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Orbelio Ayala (left rear) attended a press conference in New Bedford yesterday with his nephews Bryan Reyes, 1, and Jefferson Maravilla, 2, and niece Melissa Alfaro, 4. Bryan and Melissa’s mothers and Jefferson’s parents were detained in an immigration raid at a factory Tuesday.
Orbelio Ayala (left rear) attended a press conference in New Bedford yesterday with his nephews Bryan Reyes, 1, and Jefferson Maravilla, 2, and niece Melissa Alfaro, 4. Bryan and Melissa’s mothers and Jefferson’s parents were detained in an immigration raid at a factory Tuesday. (Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff)

Fear grips kin after immigration raid

Woman recounts panic inside leather factory

NEW BEDFORD -- Karin Fernandez had problems in Honduras.

She was two months pregnant, and the baby's father was gone. She had only a ninth-grade education and no work.

But her aunt in New Bedford offered a solution: Come to Massachusetts. Have the baby here. Work in the leather goods factory where it's easy to find a job.

"I was in a really ugly crisis," said Fernandez, 19.

In late 2005 she paid a smuggler $4,500 to bring her over the border. She made it to New Bedford and to the factory where the managers were said not to care if their employees' documents were fake.

She started at $7.50 an hour, no benefits, cutting material for special military backpacks.

She followed the factory's strict rules, including a ban on snacking at work stations. Working at Michael Bianco Inc. was tough, but she was grateful for the job. She couldn't come close to making $300 a week in her homeland. Here she had money to feed her daughter, now 9 months old, and to send half her salary to her mother in Honduras.

Then, on Tuesday morning, an announcement came over the intercom as Fernandez and several hundred other workers began their shift. Don't run, the voice said. Immigration officers are in the building.

She ran.

Women leapt from their sewing and cutting stations and raced for the basement. Others fell to the floor where they shouted in pain as other people raced over them. Some whipped out their cellphones and whispered to their husbands that they were about to be caught.

Fernandez and two men huddled for three hours in the frigid basement. She stifled coughs and sobs as the cold purpled her skin. Her twisted ankle throbbed.

"We were almost frozen," she recalled yesterday.

Around noon, immigration officers discovered her. She was one of 327 workers picked up at the factory that morning, unable to prove they were in the country legally.

"I cried," she said. "I begged them to let me go because I have a daughter."

She was held until 7 Tuesday night, then released to care for her child.

By yesterday afternoon, 60 of the workers taken into custody at the factory Tuesday had been released on humanitarian grounds, for example, if they had children with nobody else to care for them. The 267 others remained at the former Fort Devens military base in Ayer, where they were questioned, fingerprinted, and processed to be sent to detention centers in Massachusetts and across the country to wait for deportation hearings.

Fear and uncertainty gripped their relatives in the Guatemalan and Salvadoran neighborhoods of New Bedford. Dozens of friends and relatives gathered in the parking lot across the street from the factory, shivering and waiting for others to be freed yesterday. Rumors circulated that buses carrying more of the lucky ones would pull into the factory on the corner of Rodney French Boulevard and Grit Street.

Jose Reyes, a native of Guatemala, waited for hours in his red sport utility vehicle, hoping a friend would be freed. The friend's wife had been released Tuesday afternoon to care for their baby.

"He's a good person; he was just trying to make money for his family," Reyes said.

But hours passed, and the buses did not come. Reyes and the rest of the crowd drained away.

Later in the afternoon, a bus pulled up at the rear of the factory. Out stepped a dozen or so workers, mostly women, who had spent the night at Fort Devens. They scrambled into waiting cars and were gone.

Despite the uncertainty outside, the machines whirred inside the factory. Owner Francesco Insolia and three of his managers had been arrested Tuesday, accused of deliberately employing illegal immigrants. They were released the same day, and production resumed at their three-story redbrick factory, despite the reduced workforce. By yesterday, Michael Bianco Inc. still held its $82 million contract to manufacture backpacks for the US military. So cutters cut, and sewers sewed.

"Everything is normal inside," said Connie Cardoso, as she made her way up the stairs into the factory. "But it's kind of like a funeral, like we all lost someone."

Another employee who would not give her name agreed, saying: "They took away a lot of hard-working people yesterday. I feel so sorry for them."

Back at home, relatives of those taken away tried to adjust.

Mario Reyes, 37, whose wife, Yoli Ayala de Reyes, 30, was detained, tried to maintain control in his house, as tears welled in his eyes. His wife was always in charge.

Reyes, who has a work permit, came to the United States from El Salvador in 2001, then brought Yoli and their son to join him three years later.

They needed money. In New Bedford, they both found work at Michael Bianco, even though she was in the United States illegally. He worked as a mechanic at the plant. His wife saw opportunity everywhere, her husband said: A television infomercial inspired her to sell clothing on the side. She had sold jewelry.

They even managed to buy a house, a gray three- decker with pale yellow walls a five-minute drive from the factory. Yesterday, Reyes watched his sons, Luis Mario, 7, and Bryan, who is almost 2, his niece Melissa Alfaro, 4, whose mother was detained, and his nephew Jefferson Maravilla, 2.

Both Maravilla's parents were detained in the raid. Reyes let them play Nintendo for hours to distract the boys from their mother's absence. He said he knew his wife had done the wrong thing, entering illegally. "We didn't want to do that," he said as he sat on his couch. "But because of our situation, it had to be done."

He wants his children to grow up here and his wife to come back to them, Reyes said. "It's my dream that they prosper, and have what I didn't. I have this hope of fixing my wife's situation. I don't want her to go back. It scares me, all the violence in El Salvador."

Brian R. Ballou of the Globe staff contributed to this report from New Bedford.