New Bedford Crackdown on Undocumented Workers




I

t was months in the planning and over in minutes: 600 agents of Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stormed a New Bedford, Massachusetts leather
manufacturer in the early hours of March 6, 2007 and arrested the company’s
owner and three managers on charges they hired illegal workers to fulfill
millions of dollars in U.S. military contracts. Also netted in the sweep
at Michael Bianco, Inc. (MBI) were 361 undocumented employees, mostly female,
many the mothers of small children. 


All but 60 of the workers were booked and flown to federal detention facilities
in Texas; the rest are being held in Massachusetts. Despite ICE’s insistence
that it took “extraordinary steps to ensure that no child was separated
from his or her primary caregiver,” between 150-200 children, some nursing
infants, were left with relatives, at daycare centers, and even with total
strangers like landlords. Attorneys working pro bono are currently battling
the government in court to have the workers reunited with their families. 


“It’s been a widespread humanitarian crisis here in New Bedford,” said
Corinn Williams, who heads the city’s Community Economic Development Center
(CEDC). Governor Deval Patrick and Senators Kerry and Kennedy expressed
outrage at ICE’s heavy- handed tactics and promised a Congressional investigation.
Implying those arrested were victims of a failed U.S. immigration policy,
Kerry said: “Some of them have been here for 13 or 14 years. Whose fault
is it that 13 or 14 years have gone by and there is no comprehensive immigration
reform yet?” Kennedy had even harsher words for ICE. Speaking in New Bedford
after meeting with families March 11, he said, “I don’t want to go back
to the Senate and hear from Administration officials about family values
when what we have seen here is the tearing apart of families…. The Immigration
Service performed disgracefully.” 


The aggressiveness of the raid and the speed with which federal officials
flew more than half the workers 2,400 miles to Texas drew criticism in
the U.S. and in Guatemala, where the raid and its aftermath dominated the
news. Many of those arrested are Guatemalan; the rest Salvadoran and Honduran.
On March 12 in Guatemala City, a surprised President Bush faced angry demonstrators
and even a rebuke from his host, President Oscar Berger. As quoted in the

New York Times

, March 13, Bush disputed “conspiracies” that children had
been separated from their families. “

No es la verdad

,” he said. “That’s
not the way America operates…. We believe in families and we’ll treat people
with dignity.” But he added, “the United States will enforce our laws.” 


As shock waves washed over New Bedford, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at
St. James Church quickly became a collection and distribution point for
clothing and food, as well as a place for families to gather and meet with
social service workers, consulate officials, and others. Donations poured
in and volunteers like Judith Sousa and Anita Perez put order to the chaos,
ensuring that gifts intended for families of those arrested would reach
those families. But relief efforts have also been hampered by widespread
fear. Mary Mitchell Hodkinson, a member with Sousa of Holy Name Parish
in nearby Fall River, described trying to locate families and get resources
to them: “The raid terrified Hispanic families. When we try to deliver
food, they sometimes won’t answer the door.” 

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“These families really are underground,” said Bruce Morell, executive director
of PACE, Inc., a New Bedford community action agency, “and this enforcement
action will drive them further underground. They fear deportation the most—more
than losing their jobs.” Craig Dutra, whose organization, the Community
Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts, set up a relief fund with the
Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), agreed with
Morell. “This is going to drive people back into the shadows and make them
much more vulnerable.” 


Reverend Wilson, pastor of St. James Church, says about 40 percent of his
congregation is Hispanic and daily masses are held in Spanish. “What happened
is very sad,” he said, “but it has brought many people together in an outpouring
of support and sympathy for the families. That is very positive.” New Bedford
comprises a sizeable Mayan population of immigrants who fled the “scorched
earth” massacres in Guatemala. Most of the Guatemalans arrested speak Quiche,
not Spanish or English. That language barrier left some confused during
the booking process, including signing documents that could waive their
right to a hearing. 


René Moreno, a Mayan community leader who works as an interpreter, attested
to that problem as well as cultural differences. At one of several emotional
news conferences following the raid, Moreno and others pleaded for compassion.
“We have been here since 1998,” he said, pointing to photos of mass graves
on the walls of St. James Church. “Because of this war, I moved…. We are
all Native Americans. We don’t come from the other side of the ocean….
We are all brothers and sisters.” 


