NEW BEDFORD -- Hundreds of immigration officers and police descended on a New Bedford leather goods factory yesterday , charged top officials with employing illegal immigrants, and rounded up 350 workers who could not prove they were in the country legally.
The waterfront company, Michael Bianco Inc., was using the illegal immigrants to produce safety vests and backpacks for the US military, officials said.
Workers inside the plant described a terrifying scene. At first, several hundred employees, most of them Guatemalan or Salvadoran, were told to remain at their sewing stations as officials reviewed their status. Chaos ensued, as some panicked workers tried to flee.
"When we realized what was going on, a lot of people were screaming and crying," said Tina Pacheco, a supervisor who has worked at the company for 14 years. "They told American citizens to stand in one area and the people without papers to stand in another area. It was terrible, they were crying and didn't know what was going to happen."
Witnesses said police guarded exits while other officers grabbed some of the fleeing workers and shouted at them to lie on the ground. Several officers drew their handguns . Workers tried to leave the building, but went back inside after emerging into the bitter cold to find more officers surrounding the three-story red brick factory.
The workers were loaded onto buses and taken for processing to the former Fort Devens military base in Ayer. Most remained in custody last night, and will be held at the facility until court hearings in the next few weeks, said Bruce Chadbourne, New England field office director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they are found to be here illegally, they will face deportation.
Local immigration activists said it was the largest immigration raid conducted in this area. The operation occurred at a time of stepped-up workplace enforcement actions nationally by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, following years of criticism of the agency's lax execution of immigration laws. In fiscal 2006, ICE agents arrested 716 company officials on charges of violating immigration laws, compared with 25 in 2002.
At US District Court in Boston yesterday, factory owner Francesco Insolia , 50, and three of his managers were charged with conspiring to encourage or induce illegal immigrants to live in the United States, and conspiring to hire illegal immigrants. They were released yesterday , and are due back in court on March 26. Luis Torres , a New Bedford man who worked in a music store across the street from the factory, has been charged with providing fake identification documents to some of the factory workers. He was being held last night.
Insolia and his managers face maximum sentences of 6 months in prison and fines of $3,000 for each illegal immigrant they knowingly hired. Torres faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
According to affidavits unsealed yesterday, Insolia hired illegal immigrants instead of legal workers because the immigrants were desperate for jobs and more willing to put up with working conditions in his factory. Federal investigators allege workers were denied overtime , docked 15 minutes for every minute they were late , and fined for talking on the job, or for spending more than two minutes in the plant's squalid bathrooms.
"Insolia and others knowingly and intentionally exploited the government by recruiting and hiring illegal aliens without authorization to work," said US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, announcing the arrests yesterday. "They exploited the workforce with low-paying jobs and horrible working conditions, exploited the taxpayers by securing lucrative contracts funded by our legal workforce, and exploited the legal workforce by hiring illegal aliens."
The assistant secretary for Homeland Security, Julie Myers, who appeared with Sullivan, said yesterday's operation ranked "fourth or fifth" nationally in the number of workers without valid documents who had been taken into custody in raids in recent years.
Congress is preparing again to take up comprehensive immigration reform legislation, an issue over which there has been fractious national debate in recent years.
Local immigration activists were outraged at the arrests yesterday.
"On the eve of federal legislation being introduced to fix the broken system, we should not be using precious federal resources to tear up families and devastate our communities," said Helena S. Marques, executive director of the Immigrant Assistance Center in New Bedford.
Activists said they were concerned yesterday that the children of workers would be left without care.
"This has been a total nightmare," Marques said. "I've never seen so much panic." Many of those impacted gathered last night at Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Church. 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."
Myers said that any workers with children who had no one else to care for them would be released on humanitarian grounds and will face hearings later. She said eight pregnant women were also allowed to leave the factory shortly after their arrests, and were ordered to appear in court later for immigration hearings.
One stitcher, Viviana Luis Hernandes, 25, said she sat in the factory for nine hours, handcuffed with plastic ties, while her case was evaluated. "When this first happened, all I thought about was my baby," she said, rubbing her sore wrist. Her husband was also arrested, so she was released, because there was no one else to take care of her 1- year-old.
The 11-month investigation began with a tip from a Michael Bianco employee who was angry that the company had told workers they could leave the building when an immigration raid was taking place at a nearby baseball cap factory in December 2005.
Months later, an undercover agent posed as a Mexican illegal immigrant and recorded conversations with company officials in which she was open about her purported status. According to the affidavits unsealed yesterday, Insolia and other managers told her that many of the company's workers were in the country illegally, and even encouraged her to seek false documentation from Torres, the music store worker.
The undercover agent bought a green card and a Social Security card from him for $120, according to the federal documents. Another company official told the undercover agent that she would hire her relatives if they, too, provided false documents.
According to federal officials, two thirds of the workers employed at the company had bogus Social Security numbers, or numbers that did not match their names. The Social Security Administration had been sending notices informing the company of the mismatches since 2001, they said, but Insolia and his managers took no action in response.
Employers are required to ask for employees' work authorization documents, but are not required to determine whether the papers are genuine. However, in this case, Insolia and his managers went further, deliberately recruiting illegal immigrants because they were more likely to endure "deplorable conditions" akin to sweatshops of a century ago, Sullivan said.
Department of Defense contractors who are not working on classified matters are no more closely scrutinized than companies working on private contracts, Sullivan said. Michael Bianco Inc. held $92 million in contracts with the military, and the Defense Department participated in the case.
"We do not expect American companies to be police," Sullivan said. "But we do expect that as good corporate citizens they would not intentionally hire illegal workers and exploit their vulnerable situation."
David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report.