Deported find little back home
New Bedford raid left many adrift
XICALCAL, Guatemala - For years, the only people in this valley were those too old or too young to make the trip to the United States. Now the village bustles again with deported workers.
The reason is a raid nearly two years ago and 3,000 miles away. On a bitterly cold March morning in New Bedford, dozens of immigration agents swarmed the Michael Bianco Inc. textile factory on the water's edge and arrested 361 people, mostly Central American women.
The sweep was among the first of more than a dozen showcase raids as the United States cracked down on illegal immigration. Arrests of undocumented workers have risen tenfold since 2003, to 4,077 last year. Fines for employers have jumped from a few dozen companies paying $45,000 in 2003 to 863 facing penalties totaling $30 million.
The Michael Bianco raid signaled the government's new, no-tolerance attitude toward its undocumented population. So far, only 160 former Michael Bianco employees have been sent home. But the raid has had a ripple effect, scaring US employers into policing their work forces.
Thousands of workers found themselves jobless, returning to hometowns struggling to feed returning populations. One of these is Xicalcal, a collection of homes down a dirt road in Guatemala's Mayan highlands.
The area was among the hardest-hit during Guatemala's civil war in the 1980s, and many fled as soldiers and militias killed anyone suspected of being a leftist guerrilla. A few migrants ended up in New Bedford, where the fishing and textile factories rarely asked for work papers.
Over the years, hundreds followed, some paying smugglers as much as $6,000 for the trip.
As money flowed back, Mayan women replaced their hand-embroidered blouses with polyester tops. Crude huts gave way to three-bedroom concrete homes. But mostly the town emptied, homes left half-finished.
In New Bedford, the Guatemalans spent long hours pushing fabric through chattering sewing machines at such companies as Michael Bianco. The factory started out making leather goods for brands such as Coach, and ended up winning $230 million in contracts to produce military gear for the US war in Iraq.
As far back as 2002, the US Social Security administration suspected Michael Bianco might be hiring illegal immigrants. It sent a letter stating that almost a quarter of workers' Social Security numbers did not check out. Similar letters arrived each year.
By 2007, Michael Bianco's payroll had swelled to almost 650. Over two-thirds had disputed Social Security numbers.
On March 6, 2007, armed agents in black flooded the floor and blocked the exits. Workers scattered and hid.
News of the raid was splashed across the evening news in the United States and made headlines in Guatemala.
Rights groups accused agents of leaving children stranded when they arrested parents - allegations Immigration and Customs Enforcement calls baseless.
Nearly two years later, about 200 people are waiting to see whether they can stay. Three teens - unaccompanied minors - got green cards. At least four others won permission to stay.
Last month, Michael Bianco founder Francesco Insolia pleaded guilty to harboring illegal immigrants. He faces up to 18 months in prison. He also agreed to pay workers $850,000 to settle a back pay claim.
Back in Xicalcal, hardly a day passes without a villager returning. Some headed north again. But most are staying.
Victor Garcia, 34, wonders how he will feed his children. At Michael Bianco, he sent home up to $500 a month. Now, he is lucky to earn $6 a day. "I just wanted to work," he said.