Moreno explained that in Mayan culture, household duties are strictly divided:
mothers are responsible for the children. In the hours after the raid,
a steady stream of fathers came to Moreno’s house looking for help with
childcare. Moreno’s wife told them how to change diapers and bottle feed
their babies. “We had six nursing babies who came to my house,” he said. 


Fear of federal agents and a language barrier caused some of those arrested
to give fake names and lie about their children. That made it difficult
for family members to track them or for ICE to release them for humanitarian
reasons. But Ondine Galvez Sniffin, an immigration attorney with Catholic
Social Services, said most detainees don’t trust either ICE agents or DSS
social workers. “To them, she said, DSS means that they may lose their
children. Had they been allowed to speak to attorneys,” she said, “they
would have gotten a greater response.” ICE made it extremely difficult,
she said, for her and other attorneys to access their clients in detention—either
at the factory or at Fort Devens, where they were taken for processing.
ICE spokesperson Marc Raimondi responded that “It is against ICE policy
to open up a crime scene.” 



Finger Pointing 



B

oth Governor Patrick and Mayor Scott W. Lang knew about the raid in advance
and each insists ICE reneged on its agreements to cooperate with the state.
“Had the plan worked out,” said Gov. Patrick, “our expectation was to have
access at the site to individuals being detained. Then we expected to have
access at Fort Devens [about 60 miles from New Bedford]. We didn’t get
that access.” Instead DSS workers had to interview detainees after they
had been flown to Texas, two days after their arrests. Patrick said it
took many phone calls and help from the congressional delegation to get
full access to the immigrants, causing “a considerable amount of calamity.”
 


Between 100 to 200 children in New Bedford were directly affected by the
raid, losing one or both of their parents. One baby was hospitalized for
dehydration after being separated from its nursing mother. So far ICE has
released 36 of the 50 detainees DSS has requested be returned for humanitarian
reasons, mostly to care for young children. ICE has released a total of
90 of the 361 workers arrested March 6 and others have successfully posted
bonds between $1,500 and $2,500 in Massachusetts. Detainees in Texas, however,
are facing bail set at $5,000 to $10,000. Grounds for release of detainees
include health problems and being the sole caregiver for family members. 

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On March 17, over 800 citizens gathered at the New Bedford Vocational

High School in support offamily members suffering from the aftermath of the March 6 ICE raids




Still unresolved is the case of Sonia Elizabeth Jovel-Alvarado, six weeks
pregnant and being held in a Massachusetts jail. DSS has requested her
release because she is “experiencing nausea and pain,” but ICE has rejected
the request because there are “no life-threatening health issues.” Biselda
Aamya Mia, mother of two, is also being held in Massachusetts and Adrianna
Almeida Teixeira, mother of a seven- year-old, is being held in Texas.
In each case, ICE has refused release because the children are in their
fathers’ care. Similarly, ICE has refused to release six fathers of young
children because those children are in their mothers’ care. Many of these
children have medical conditions that range from seizures to heart conditions.
 


Within weeks of the raid, state officials convened in Boston to try to
explain how and why their agencies had failed to protect children, most
of whom are U.S. citizens. Heads of three state agencies testified before
the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities
at the Statehouse March 20 that if federal authorities had taken their
concerns seriously from the beginning, the crisis could have been avoided.
“Children were placed in significant jeopardy as a result of the decision
not to allow us access,” said Harry Spence, commissioner of DSS. “All we
were asking was that the law be enforced in a way that ensured the safety
of the children.” 


According to Spence, in the days and weeks before the raid, ICE agents
requested help with traffic, namely a state police escort from the factory
to Fort Devens, for its busloads of detainees. ICE also wanted New Bedford
police to shut down the roads around the Rodney French Boulevard factory.
What ICE did not want, according to state officials, was any help or advice
in dealing with the families of those arrested. “ICE assured us they had
policies and procedures in place, that they had done this many times,”
said Kevin Burke, secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety. When
they asked for ICE’s written policy on what constituted a “humanitarian
release,” Burke said, ICE agents responded that they had no written policy.
 


Judy Ann Bigby, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services,
called on ICE to establish written humanitarian policies that would apply
to all immigration raids. “Children can be protected from these traumas
if federal procedures include several key steps to assure the safety of
children and other vulnerable populations,” Bigby said. “We did not have
access to detainees to conduct interviews until some parents who should
not have been detained and some minors were flown out of state. The delay
caused unnecessary suffering for many children, their parents, and the
greater community in New Bedford.” 


