Dozens of immigrants pulled over Wednesday in Foxborough during a federal search for fugitives from deportation were on their way to Gillette Stadium to shovel snow before this weekend's New England Patriots playoff game, Guatemala's consul in Rhode Island said today.
The federal operation, possibly the largest involving Guatemalan nationals since the 2007 raid on a leather-goods factory in New Bedford, raises questions about the legal status of temporary workers at one of the state's premier sports complexes, and about the responsibility of companies that hire subcontractors to verify the legal status of their employees.
Stacey James, spokesman for Gillette Stadium and the Patriots, said the stadium hired a contractor to clear the snow from the stands, walkways, and field in preparation for Sunday's big game, and he asserted that company is responsible for making sure that all its workers are here legally.
"We go through a vendor and pay for a workforce to provide a service," he said. "We expect them to vet all employees."
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not confirm that the workers were headed to Gillette Stadium. James said he learned about the federal operation from the media, and said stadium officials contacted the snow-clearing contractor to reaffirm that Gillette expects all workers to be here legally, he said.
He said workers showed up Wednesday and cleared the snow, and he did not know whether they were among those who were stopped and quickly released during the federal action. James declined to name the contractor.
Joe Ureneck, cochairman of Massachusetts Citizens for Immigration Reform, which favors stricter controls on immigration, said Gillette Stadium should ensure that its contractorsí workers are here legally.
"The buck has to stop somewhere," he said. "It would make sense for those who are paying the bills, i.e. Gillette, to use some kind of verification program for their third-party contractors."
Wednesday's road stop was part of a routine Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation seeking specific fugitives who had been ordered deported, including some with criminal records that included domestic violence and driving while intoxicated, said agency spokeswoman Paula Grenier.
Nine men from Guatemala living in Rhode Island were detained and are facing deportation. Seven of them are still being held at Bristol County jail. Five who illegally reentered the country after having been deported are being referred to the US attorney's office for criminal prosecution.
But 49 other people, most of whom are believed to be from Guatemala, were also questioned and released on orders to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the future to determine whether they are here legally.
Carlos Escobedo, Guatemala's consul general in the region, said immigrants caught up in Wednesday's road stop, who are now flooding the consulate with calls for help, appear to be ordinary workers, not criminals. He said he is helping them find legal assistance to determine whether they have the right to stay in the United States.
He said the consulate has not seen such a large enforcement action since the 2007 raid on a factory in New Bedford, which led to 361 arrests. Many of those detained were from Guatemala.
"It's a big number," said Escobedo, who is based in Rhode Island. "It's a number we haven't seen since New Bedford. We're going to help them."
Wednesday's operation ignited criticism among advocates for immigrants, who said it went beyond the search for specific fugitives.
Grenier said the agency's top concern is fighting crime and terrorism, but that agents who encounter possible illegal immigrants in the field are authorized to detain them.
Today, advocates for immigrants said the operation underscored the need for immigration laws to be changed to allow the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to apply for legal status.
Many fled poverty in their homelands to seek a better life in the United States, they said. In Guatemala, almost half of the country lives on less than $2 a day, and the country's infant mortality and illiteracy rates are also among the worst in the hemisphere, according to the US State Department and the World Bank.
"It shows how the immigration system really needs to be fixed," said Franklin Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "Right now there's a two-tier economy happening and people are working in the shadows. What we need is not an attempt to sweep up 12 million people. ... It can't be done."
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