FEDERAL IMMIGRATION raids can devastate local communities, endangering children and crippling businesses. As city and state officials scramble to respond, federal policy makers should be reconsidering workplace raids.
On Tuesday, New Bedford was shaken by an immigration raid at Michael Bianco Inc., a local leather goods manufacturing company. More than 300 workers, mostly women, were detained and many are being deported.
Yesterday, New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang sent a letter to Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray arguing that detainees should be processed in New Bedford so that they can settle their affairs. To do this, Lang would set up a "reporting and monitoring" center that could be staffed by city and federal officials.
Governor Deval Patrick has also acted, pressing federal authorities to cooperate by slowing the deportation process to allow the Department of Social Services to help families and protect children. Yesterday, Patrick said that this cooperation was slow in coming. According to the governor, many detainees have already been flown to Texas. A Patrick spokesperson says the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to let a DSS team go to Texas to meet with detainees.
Federal officials defended their actions in a letter to Patrick. Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Julie Myers wrote that officials "took extensive steps before, during, and after the operation" to meet the needs of affected children. She said that immigration officials also worked with the US Department of Labor to ensure that workers would be paid prior to being detained or deported.
There's little value, however, in a dispute between local and federal officials, because all of them are only victims of a vast policy vacuum. Officially, of course, undocumented immigrants are breaking the law. But in daily practice, undocumented workers are part of the economy, and everyday law enforcement routinely ignores millions of these workers, reinforcing the unofficial fact that the country both tolerates and relies on them.
Only Congress and the president can clear up this policy schizophrenia by passing comprehensive federal immigration reform.
In the meantime, a thorough debate should be held on workplace raids. The effectiveness of these raids is limited. The country lacks the resources to deport the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants who are here -- and their loss would decimate the economy. Also, last month, the Rocky Mountain News reported that illegal immigrants said they had returned to work at a military housing project outside Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado just days after a 2006 immigration raid.
"We must insist that the national immigration policy be applied in a common-sense manner," Lang wrote in his letter. It's a message that mayors, governors, and the public must repeat until federal officials take action.