Contradicting Burke’s, Spence’s, and Bigby’s testimonies is an affidavit
signed March 8 (two days after the raid) by Bruce E. Chadbourne, ICE Field
Office Director. The affidavit states that, “DSS has had all the access
it has asked for in terms of interviewing the Fort Devens detained population.”
Chadbourne further declares “there are at present no unaddressed emergent
childcare situations relating to any of the aliens now in immigration detention
at Ft. Devens as a result of the New Bedford worksite enforcement action.” 



Military Contractor 



A

t a press conference the day of the raid, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan
described conditions at the MBI factory as “horrible.” His “sweatshop”
allegations are the result of an 11-month-long investigation, detailed
in an affidavit. It charges MBI owner Francesco Insolia, payroll manager
Ana Figueroa, plant manager Dilia Costa, and office manager Gloria Melo
with knowingly hiring undocumented workers. Luis Torres was charged in
a separate complaint with providing workers false documents. 


The growth spurt for Insolia’s factory, and its workforce, were Department
of Defense (DOD) contracts worth nearly $100 million. From 2003 to 2007,
MBI’s workforce grew from 85 to more than 500. The U.S. Attorney’s Office
charges the company with knowingly hiring employees with fake Alien Registration
Cards (“green cards”) and Social Security Cards, and even telling prospective
employees, including an undercover ICE agent, how to get fake documents.
One source for those documents was Torres who works in New Bedford. Torres
is charged with supplying the undercover ICE agent with a fake Alien Registration
Card and Social Security Card for $120. 

137006113_DSC_0195





The raid separated parents from children, many of who were born

in the U.S. and are U.S. citizens




Insolia allegedly “intentionally seeks out illegal aliens because they
are more desperate to find employment and are thus more likely to endure
severe workplace conditions he has imposed.” Some of those conditions include:
“docking of pay by 15 minutes for every minute an employee is late; fining
employees $20 for spending more than 2 minutes in the restroom and firing
for a subsequent infraction; providing one roll of toilet paper per restroom
stall per day, typically resulting in the absence of toilet paper after
only 40 minutes each day; fining employees $20 for leaving the work area
before break bell sounds; and fining employees $20 for talking while working
and firing for a subsequent infraction.” 


Immediately after the sweep, Insolia released a statement that read: “The
comments about working conditions and treatment of workers are simply untrue.
We have operated our factories since 1985 with no complaints about cleanliness,
working conditions and treatment of workers. We have always paid our workers
the state-mandated minimum wage or above and offered employer-matched healthcare
benefits, paid holidays and vacations, and other benefits.” 


He also hired the Boston firm of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications
to videotape MBI workers at their sewing machines. In the video, workers,
including a supervisor, deny the factory is a “sweatshop.” A seamstress
identified as Dorothy Medeiros says, “A lot of stuff they’re saying on
the outside, they’re all lies.” In all, three workers at the plant— Carlos
Perez, Dorothy Mederios, and Maria Mederios —deny the U.S. Attorney’s charges.
Speaking directly to the camera, Insolia insists, “Quality has always been
our first and foremost concern. Nobody has ever been pushed to do production,
production, production. We always have been patient, make a good product,
take your time.” 


Insolia started MBI in 1985, making fine leather goods. As the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq geared up, he began bidding on military contracts
in 2001 and 2002. The catalyst for MBI’s rapid expansion was the army’s
need for backpacks called Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment or
MOLLE. In 2004, Michael Bianco won a contract to produce MOLLE worth $83.6
million. The company then moved to a larger factory and won a tax break
from the city for $80,000 over 5 years. So far it has saved $53,439. Since
that tax break was meant to create jobs for “qualified New Bedford residents,”
Mayor Lang has vowed to “get every penny back.” 


“The Bianco disgrace,” commented Sen. John Kerry, “seems like a classic
case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. This Administration’s
policy must be to notify all relevant agencies about all investigations.”
In fact, a DOD quality assurance inspector, assigned to monitor military
contractors like MBI, had an office next to Insolia at the plant. But his
only duty, according to Dick Cole, chief of public affairs for the Defense
Contract Mgt. Agency, was to check the quality of the products, not the
company’s workforce. 


“Ironically,” said Cole, “this particular inspector noted that as the workforce
grew…most of the new employees didn’t speak English. “[The inspector] didn’t
report any labor problems because he didn’t know they existed. He was told
by management the Hispanics he saw on the factory floor were hired by an
employment agency.” While the Social Security Administration noticed payroll
problems as early as 2002, it didn’t tell any other agencies because of
privacy laws restricting that information. Sen. Kerry referred to this
situation as “a Katrina-level of incompetence.” 



