"They treated us as if we were murderers": The trauma of an ICE raid

When ICE agents raided a New Bedford factory, 362 Latinos' lives were upended and the results were devastating

By John Tirman
Published April 5, 2015 8:29PM (EDT)
 (AP/Gregory Bull)
(AP/Gregory Bull)

Adapted from "Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash"

Nothing illustrates the “raid mentality” of immigration enforcement like an actual raid.

Just at the head of Clark’s Cove, along the waterfront where old textile mills and fish factories dot the small peninsula of New Bedford that juts into Buzzards Bay, is an unremarkable four-story red brick factory building that has housed enterprises long forgotten. It is unremarkable because so many buildings of that kind still stand in this legendary whaling town, many of them abandoned once textiles—for years the economic engine of the city—followed whaling’s earlier decline and nearly vanished. In this building, though, textiles were still being sown into vests and backpacks for the US Army, a nice bit of business in struggling New Bedford, coming as it did with a $132 million contract. Owner Francesco Insolia won the contract with help from city and state officials, took an enormous grant from Massachusetts’ Department of Workforce Development when Mitt Romney was governor, and grew to more than 500 employees to produce his army goods in what was widely known to be a sweat shop. A sweat shop with all the trappings—filthy bathrooms, draconian rules for lateness or talking or breaks, earned overtime pay never paid—an altogether substandard workplace. Insolia could do so for several years because his employees were for the most part undocumented workers, immigrants, mainly from Guatemala and El Salvador. They would work hard for Insolia and the US Army and keep their heads down. It was an open secret, of course, because New Bedford is small and jobs were scarce. But for five years Insolia and his company, Michael Bianco Inc., thrived under the nose of the military officials there and the state and city officials who poured job training funds and tax breaks into his coffers.

Then one day it all came crashing down. On a cold morning late in the winter of 2007, more than 300 agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, raided the factory and rousted 362 Guatemalans, Salvadorans and a sprinkling of other south-of-the-border workers. They were handcuffed and manacled, and over the course of the day were taken from where they sat on the factory floor into buses and driven 94 miles to Fort Devens, an Army Reserve base. Many spent several immobilized hours on that floor, feeling brutalized by the federal police, while others attempted to escape, some even jumping into Clark Cove to get away. Among those taken were parents of small children, about a hundred children in all, who were suddenly without parental care. The new governor, Deval Patrick, spurred by the state’s child welfare agency being denied a role in the “processing” after weeks of pleading, called the whole shabby affair “a humanitarian crisis.”

And indeed it was. Within hours, before lawyers could be dispatched to Fort Devens, about half of the arrested workers were flown to Texas (either to Harlingen or to El Paso) to be incarcerated in detention centers run by private contractors for the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s home department. There the possibility of being released, even with an ankle bracelet to monitor movements, was undercut by the lack of “community ties” of the detainees. Months of detention for many of the Michael Bianco workers lay ahead. About 160 would be deported outright.

In New Bedford, the reaction of the workers’ families and friends was panicked. Over the course of the chaotic day, the abandoned children were identified and placed with neighbors and extended family. Many immigrant families, legal or not, hunkered down in the north-side barrio, calling in sick to the other employers—mostly the fish-packing plants—and keeping their children out of school. No one knew what was coming next. But they gathered together almost instinctively at the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the one Catholic church that offered a Spanish mass, which is part of the old St. James Church that was less than a mile from the factory. There, Father Richard Wilson and a number of social workers (including Father Marc Fallon and Corinn Williams) ministered to the shocked community and set up a kind of operations center for lawyers and other public advocates to go to work. Senator Ted Kennedy was there within a few days, as was Governor Patrick. The complex and often confused task was to make sure the children were cared for, the fractured families stable (the loss of one breadwinner being a disaster), then unravel the tortuous detention process and sort out the legalities and the prospects for a release before deportation.

The raid was one of several dozen conducted by ICE around that time, likely a “show of force” for the benefit of those criticizing President Bush for not keeping illegal immigrants out of the country. The attempt to reform immigration laws—to give the out-of-status families a route to citizenship— was colliding with a powerful right-wing backlash against any attempt to reshape the laws. The alternative to reform, or possibly a complement to it, is the raid, whether of the workplace (the most dramatic and visible) or of homes. Raid, arrests, detention, imprisonment, deportation—these constitute the raid mentality. In nearly every major raid, human-rights abuses were reported and many lives ruined for what is in effect no greater an offense than a traffic ticket. The raid sets in motion a process of criminalization that sticks with the immigrant forever, stigmatizes children, and disrupts local economies.

