It is no small irony that the Spanish-speaking grandmothers and nursing mothers rounded up as national security threats in an immigration raid on a New Bedford leather factory were stitching safety vests and backpacks for the US military.
The government's multimillion-dollar contract with the owners of the factory where hundreds of low-wage earners were led away in shackles after an immigration sweep last week underscores the absurd contradictions inherent in our immigration policy. One federal bureaucracy is trying to deport the same undocumented workers whose cheap labor another federal bureaucracy is content to exploit.
The agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who carried out the raid work for an administration in Washington that has acknowledged that these sweeps are meaningless without comprehensive reform of national immigration policy. "The system we have in place has caused people to rely upon smugglers and forgers in order to do the work Americans aren't doing," President Bush said last December after a series of high-profile immigration sweeps across the nation. "It is a system that frankly leads to inhumane treatment of people."
Why, then, does the White House not call for an immediate cessation of these raids in favor of a long-promised and long-overdue overhaul of a broken system?
The bungled raid on the Michael Bianco factory served to provoke what Governor Deval Patrick rightly called "a humanitarian crisis" by shipping hundreds of workers, most of them women, to federal detention facilities in Texas, thousands of miles away from their families. Now, at considerable taxpayer expense, federal officials are trying to remedy their precipitous separation of mothers from their children. But, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Patrick and Department of Social Services Commissioner Harry Spence were alerted in advance to plans to storm the factory. What responsibility then does the state bear for the mess that ensued? How did five of the eight minors picked up in the sweep wind up in a Miami detention facility without DSS knowledge?
Did state officials ask what was to happen to those detained? Did they insist that immigration officials provide legal counsel to detainees before they bundled them onto planes bound for Texas? Did they ask what imminent threat required that these women be removed from Massachusetts for deportation hearings that could be held here just as easily?
Decrying the consequences of inept federal action is a poor substitute for taking the precautions necessary to protect the basic human rights of Massachusetts residents, legal or undocumented.
Carolyn Newberger is a child psychologist in Brookline who has earned a national reputation for her work with neglected and abused children. The abrupt separation of mothers and children precipitated by this raid "is child neglect by any definition I know," she said in an e-mail. "If, as the US Department of Homeland Security claims, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services 'worked closely' with them prior to the raid on the Bianco clothing factory in New Bedford, then our state agency charged with the protection of children has itself actively collaborated in children's abandonment, starvation, and traumatic psychological injury. The damage to the children left behind is inevitable and incalculable, and the leadership of DSS must be held to account for their roles in this travesty."
Soon after taking office, Patrick wisely rescinded Mitt Romney's plan to deputize State Police as immigration agents. Romney's proposal was political pandering of the most craven kind, designed to fuel the anti-immigrant hysteria that is the red meat of the far right. Real leadership requires more, however. By stepping aside for the storm trooper tactics of the ICE agents, the Patrick administration is complicit in the results.
Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.