Reactions 



I

n the weeks following the raid, debate about illegal immigrants and the
treatment of those rounded up inflamed the air waves and local media. Emotions
ran so high that Bob Unger, editor of the


New Bedford Standard-Times

, was
moved to defend his newspaper’s coverage of the raid. In a March 18 editorial,
he wrote: “When people are complaining on both sides about how we have
covered a highly controversial issue, we know we have gotten it about right….
The New Bedford raid will be one of the events that will drive this year’s
congressional debate over immigration reform and…what to do about an estimated
10 or 12 million people who sneaked into this country, mostly to find work.” 

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Many of the detained immigrants are Native Americans
from Central America




Some of the rage directed at the hiring of illegal immigrants at MBI no
doubt reflects the misery quotient of a city with the highest unemployment
rate in Massachusetts. In fact, local residents lined up at the factory,
which never closed following the raid, filling out applications and hoping
for one of the $7.25 an hour jobs as a stitcher. The

Standard-Times

reported
on March 20 that 400 people had applied, but that they were unskilled and
MBI requires workers trained in stitching. MBI has been barred by the DOD
from receiving future contracts. 


Mayor Lang, who knew in advance about the raid in his city, has been caught
in the turmoil of its aftermath. Speaking to the Greater New Bedford Work-
force Investment Board March 21, he said that immigration is a national
problem that must be resolved on the national level. “How do we deal with
15 million people who were allowed to come into this country with a blind
eye? They came here, became part of our social fabric. Our kids played
with them, their kids were born in St. Luke’s Hospital, and all of a sudden
they’re a villain?” He implored his audience to step back and begin to
work together on these issues and called on business owners to take a leadership
role. “The last thing we need,” he said, “is to have New Bedford labeled
an intolerant city.” 


While the mayor of New Bedford pleads for tolerance, immigrants and their
legal advocates argue that current U.S. law gives poor Central Americans
few legal paths to permanent residence. “Most Americans don’t understand
why these immigrants are breaking the law,” said Punam Rogers, an attorney
with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They don’t understand
that there is no category for unskilled workers, like those arrested in
New Bedford, to legally work for Michael Bianco.” Of the 140,000 employment-based
visas the U.S. grants each year, she explained, most are reserved for highly
skilled workers with college degrees. Nonimmigrant visas are limited to
66,000 per year and are meant for seasonal workers in agriculture, landscaping,
and the hospitality industries. They do not provide a path for permanent
residence. 


Of the 361 immigrants detained on March 6, 55 already had orders to be
deported and 11 had been deported at least once before, according to ICE—all
of which highlights their desperate need to stay in the U.S. The Pew Hispanic
Center estimated in 2006 that 12 million people are in the U.S. illegally
or about one in every 20 workers. 


The drama of the New Bedford raid continues to unfold and it could have
a real impact as Congress again grapples with immigration reform. On March
22, Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced the Security
Through Regularized Immigration and Vibrant Economy Act (STRIVE) that would
set guidelines for legalizing the status of illegal immigrants while bolstering
security at the U.S. borders. The bill provides for “earned” legalization
for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, renewable visas for new immigrant
workers, increased border patrol, stricter criminal penalties for evading
border inspections, and easier naturalization for non-citizens in the armed
forces. Like other lawmakers, Gutierrez and Flake favor a guest worker
program that would allow up to 400,000 immigrants to fill jobs that American
workers do not. 


Many lessons can be learned from the New Bedford crackdown about criminalizing
workers who are already part of our communities and about victimizing their
children. And much can be done to prevent it. This year, for example, Rep.
Jose E. Serrano (D-NY) re-introduced the “Child Citizen Protection Act,”
(HR-1176), which would allow immigration judges to rule against deporting
parents “without papers” when it is against the best interest of a child
who is a U.S. citizen. Currently, a judge has no choice but to order that
parent deported. “Deporting the parents of American children is not the
right course for our nation,” says Serrano. “We must do everything in our
power to keep families together and to use common sense in our immigration
laws. Children deserve better than to lose a parent because of an inflexible
law.” 









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Lisa Mullenneaux is a journalist whose work has appeared in major U.S.
and Canadian newspapers and magazines for over 20 years. Photos by Jonathan
McIntosh, caped maskedandarmed.com.