The immigrants themselves see the raid mentality as punitive, intimidating, and even reminiscent of the oppression they had escaped. Assimilation under such circumstances is hindered, at least for one generation, and often more. And while the many raids of the Bush administration were regarded as the high-water mark of the strategy, the numbers of apprehensions and deportations has risen in the Obama years. In 2011, for example, the Department of Homeland Security apprehended 642,000 foreign nationals, three of every four being Mexicans; 400,000 were deported— all-time highs.

For the Latinos of New Bedford, the national debate and Washington politics and ICE statistics were far from their concerns in late winter of 2007. They, and the city, had to cope with the sharp economic, political, and emotional disruption of the raid and its aftermath.

* * *

The raid, as raids do, came suddenly and without warning. One Michael Bianco worker recalled it as follows:

I was inside when they told us to turn the machines off. When I turned to look I saw people running. I thought it was a fire or something, so I ran toward the back exit, but when I looked back I saw Immigration running toward us. There was a helicopter. There were many police. They told us, ‘Don’t run! Don’t run!’ We turned back. They told us to sit on the floor.

I got very nervous and started shaking because a man from Honduras started running in the basement,” she continued, “and seven police surrounded him, they grabbed him at the neck, picked him up and threw him to the floor. They handcuffed him. Then they took us upstairs. They handcuffed us, and pushed us to the floor.

Many people could not sit because our hands were tied … . That was 8 a.m. At around 3 p.m., we asked for water. I saw them bring in many boxes of water. I thought they were for us. I asked an official to give me a little water. Another woman said, ‘Yes, we want water.’ He looked at me and gave me a little bottle of water. He said, ‘You know, don’t put your mouth on it, because many people are going to drink from there.’ That little bottle was shared by about twelve people.

They treated us as if we were murderers.

Many witnesses told stories about the harshness of ICE officers. A woman working in the factory informed ICE that she had a daughter who would not have anyone to care for her if she were in detention, “but they didn’t care,” she later recalled; “they still took me with the group.” “Because some of the women who had young children, who breastfed,” she continued, “[the officers] even made them take the milk from their breasts to see if it was true that they had young children. They even made fun of them. One of them told another to pass an Oreo cookie to eat with milk, that they were milking the cows.”

Others reported similarly harsh treatment. “When I saw that the agents carried guns, I thought they were going to shoot us,” one worker told a public radio reporter. “I thought we were all going to die that day.” Several described the induced panic and the agents’ callous reaction. “We saw these people coming and then when they started saying, ‘Don’t move. Nobody run,’ then we realized immigration was there,” a Salvadoran worker told an interviewer. “They were trying to grab everybody and people just started running like crazy. They panicked, they fell down. You found that they were pursuing people just like you were an animal. Like you would be running after a dog. They’d go after you that way.” He later told an ICE agent that a seven-months-pregnant woman needed some help; the agent refused and replied that he didn’t care. No food or bathroom visits were allowed, and little if any water, for seven hours or more.

“I live near the plant and went there at once before the ICE raid,” recalled Corinn Williams, who directs the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts. “There were helicopters flying overhead and agents everywhere, and a mobile command center across the street. They put up barricades around the plant to keep families away.” The Community Economic Development Center became a nerve center for the lawyers who gradually became involved and others trying to locate the arrested and their loved ones. “All day,” Williams noted, “we heard from families about detainees, like the husband who had medications for his wife, who has seizures.”

Because the whole process of arrest and detention was taking so long and was so opaque, the community activists and family members realized in early afternoon that schools and day-care centers would be releasing children shortly, yet there was no word from federal agents as to who among the parents were detained. So the scene at Our Lady of Guadalupe was fraught with anxiety about the children, about infants without their mothers who were nursing, about older children getting out of school and going to an empty home, and about men suddenly assuming the role of two parents. As Williams pointed out, this was the first major ICE raid in which a majority of detainees were women—and young, child-bearing women at that. Father Fallon was told by ICE that Massachusetts’ Department of Social Services (DSS) had been part of the planning and would make amends, but people at that agency claimed they were “not in the loop” and therefore weren’t prepared.

Bethany Touré, an activist who had been on the scene, recalled that “there wasn’t a lot of outpouring of emotion or crying.” “It was really like vacant looks; vacant stares, kind of almost being in a state of shock,” she said. “This is a people who have been so traumatized before and here is trauma again.” Several of the workers recalled the helicopters as reminding them of military assaults in the highlands of Guatemala or the civil war in El Salvador.

Gradually, the arrested were loaded onto gray, unmarked buses with dark-tinted windows and driven the nearly 100 miles to Fort Devens; none were allowed to speak with family members. “It was like the hunter carting away his prey,” recalls Father Fallon, “returning time and again.” “That day was like the end of the world for me,” said one worker who was eventually deported to Guatemala.

