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The mess after the raid

THE LAW WAS enforced on Tuesday when federal immigration authorities raided Michael Bianco Inc. in New Bedford. But some of the raid's outcomes were troubling.

After being told that the company was knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, federal officials conducted an undercover investigation and then the raid, arresting the company's owner, Francesco Insolia, and three managers, and detaining 350 workers who could not prove that they are in the country legally.

The episode illustrates the jumble of contradictions that is US immigration policy. Fear of flight is a valid reason for detaining suspects, but it still seems unfair that most of the workers apprehended were confined at Fort Devens while the company's owner and managers walked free until their next court date. And is it just bad luck that many of the 350 are likely to face deportation, because they happened to work for an alleged large-scale exploiter, while no one is chasing the illegals who cut Mitt Romney's lawn?

Bianco touts itself as a manufacturer of high-quality leather goods for companies such as Coach, Mark Cross, and Timberland. But authorities allege that it was also an abusive workplace where employees were fined for talking. Company officials also allegedly told workers where to buy fraudulent documents.

Company officials should be prosecuted for exploiting workers. But the workers are a different story. In a press release, even US attorney Michael Sullivan said, "It is understandable that many from around the globe would want to come to live, work, and raise families here in the greatest democracy in the world." He also said they should do so in compliance with the law.

But the laws have not kept up with an economy that needs workers. In this case, the Michael Bianco company started adding workers after it got several contracts from the Department of Defense, which is also involved in the investigation.

Worse, the raid has created a human crisis. Children of detained parents were left with caretakers. It's easy to say -- and true -- that their parents shouldn't have come here illegally. But it's also disturbing that children, some of whom may have been born here, have to endure this trauma.

Federal officials say single mothers of very young children are being released. Governor Patrick has convinced Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to give the state's Department of Social Services access to detained parents. So far DSS has found 29 foster homes for children, but there's more to do.

There is a better solution: Fix federal immigration laws. Bills are pending in Congress. President Bush supports reform. Raids only crack down on workers who are contributing to economic activity -- even, in some cases, while being exploited. More rational laws could end this injustice.