A year after raid, immigration cases drag on for many

Email|Print| Text size + By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

Exactly one year after federal agents burst into a New Bedford factory and arrested 361 immigrant workers, about half of those arrested are still here, an outcome that is raising concerns on both sides of the heated immigration divide.

The raid whiplashed the city, drew criticism from state and federal authorities, and captured national attention for separating some parents from their children. Now, the plodding aftermath is prompting new questions about the effectiveness of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's raid.

Advocates for immigrants say the raid on the Michael Bianco factory devastated a community, with little to show for it. Those who favor restrictions on immigration say the system should work faster to expel illegal immigrants from the country.

"I think the United States made a plan that didn't work," said Anibal Lucas, director of the Maya K'iche Organization, a group that advocates for Guatemalans of Mayan descent in New Bedford. "It was a loss and waste of money."

Jessica Vaughan - senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which favors restrictions on immigration - also called the legal logjam a cause for concern. Vaughan, whose office is in Franklin, said she is unsure who deserves the blame: overwhelmed immigration courts or lawyers clogging up the system with hard-to-win claims.

"We should be concerned about that," she said. "If the outcome is in their favor, or not in their favor, it's way too long. We ought to be able to provide a swifter resolution to this."

By this month, 161 of the former Michael Bianco workers were still in the United States, the immigration agency said in a response to a Globe request under the Freedom of Information Act for a tally of the detainees and their status.

The number still in the United States is closer to 200, lawyers said. Federal officials could not account for 35 of the original detainees yesterday, but lawyers for the 35 - who were among the first released for humanitarian reasons - contend that most are still in the country, said John Willshire Carrera, a lawyer with Greater Boston Legal Services.

Most of those who remain are fighting deportation, but 10 have been allowed to stay for various reasons.

Federal officials said that they had sent 165 people back to their homelands, mainly Guatemala and El Salvador, and that 12 of those went voluntarily.

The nation's top immigration official, Julie Myers, defended the outcome of the raid during a press conference in Boston yesterday, saying it was "perfectly appropriate" for immigrants to fight their cases in court. She pointed out that the raid led to successful indictments of the factory's owner and managers, a deterrent to other employers who might consider hiring undocumented immigrants.

"I certainly understand the frustration, if there's frustration on the American public's part," Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for immigration and customs enforcement, said at the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building. "But that's certainly the immigration court's process, and I think it's fair that it plays out."

Myers, in town to speak at Harvard about immigration and national security, added that she hoped that lawyers were not giving some immigrants false hope. She said a third of the detainees already had deportation orders.

"I'm confident that at the end of the day, once the immigration judges make their rulings . . . that those individuals will then be removed," Myers said.

But lawyers for immigrants say they believe dozens of people will qualify for asylum or other relief, some because they fear political violence or gangs in their homeland. Over the past year, lawyers said, they have interviewed the detainees, mostly women, and unearthed chilling stories of assaults, rapes, and killings that occurred during the decades-long conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Lawyers acknowledge that they are requesting extra time to build their cases, and they are grateful they could do so.

"It's a significant group of people who are going forward on their cases," said Willshire Carrera, who, with Nancy Kelly and Catholic Social Services, is leading teams of lawyers on the cases. "This crowd is not running."

Because hearings are being scheduled into next year, many former Bianco workers are struggling to scrape by as they wait. Some are living with friends or relatives.

Juana Ciprian, a 32-year-old mother from Guatemala who sewed at the factory, and a handful of other women who didn't want to return to working illegally have pooled their money and formed a small sewing cooperative in New Bedford, making handbags to sell at craft fairs.

"We wanted to try to make it on our own," said Ciprian.

One man, 37-year-old Sabino Garcia, is the only Bianco worker still in custody. He regularly calls relatives in New Bedford from his detention facility in Texas, begging them to keep trying to get him out, his brother-in-law said.

Some of those who were deported have slipped back into the United States illegally to rejoin their families. Ricardo Gomez Garcia, 40, died in October of a respiratory problem shortly after sneaking back in.

The raid quickly became a flashpoint in the national debate over illegal immigration, and the federal immigration agency faced criticism for its handling of the detainees. State officials slammed the agency's decision to swiftly send a huge group of immigrants, including parents, to detention centers in Texas. A federal appeals court later called the raid "ham-handed." A federal investigation of the raid is ongoing.

Yesterday, Myers again defended the agency's tactics. She said no children were stranded without a caregiver, and she acknowledged that the agency has since adopted guidelines designed to ensure that children have proper care and that detainees have access to healthcare, lawyers, and other services.

In August, the factory's former president and two managers were indicted, accused of recruiting illegal immigrants to fulfill multimillion-dollar military contracts. The defendants could not be reached yesterday, but they are expected to plead not guilty. The factory has been sold to Eagle Industries Inc.

Some immigrants caught at Bianco have simply gone back to work elsewhere.

A woman in her 30s from a village in El Salvador, a mother of three, said she started working again in New England a few months ago because she was struggling for money and still owed her smuggler part of a $6,000 fee. But the cleaning companies she worked for owes her at least $2,000, she said, and now she is pursuing a claim against them through a nonprofit group, Centro Presente.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she came to Massachusetts in 2005 because in El Salvador she earned only $3 a day as a waitress. At Bianco, she earned $8 an hour, a huge leap that helped her family back home.

A year later, she still misses that job. "We were just working," she said. "I don't know why they did that to us."

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