Through the long day of the raid and the confusion and trauma of the days and weeks ahead, the city of New Bedford and its mayor came in for some sharp criticism for their placid cooperation with ICE (Mayor Scott Lang had known of the plans for the raid in advance) and their lack of preparations for the children. Lang blamed others. “Where was the mayor? That’s what we were asking,” Corinn Williams recalled. Ken Hartnett, then recently retired from editing the Standard-Times, the area’s largest newspaper, echoed that years later: “Mayor Lang was terrible. Talk Radio—the Ken Pittman show—was stoking ideas that the Guatemalans were taking jobs and ripping off the system. Lang was on his show weekly, and should have denounced that.” The chief of police was, as one would expect, cooperative with ICE, but had not pursued illegal immigration as an issue for his department before.

Criticism also was directed toward Massachusetts’ new governor, Deval Patrick, a Democrat who had just succeeded Mitt Romney. “Had the plan worked out,” Patrick said at the time, “our expectation was to have access at the site to individuals being detained. Then we expected to have access at Fort Devens. We didn’t get that access.” “Instead,” one reporter explained, “DSS workers had to interview detainees after they had been flown to Texas, two days after their arrests. Patrick said it took many phone calls and help from the congressional delegation to get full access to the immigrants, causing ‘a considerable amount of calamity.’”

Thus, on March 6 the city of New Bedford was broken into fragments. In the south end, on the waterfront, the 300 federal agents were disposing of the 361 arrested Michael Bianco workers, keeping guard over them, denying families access, cordoning off the plant from anyone seeking information or offering to help, and finally loading the workers into the buses. The family members who were not arrested, or had legal status, tried to discover where their loved one was going to be incarcerated; some hung out near the factory in the little coffee shops to get out of the cold, or sought other refuge; some, fearful of wider dragnet, made themselves scarce. Parents or other relatives, neighbors, friends, and community activists tried to take an inventory of the dependent children and brainstorm how to deal with the ones left alone. Lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services and other public-interest groups were scurrying down from Boston. Corinn Williams’ office well north of the Michael Bianco plant became one hub of activity, as the community organizers met to build a strategy and assign tasks.

But the heart of the city moved to a church basement. The workers’ families naturally gravitated to Our Lady of Guadalupe because of its Spanish language mass and the twenty-minute walk from the Michael Bianco factory. Into the austere basement of the church poured the migrant families and a small phalanx of sympathizers, mainly others originally from Central America and several community activists from the churches or welfare agencies. The basement was a veritable operations center within hours of the raid. Later, the lawyers came from Boston, more than 80 of them quickly got involved—“ICE made a mistake conducting a raid close to so many law schools,” Fallon noted wryly. Hundreds of people packed into the basement, most of them distraught, babies and children crying, the meager resources of the nonprofit and faith communities stretched thin but brought to bear into the midnight hours, gathering force as word got around.

Father Richard Wilson, the parish priest, was no stranger to controversy. He had been a former aide to Archbishop Seán O’Malley during the child abuse scandal that rocked the Church. But this was a challenge all the same. His establishing a Spanish mass had alienated old-line Irish and French Canadian parishioners. Now he had a full-blown humanitarian crisis on his hands, one that was politically fraught. The St. James Church had combined three parishes, among them Our Lady of Guadalupe, so already the house of worship that had long been thought of as “the Irish church” was drifting, in the eyes of many, toward becoming Latino. For Father Wilson, then, the raid became a test that drew upon a history of social tensions. He had already lost many of the old Irish parishioners when Our Lady of Guadalupe was founded by Puerto Ricans at St. James, and he couldn’t afford to lose more. “I was at a Sturbridge retreat when our interfaith community organizer used the basement as a staging area,” recalls Wilson. “I was reluctant. I was worried that a backlash would close the parish. I got back from Sturbridge on a school bus at four o’clock the afternoon of the raid. That first night, there were three hundred people here.”

The crisis for the families of arrested workers was twofold—children needing care if both parents were taken off to Fort Devens, and the loss of a wage earner or two. The city’s officials, Father Wilson thought, had been caught unawares by the raid and hadn’t been prepared, and the locals knew little about the state’s rejected plea to include child welfare advocates in the ICE operation. So the panic and potentially chaotic reaction to the raid took several hours to subside to a low roar. By nightfall, community organizers were joined by the lawyers, both of which brought the reassurances, logistical help, and legal acumen to the hard tasks of finding caretakers for children and identifying who had been taken into detention. That night, a lawyer from the Massachusetts Immigrant Rights Association brought a laptop computer and recorded 288 of the names of the detained.

