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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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.