HARLINGEN, Texas -- The Massachusetts Department of Social Services yesterday urged federal authorities to release at least 21 immigrants detained during a raid on a New Bedford factory and held in Texas detention facilities. Nineteen of the detainees are the sole or primary caretakers of children in New Bedford; DSS also called for the release of a woman who said she was recently diagnosed with cancer, and a 17-year-old boy, because he is a minor.
A day after interviewing dozens of people detained Tuesday because they could not prove they were in the country legally, DSS social workers said detainees told them they feared for their children in Massachusetts. The children range in age from infants to a 17-year-old, and include a disabled 4-year-old girl who requires a feeding tube and 2-year-old boy with a respiratory ailment.
Some detainees told DSS workers that their children were with baby-sitters relatives, or friends. Some did not know where they were, according to DSS workers who interviewed more than 200 detainees this weekend in Port Isabel Detention Center, near Harlingen, and another center in El Paso.
DSS Commissioner Harry Spence said he was "extremely upset and angry" that immigration officials whisked the detainees, mostly women, out of Massachusetts on Wednesday before these cases were discovered.
"If the department had been given access to the detainees at Fort Devens on Tuesday night, as we consistently requested, then a great deal of this could have been avoided," Spence said in Harlingen. "The threats to the children's safety that the federal action caused could have been greatly diminished."
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Marc Raimondi said only federal officers had been allowed to interview factory workers during and immediately after the raid because it was a "law enforcement environment." On Friday, a federal court judge ordered the two agencies to work together to determine how many children had been separated from a primary caregiver by the raid.
In the raid on the Michael Bianco Inc. factory, authorities detained 361 immigrants, most of them women from Central America, who were unable to show that they were in the United States legally, ICE officials said. Since then, at least 60 people have been fitted with electronic tracking devices and released to care for children or for health problems.
Raimondi said federal officials had interviewed each detainee multiple times, asked them if they had children, and gave them a DSS hotline number in English and Spanish. Officials loaned the detainees cellphones to make calls.
"If a detainee lies to you, you don't have good information," Raimondi said. "You can only go on the information that you have."
But Spence said DSS workers' efforts had shown that the interviews conducted by immigration officials did not get all the information. He said detainees who come from countries with a history of government repression might have been too afraid to tell their stories to federal immigration workers. As an example, Spence said he heard about a detainee who at first denied being a parent, but later acknowledged having two school-age children in New Bedford after a DSS social worker gained that person's trust.
Yesterday's disclosures capped a week of tension between the two agencies. Saturday, two teams of 18 Massachusetts DSS workers traveled to holding centers in Texas, near the Mexican border. Many detainees, wearing hospital-style scrubs, burst into tears at the sight of Massachusetts social workers. Some said they had been allowed to call their families. But some had experienced difficulty getting through to loved ones and had little information.
A 38-year-old detainee said she has two daughters, ages 2 and 4, who are being cared for by an aunt, according to social workers who interviewed her and spoke on condition of anonymity. The 4-year-old cannot walk or talk and requires a feeding tube. The social workers said the girl requires regular treatment at a hospital.
A Guatemalan woman told social workers she has a US-born 2-year-old boy who has a respiratory condition and needs to be connected to a breathing machine four times daily. The mother was not sure who is taking care of the boy; his estranged father, who left the family five months ago, or his baby-sitter he social workers said.
Other social workers described an interview with a sobbing mother of a 17-year-old girl, who has been left in the care of her 22-year-old brother. The mother said the girl gets good grades and is a senior in high school. But the girl, whom the mother described as depressed and weeping, has not been to school since Wednesday. Another woman told social workers she had left behind an 18-month-old baby, who is being cared for by an uncle who is running out of money.
DSS workers said they had also found a 28-year-old woman from Guatemala, who, like many of the detainees, was sending part of her earnings at the factory to family in Latin America. The woman told social workers she has cancer and has not received treatment since the raid.
Raimondi said immigration officials would evaluate each of the cases and work as quickly as possible to evaluate them. An update to the federal court judge is due tomorrow .
Yesterday the drama that began with Tuesday's raid continued to unfold in New Bedford, where workers at the factory made safety vests, backpacks for the US military. Hundreds of friends and family of detainees crammed into the basement of St. James Church yesterday to weep, pray, and tell their stories to elected officials.
US Senator Edward M. Kennedy held their hands and prayed with them, joined by Senator John F. Kerry and Representatives Barney Frank and William Delahunt, who repeated calls for a congressional investigation into the raid.
Kennedy told reporters the raid underscored the need for immigration reform.
"If there is ever an example or a reason for a new immigration bill, and anybody wants to know why, come to New Bedford," said Kennedy. "We need to change the broken immigration system."
Tomorrow in Boston, US immigration officials at the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building will start to interview detainees who had been released.
Meanwhile, legal advocates of the detainees said they are still trying to piece together how many children were separated from a parent and where all the detainees are being held.
Bethany Toure, a family support advocate for the New Bedford Community Connections, estimated that as many as 180 children had one parent who was detained.
Nancy Kelly, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal services in Boston, said the released detainees were confused about what will happen to them next.
Some mistakenly believe that an appointment with an immigration official is tantamount to appearing in court. "They're terrified," she said.