Massachusetts Deals With The Aftermath Of A Federal Immigration Raid

Thursday, March 8th 2007, 5:37 am
By: News On 6

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) _ Immigrants brought prosperity to New Bedford. They manned its lucrative whaling fleet, ran its textile mills and provided the muscle for the fishing boats that leave here daily for the Atlantic.

But this New England city, which occasionally gives a knowing wink-and-nod at its illegal immigrant population, found itself in turmoil Wednesday, one day after federal agents raided a leather factory and detained more than 300 undocumented workers.

In the aftermath, dozens of young children were stranded at schools and with baby sitters. Anxious fathers learned how to feed infants with bottles. Friends and relatives crowded a church basement to scan a list for names of the missing.

``If you feel you don't want us here, just deport us and let us go,'' said Carlos Miranda, who begged to be reunited just hours before learning his girlfriend was released.

Gov. Deval Patrick said Wednesday that the children of the detainees _ most of whom are from Guatemala and El Salvador _ might not be receiving proper care. However, federal immigration officials insisted they coordinated with state social service agencies in advance to prepare for child care.

``We are particularly concerned about the Guatemalan community and the risk that they may be fearful about disclosing the existence or whereabouts of their children given their history with government agencies,'' Patrick wrote in a letter asking U.S. Rep. William Delahunt to ensure federal authorities allow social workers access to the detainees.

Immigration officials said 327 of the 500 employees of Michael Bianco Inc., mostly women, were detained Tuesday for possible deportation as illegal aliens.

About 100 children were stuck with baby sitters, caretakers and others, said Corinn Williams, director of the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts.

Williams said her center was hearing stories about infants that were left behind. ``It's been a widespread humanitarian crisis here in New Bedford,'' she said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said no children were stranded and that authorities released 60 detainees for humanitarian reasons, most related to child care issues.

Spokesman Marc Raimondi said the agency coordinated with state officials before the raid, and those still in custody were given the option of letting their children stay with a guardian or putting them in state care.

New Bedford has occasionally displayed indifference toward illegal immigration. Local police have publicly promised not to quiz crime victims on their immigration status. Federal agents have raided employers before, but mostly on the waterfront and they rarely detain more than a handful of workers.

``They need to work,'' said Jilmar Lovos, 18, who said his cousin was still detained late Wednesday. ``This country has a lot of work.''

In the raid, company owner Francesco Insolia, 50, and three top managers were arrested. A fifth person was arrested on charges of helping workers obtain fake identification.

Authorities allege Insolia oversaw sweatshop conditions so he could meet the demands of $91 million in U.S. military contracts to such products as safety vests and lightweight backpacks.

Investigators said the workers toiled in dingy conditions and faced onerous fines, such as a $20 charge for talking while working and spending more than two minutes in the bathroom.

``The whole story will come out, and at that point it will be a very different scenario,'' said Insolia's lawyer, Inga Bernstein.

An Army spokesman did not return a call seeking comment about the status of the company's contracts.

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang addressed a meeting of almost 200 people gathered at a Roman Catholic parish Wednesday night to apply for legal help and learn about their family members.

Lang said he's against allowing illegal immigrants to work in his aging mill city, one plagued by chronic unemployment. But his administration was left trying to clean up the logistical mess resulting from the raid.

``What bothers me is the selectivity and unilateralness of taking people who went to work yesterday and moving them out of the area without any real understanding of how it affects their families,'' he said.