Public fury on jailing of garment workers: Govt raids traumatize families

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Shock and anger swept through Massachusetts after agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided Michael Bianco, Inc., on March 6, arresting 361 undocumented workers, mostly mothers, and leaving hundreds of children traumatized.

Activists and immigrant rights groups immediately called on the governor and the state’s congressional delegation to intervene so that families would not be separated. Churches, political and civic organizations, as well as the press took up that cry.

Calling the raid “a humanitarian crisis,” Gov. Deval Patrick blasted the Department of Homeland Security after news surfaced that immigration officials sent planeloads of those arrested to detention centers in Texas, Florida and other places, far from their families. Patrick, who met with detainees and their families, slammed ICE for splitting up families with no concern for their children.

Days after the raid U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns ordered ICE to stop sending the detained workers out of state. Lawyers for those arrested argued that the Massachusetts federal court district has jurisdiction over all the workers detained regardless of where ICE has transferred them. Harvey Kaplan, one of the lawyers representing the workers and their families, said, “The immigration authorities already conceded that they had spirited away people who should have remained in this jurisdiction. ICE acted in bad faith, and this federal district needs to get all our people back here to Massachusetts.”

After meeting with those workers released and the families of others still detained, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, demanding that everyone arrested be returned to Massachusetts. Kennedy also demanded that names of the arrested and their whereabouts be made public so that families can get in contact with them.

Teodora Tejeda, whose father was a U.S. war veteran, said the ICE agents were abusive. She said agents yelled at people if they talked to one another. Tejeda and others had to ask repeatedly before they were allowed to use the bathroom. Tejeda was taken to Fort Devens, a former U.S. Army base 90 miles away. “They finally gave us something to eat — a sandwich and water,” she said.

Tejeda, from Honduras, said that most of the people arrested were from Central America, but that Brazilian, Portuguese and Cambodian workers were also taken. Workers from Ecuador and Poland were also detained.

“People came rushing in towards my area,” said Norma Urbino. “They told us to shut the machines and to stay calm. I thought there was a fire,” said Urbino, who worked at the far end of the factory. “We were glued to our seats because there was nowhere to go. The company kept all the doors locked.”

Urbino, also from Honduras, was one of many mothers arrested. She was one of the lucky few released that afternoon along with pregnant women and minors working at the factory. “I told them I have little children and no one to care for them,” she said.

Irma Moreno, a mother with permanent residency status, held her three-month-old baby and told this reporter, “I don’t know where my husband is. They held him in Rhode Island, now they’ve taken him someplace else.” Moreno said the Rhode Island detention center confirmed her husband was moved but had no information where. Others are in the same predicament.

One man, with tears in his eyes, was trying to get information about his son who just turned 18 and is being held in Texas. The man’s daughter was also arrested and taken to the Bristol County jail where reportedly 90 to 100 workers are detained. Because this father is himself undocumented, he is afraid to call the authorities about his children’s whereabouts.

Many are denouncing the Bush administration for the recent nationwide increase in immigration raids. María Elena Letona, of Centro Presente in Cambridge, said at a press conference after the raids that there have been “13,000 arrests in the last nine months.”

A letter from 120 community, labor and church leaders as well as public officials was presented to Bruce Chadbourne, ICE district director in Boston, demanding “the immediate release of all workers detained,” with full access to legal representation, and “a moratorium on the raids.”

Gov. Patrick set up a toll-free hotline number so that families can try to find their loved ones. One mother, a sole provider, was released after her seven-year-old child called the number to report her missing from home.

State Sen. Jarrett Barrios, a Cuban American, told the World a relief effort was being set up to provide financial help, food and clothing for the families. The effort through the MIRA Coalition plans on raising $250,000, none of which will be used for overhead of MIRA or the agencies helping the traumatized families. “Tell your readers to go to to help,” Barrios said.

jacruz @ Elsa Maldonado contributed to this story.