for a few months in 2000. But he quit because of the low wages and because he said none of the co-workers during his shift spoke English.
"It was long overdue," Warren said of the raid. "Everybody knew what was going on in there. There weren't a lot of white or black people left in there anymore, it was all Mexicans."
With both presidential candidates pledging to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, Warren said he couldn't imagine the raids continuing for long.
At Peniel Christian Church one night last week, about two dozen Latino immigrants were milling around. Some held hands in a circle and prayed.
A few were waiting for lawyers; others were unaffected by the raid, but too scared to go home. Children ran through the pews, oblivious to their parents' grief.
"These people are not terrorists, communist or criminals," said pastor Roberto Valez, 58, a native of Puerto Rico. "They are here because they are hungry and in search of a better life, and they were caught working."
Pena, the former Howard Industries worker, said that not everyone treated her poorly. Her supervisor, a black woman, consoled her during the raid, she said.
"She even called my mother to let her know what happened," Pena said. "But it was in English and my mother had no idea what she was trying to say."