Saturday, 2:15 PM
More than half of workers detained in New Bedford raid still in US
By Maria Sacchetti, Globe Staff
A year after federal agents arrested 361 illegal workers at a New Bedford leather-goods factory, more than half of the workers are still believed to be in the United States, an outcome that is raising concerns on both sides of the heated immigration debate about the effectiveness of the operation.
After the raid on March 6, 2007, immigration officials vowed to sweep the detainees out of the country. But as of this week, only 165 -- or about 46 percent -- had been deported. The rest are fighting for asylum or visas in immigration court, and one man is still in jail in Texas.
The immigration agency cannot account for the whereabouts of 35 people who were processed and released at the scene the day of the raid, but lawyers believe nearly all of those former workers are also still in the country.
The plodding aftermath of a raid that whiplashed the aging seaport, drew criticism from the state and federal authorities, and captured national attention because some parents and children were separated is prompting new questions about the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's operation at the Michael Bianco factory.
"I think the United States made a plan that didn't work," said Anibal Lucas, an activisit with the Maya K'iche Organization, a group that advocates for Guatemalans of Mayan descent in New Bedford. "It was a loss and waste of money."
Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration, called the delays cause for concern. She said she is unsure who deserves the blame: overwhelmed immigration courts or lawyers clogging up the system with hard-to-win claims.
Detainees in New Bedford benefited from a rare outpouring of support from lawyers and others willing to aid them in their cases, she said.
"I am concerned about the length of time that it's taking," she said. "No matter what the outcome is we should be concerned about that. If the outcome is in their favor, or not in their favor, it's way too long. We ought to be able to provide a swifter resolution to this."
Julie L. Myers, the assistant secretary of homeland security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pointed out that a significant number of immigrants had been deported. She said it was "appropriate" for the others to be fighting to stay in court, as the law allows.
"I certainly understand the frustration, if there's frustration on the American public's part, but that's certainly the immigration court's process and I think it's fair that it plays out," Myers said during a news conference at the Tip O'Neill Federal Building in Boston today. She added that she hoped lawyers weren't giving some immigrants "false hope" that they could eventually stay.
That cold March morning, dozens of federal agents stormed the red-brick factory after hundreds of workers had filed inside -- cutters, sewers, and runners who often worked two shifts making military gear and fine leather goods. For detainees, the memories are still fresh: The sight of immigration agents, the voice over the microphone telling them to stay still, and the view of people running, in vain, to avoid capture.
In the year that followed, detainees who stayed to seek asylum or other ways to stay in this country are confronting an uncertain journey. At home, money has dried up. The food pantry has closed. Work is in short supply, and bills are piling up.
Lawyers for immigrants say they believe dozens of people will qualify for asylum. Interviews with detainees, mostly women, who were born into the decades-long wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, unearthed chilling stories of assaults, rapes, deaths of family members, they said. The detainees came to the United States to work, lawyers said, but many believe that could be eligible because they fled unsafe circumstances in their homelands.
"It's a significant group of people who are going forward on their cases," said lawyer John Willshire Carrera, of Greater Boston Legal Services, who, with Nancy Kelly and Catholic Charities, is leading teams of lawyers on the cases. "This crowd is not running."
Juana Ciprian, a 32-year-old mother who sewed at Bianco, said her family lived in fear of the soldiers and guerrillas during the four-decade-long war that gripped Guatemala. "I didn't have a chance because of that cursed war," she said softly.
But the courts are so busy that many hearings will not be scheduled until next year, so many immigrants are left to survive on their own as they wait.
Ciprian and a handful of other women who didn't want to return to work illegally formed a small sewing cooperative. They pooled their money, and started sewing brightly colored handbags they sell at craft fairs. With fabric bought and donated, and sewing machines provided by lawyers, they sew every day.
"We wanted to try to make it on our own," said Ciprian. As money grew tight, though, three women dropped out. Now they are down to two.
Others went back to work illegally, cleaning houses, working in other factories, and confronting, they say, new forms of exploitation. Already the immigrants are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against Bianco for payment of overtime wages.
A woman in her 30s from a village in El Salvador said she started working a few months ago because her three children were struggling for money. Back home, she had earned $3 a day as a waitress at a restaurant. At Bianco, she earned $8 an hour -- a huge leap.
The money made a huge difference back home, she said. Her children ate several meals a day, including meat. They were able to get healthcare to correct a vision problem that afflicted her oldest.
But after the raid, they were back down to one meal a day and the children, especially the oldest, were at risk of dropping out of school. Plus, she said, she still owes the man who smuggled her across the border part of his $6,000 fee.
At work though, she struggled. After the first check, the company stopped paying her. The same thing happened with the second cleaning job. Now, she is owed at least $2,000, and is working with Cambridge nonprofit Centro Presente to recover the money. In the meantime, she found a new job in food service.
Still, a year later, she views the raid, and its outcome, with disbelief. People are scattered, but some are sneaking back in and others are back to work.
"We were just working," she said. "I donít know why they did that to us."
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