Massachusetts: Crackdown on Undocumented Workers exacerbated by language barrier
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue May 15 14:36:45 UTC 2007
Z Magazine Online, May 2007 Volume 20 Number 5
New Bedford Crackdown on Undocumented Workers Early morning raid triggers
a humanitarian crisis
By Lisa Mullenneaux
It 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 companys 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
ICEs 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.
Its been a widespread humanitarian crisis here in New Bedford, said Corinn
Williams, who heads the citys Community Economic Development Center
(CEDC). Governor Deval Patrick and Senators Kerry and Kennedy expressed
outrage at ICEs 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 dont 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. Thats not the way America operates. We believe in
families and well 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 wont answer the door.
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 mostmore 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.
Ren 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 dont 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 Morenos house looking for help
with childcare. Morenos wife told them how to change diapers and bottle
feed their babies. We had six nursing babies who came to my house, he
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 dont 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 detentioneither 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.
Both 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 didnt
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.
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
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
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 ICEs 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 Burkes, Spences, and Bigbys 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.
At 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 Insolias factory, and its workforce, were Department
of Defense (DOD) contracts worth nearly $100 million. From 2003 to 2007,
MBIs workforce grew from 85 to more than 500. The U.S. Attorneys 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.
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
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
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 theyre saying on the
outside, theyre all lies. In all, three workers at the plant Carlos Perez,
Dorothy Mederios, and Maria Mederios deny the U.S. Attorneys 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 MBIs rapid expansion was the armys 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
Administrations 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 companys workforce.
Ironically, said Cole, this particular inspector noted that as the
workforce grewmost of the new employees didnt speak English. [The
inspector] didnt report any labor problems because he didnt 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 didnt tell
any other agencies because of privacy laws restricting that information.
Sen. Kerry referred to this situation as a Katrina-level of incompetence.
In 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 newspapers 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 years congressional debate over immigration reform
andwhat to do about an estimated 10 or 12 million people who sneaked into
this country, mostly to find work.
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. Lukes Hospital, and all
of a sudden theyre 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 dont understand why
these immigrants are breaking the law, said Punam Rogers, an attorney with
the American Immigration Lawyers Association. They dont 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
ICEall 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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