The children who were stranded—between 75 and 150, according to initial accounts—were located and cared for, though doing so was fitful, traumatic, and often improvised by New Bedford citizens. According to the Boston Globe, “Luis Matias came to seek help for the 9-month-old and 3-year-old daughters of his tenant, Rosa Gutierez, 26, of Guatemala, who was taken into custody. ‘She’s a hard worker, a good person, who came to the US to find a better life,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘She’s a very good mother. It’s inhumane to take a mother away from her children,’ he said. ‘She’s not a criminal.’”

Massachusetts’ Department of Social Services, the responsible agency, had been informed of the raid in advance, but its social workers had been denied access to the arrested MBI workers—access they needed to identify and locate the children. “They were on the scene,” Corinn Williams recalled, “but they hadn’t had much prior contact with the Mayan community either.”

At Fort Devens, the detainees were cramped into a compound that had been designed for 120 inmates. ICE seemed determined to ship them to Texas as quickly as it could process them, making the work of the volunteer lawyers all the more difficult. According to a report published in the Lawyers Journal of the Massachusetts Bar Association, “the night of the raid, lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union spent most of night at the Fort Devens detention facility. Even though there were six lawyers the first night of the raid and 16 GBLS staff and others at Fort Devens the second night, they were only permitted to interview 31 detainees over the course of about 18-and-a-half hours before ICE began shipping them to Texas.”

The ostensible reason for the hasty transportation of the Michael Bianco workers to faraway detention camps (90 of them to Harlingen and 116 to El Paso in the first day or two) was the lack of “bed space” in Massachusetts, though others suspected that the distance and place of the relocation would make it less likely that the detainees could be released, as they would have no local ties, and the lawyering would be more cumbersome. “The government moved them to try to interfere with their rights,” a lawyer representing dozens of the workers told a judge later that month. “They had eleven months to plan this raid, and after two days they run out of space at Fort Devens because they needed it for someone else?” It was later learned that ICE pressured detainees to sign a waiver of their rights. Since many didn’t speak English and most if not all were without counsel at the time, this was an egregious violation of basic rights—rights to which anyone in the United States, citizen or not, is entitled. The opportunity to post bail was denied to many, also a violation of rights. The teams of lawyers who descended upon Fort Devens were turned away by ICE at first and were not allowed to see detainees until the second day, and even then only those who requested counsel. Many of them, being from countries of rough justice, didn’t know they had such a right.

Reportedly, six minor children who had worked at the plant were shipped to a detention center in Miami, Florida. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts had called Secretary Michael Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security on the night of the raid and had been told that no mothers had been separated from their children, a rather obvious falsehood that signaled either a lack of organization or a lack of concern for separated families. After Senator Kennedy and Governor Patrick ripped into the Department of Homeland Security and Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Julie Myers, 50–60 single parents were released on bond in Massachusetts but remained charged with illegal entry into the United States.

The families back in New Bedford were in many cases not informed of the whereabouts of their loved ones, so when Senator Kennedy appeared in the basement of St. James on Saturday New Bedford was still in a state of crisis. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), Corinn Williams, and other local activists, including the priests, had coped well with the unattended children. A range of services had been created on the spot, literally overnight, to fill the immediate needs of families without wage earners. In fact, the response of the community—from the whole of eastern Massachusetts—was astonishing. Not only had the lawyers come, organized by the Greater Boston Legal Services, but nursing students from the community college set up a child-care center. A food bank was set up; it operated for three months. The Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts shepherded $144,000 of donations to help the workers’ families to pay rent and utility bills and buy groceries. Father Wilson recalls that even the parishioners who had been so upset by the church’s embrace of the Latinos donated generously to the food bank.

But the trauma of the raid was powerful all the same. A young Latino father whose wife was arrested told an interviewer that his “family was destroyed” because she was so important to all of them, especially their two young boys—a sentiment echoed by other men left with children to care for. Others spoke of the “terror within” and the despair at having left oppressive conditions in Guatemala in the belief that they would find justice in the United States. In the days and weeks that followed the raid, those families whose caregivers and wage-earners were arrested withdrew from public life, often kept their schoolchildren at home, and tried to make ends meet.

The immigrants demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of these obstacles. One story about the New Bedford raid is particularly poignant. Ricardo Gomez Garcia, who had worked two shifts at the factory, was sent to a detention center in El Paso. He languished there while fighting deportation for six months. His wife and autistic 4-year-old son were left to a hardscrabble life in New Bedford. Ricardo was deported to Guatemala, but within days he planned his return, paid $5,000 to a “coyote” (a smuggler of migrants), and made the 25-day journey back to New Bedford for a joyful reunion with his wife and son. Then, during that first night, he developed acute respiratory symptoms and was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital. He died the next morning. He was 39 years old.

Adapted from "Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash" by John Tirman, published by the MIT Press in 2015. Copyright John Tirman. All rights reserved.

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