Hundreds rally for jailed New Bedford workers

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Hundreds of people from Massachusetts and Rhode Island rallied here March 17 in support of 361 undocumented workers who were arrested in a government raid earlier this month at a New Bedford garment factory.

Organized under the slogan, “Where is my mother?” the event highlighted the plight of the workers’ families.

Some participants came from as far away as western Massachusetts, traveling for up to three hours through snow and ice left over from a storm the day before. The rally site was shifted from the city’s federal building to indoors at the New Bedford Vocational High School because of the blizzard.

The program opened with prayers from a Mayan elder identified as Grandfather Nicholas and the Rev. Richard Wilson of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at St. James Church. Grandfather Nicholas’ prayer called for peace for “all the inhabitants of this earth.” In his prayer, Father Wilson noted that “people of all faiths and nonbelievers” have rallied around the cause of the undocumented immigrants and their families.

The prayers were followed by the assembly’s chanting of “The people united will never be defeated” in Spanish and the playing of the Chilean song of the same name, which served as the anthem of Chile’s left-wing Popular Unity government in the early 1970s.

Corinn Williams, head of the Community Economic Development Center, recapped the events of March 6, the day of the raid, although she was heckled for a time by a member of the audience. The heckler was removed by the police when rally participants started chanting, drowning out her shouts.

Williams called on those present to give humanitarian aid, whether it be in the form of time or money, or to “just make phone calls” in support of the affected families. Referring to the raids, she said, “This can be stopped if only our president and Congress would just fix our immigration system.”

The crowd was visibly moved as a woman with small children described her situation after her husband was arrested at the Michael Bianco, Inc., factory. She was followed by another immigrant, identified only as José. He said his wife was jailed in Texas after being arrested in New Bedford. José called on the press to continue reporting on the plight of the families of the detained.

Howard Maery from Fall River spoke for United Interfaith Action, a coalition of religious institutions in the area. He called on the people to “work together for a policy that promotes justice and protects the powerless” as the basis for immigration reform.

Also speaking was Juan García of the Immigrants in Action Committee at St. Teresa’s Church in Providence, R.I. García had just returned from Guatemala, where he took part in protests against President Bush during his Latin American tour. During the tour, Bush tried to bolster the image of the U.S. in the region, where a popular upsurge has elected several progressive, left-oriented governments in recent years.

Speaking on behalf of organized labor, José A. Soler, director of the Labor Education Center at the University of Massachusetts-North Dartmouth, put forth the position of the AFL-CIO on immigration reform. Soler, who is also a leader of the local central labor council, noted, “The women and men that were working in the factory that was raided were working under deplorable conditions, yet apart from some fleeting statements, the federal government has paid absolutely no attention to that.”

He ironically remarked that the workers were being punished for being exploited.

Interrupted a number of times with applause during his presentation, Soler criticized the Bush administration’s call for a guest worker program and called for new immigration reform “with laws that focus on worker rights, not just providing employers with a steady stream of workers that have no rights, that are exploitable through temporary worker programs.”

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