The commissioner of the Department of Social Services blasted Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials yesterday for repeatedly thwarting state social workers' attempts to communicate with suspected illegal workers arrested after a raid on a New Bedford leather goods factory last week, and he accused the federal agency of "turning around and misrepresenting reality."
Since the arrests, ICE officials have maintained that they have been working closely with DSS to provide for children whose parents were arrested. Last night, the agency announced that it is releasing nine detainees "after evaluating their personal circumstances and deciding that humanitarian release was warranted." The nine still face deportation and must appear before an immigration judge.
"We're happy the nine were released; we're just anxious to see whether the others will be released and when," said Denise Monteiro, spokeswoman for DSS.
"We look forward to getting the detainees back in touch with their children to complete a long term plan with us. Don't forget, they still face deportation, but this is a chance for them to talk with their kids and set up a long-term plan that we can help with."
Despite their insistence to the contrary, DSS Commissioner Harry Spence says that ICE has not cooperated. "They stopped us every step of the way," an incensed Spence said yesterday. "ICE's rhetoric has been completely different from the truth."
Spence and several dozen Massachusetts social workers returned from Texas yesterday afternoon after interviewing detainees in detention centers in Harlingen and El Paso.
During a conference call with ICE agents on March 5, the day before the raid, Spence said he asked ICE officials to allow social workers to meet with those arrested to determine whether any of their children would be left without parental care. He said ICE refused to allow social workers access to the factory during and after the raid.
ICE then refused DSS access to the former Fort Devens army base in Ayer, where detainees were being held the night of March 6, Spence said. By the time politicians intervened to get DSS access on March 7, he said, 90 detainees had been flown out of state.
Even after federal officials agreed to allow DSS workers to meet with the 200 detainees in Texas, ICE officials insisted that their lawyers be allowed to monitor the interviews, Spence said. Spence argued that the lawyers' presence would intimidate detainees. The two sides eventually agreed to have lawyers present only for 30 seconds at the start of DSS conversations with the immigrants, Spence said.
A spokesman for ICE denied Spence's assertions. "We have been extraordinarily good partners on this," said Marc Raimondi. "We have taken into consideration every request they've had and granted every request for access. "
US Senator Edward M. Kennedy sent a letter yesterday to Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, whose department oversees ICE. Kennedy called for release of the names of those arrested and the return to Massachusetts of those held in Texas.
"I'm appalled at the insensitivity of the officials at ICE . . . to anticipate the far-reaching consequences of the raid," Kennedy wrote. "ICE turned its effort to end unauthorized employment and illegal immigration into a spectacle in which the results are separated families, silent transfers in the middle of the night, traumatized children, and hundreds of people stranded without proper legal representation."
Raimondi and other ICE officials have repeatedly stressed that the raid was a law enforcement operation and that workers were in the United States illegally. Of those arrested, 55 had previously been ordered deported by an immigration judge, and 11 reentered the country illegally after having been removed.
Still, more than 60 of the 361 workers arrested at Michael Bianco Inc. on March 6 have been released on humanitarian grounds, chiefly because they were their children's sole caregivers, Raimondi said.
After a court challenge seeking a halt to further transfers out of state brought by immigrant advocates, officials from DSS and ICE are required to report back to US District Court Judge Richard J. Stearns today on the status of any cases involving minor children that remain unresolved.
Meanwhile, some of the immigrants who were released on their own recognizance appeared at the JFK federal building in Boston yesterday for monitoring.
"We're hearing of apartments left abandoned," said Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center, a New Bedford nonprofit group that has been assisting the detainees' friends and families. "People are asking what to do with [detainees'] belongings. Rent is coming due, and houses are down one or two incomes. "
Immigrant advocates will launch a charity drive today to assist those families, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Globe correspondent Michael Naughton contributed to this report.