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Dozens of children in state custody after immigration raid

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. --Dozens of young children were stranded at schools and with baby sitters after their parents were rounded up by federal authorities who raided a leather goods maker suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, authorities said Wednesday.

Gov. Deval Patrick said the children of the detainees -- most of whom are from Guatemala and El Salvador -- might not be receiving proper care. However, federal immigration officials insisted they coordinated with state social service agencies in advance to prepare for child care.

"We are particularly concerned about the Guatemalan community and the risk that they may be fearful about disclosing the existence or whereabouts of their children given their history with government agencies," Patrick wrote in a letter asking U.S. Rep. William Delahunt to ensure federal authorities allow social workers access to the detainees.

Immigration officials said 327 of the 500 employees of Michael Bianco Inc., mostly women, were detained Tuesday for possible deportation as illegal aliens.

Delahunt contacted federal officials and later Wednesday said he was told state workers would be allowed to interview two dozen people being held at the former Fort Devens military base. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., also weighed in on the matter with federal officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner.

About 100 children were stuck with baby sitters, caretakers and others, said Corinn Williams, director of the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts.

"We're continuing to get stories today about infants that were left behind," she said. "It's been a widespread humanitarian crisis here in New Bedford."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said no children were stranded and that authorities released 60 detainees for humanitarian reasons, most related to child care issues. Spokesman Marc Raimondi said the agency coordinated with the state officials on Monday afternoon, and those still in custody were given the option of letting their children stay with a guardian or putting them in state care.

"We had an agreement in place," he said. "We are not aware of anyone who had any children that weren't being cared for."

Social service officials said they were working with local officials and community activists to help families. The department matched 35 children to families affected by the raid, authorities said.

Carlos Miranda said his girlfriend, Marisela Inestroza, was detained because she didn't have a proper work permit. The woman was released Wednesday afternoon, said Ali Noorani, of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

While Inestroza was being held, Miranda cared for their 9-month old daughter, who tried to breastfeed from him when he held her, he said.

"If you feel you don't want us here, just deport us and let us go," the Honduras native said through an interpreter.

In the raid, company owner Francesco Insolia, 50, and three top managers were arrested. A fifth person was arrested on charges of helping workers obtain fake identification.

Authorities allege Insolia oversaw sweatshop conditions so he could meet the demands of $91 million in U.S. military contracts to make products including safety vests and lightweight backpacks.

Investigators said the workers toiled in dingy conditions and faced onerous fines, such as a $20 charge for talking while working and spending more than two minutes in the bathroom.

"The whole story will come out, and at that point it will be a very different scenario," said Insolia's lawyer, Inga Bernstein.

An Army spokesman did not return a call seeking comment about the status of the company's contracts.

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Associated Press Writer Jay Lindsay contributed to this report from Boston.

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