your connection to The Boston Globe

Chaos, pain, and fear reign in New Bedford

"Has anyone seen my wife? She left for work yesterday and never came home. Our newborn baby is hungry and crying. Can someone please help?" asks a young father in the basement of a crowded church, one clear voice above the din of the hundreds gathered. The fear is palpable in the young man’s eyes. He implores the listener to offer solace, hope, and encouragement.

There were hundreds of people searching for news about their loved ones, fighting back nervous tears. They found no information and no answers. Only chaos. And pain. And fear.

For the past three days, this has been the scene at St. James Church in New Bedford.

This is the result of failed immigration laws. This is the nation’s immigration system at its worst.

On Tuesday, more than 500 armed homeland security officers descended upon Michael Blanco Inc. The owner of the factory, and a few of his senior staff, were arrested for hiring undocumented workers and creating false documents. They were out on bail and home with their families that night.

Approximately 350 employees, mostly mothers with young children, were swept up in the raid, shackled together in groups of three by their wrists and ankles and marched to buses bound for Fort Devens, 100 miles away. Without any legal representation or due process, these workers were asked for their immigration documentation and encouraged by immigration officers to choose voluntary deportation regardless of whether an immigration application was in process.

The irony of the story is that these employees were manufacturing the materials that keep US soldiers in Iraq safe from harm. Their skills as craftspeople served our country at a time of great need. Yet instead of being treated like heroes for their role in the war effort, they and their families are treated like traitors.

President Bush and his administration have decided to prioritize the detention and deportation of young mothers at taxpayer expense, and at the expense of our troops.

These families in New Bedford escaped severe poverty and oppressive governments because they dared to believe in the American Dream. Ineligible for public benefits, they work every day and pay taxes in hopes of providing a better future for their children and their communities. The land that first welcomed Pilgrims is no longer the land of opportunity that the Statue of Liberty represents.

These families are victims of unscrupulous employers and an ad hoc set of laws.

Immigration laws today are unjust not only for those yearning to be free, but also for everyone struggling for a better future for their children.

Now, New Bedford manufacturers and fish cutters feel the impact. In the days ahead, it will reverberate throughout Southeastern Massachusetts and the rest of the state.

The immigration reform debate will again emerge in the weeks ahead as legislation is introduced in Congress. We hope for the best but fear the worst. We hope our elected officials show the courage to make sure immigrant families, our families, are protected; we fear our officials and the politics of hate will let us down.

How can we look into the eyes of a young mother who has fled the repressive government and economic perils of Guatemala to stitch safety vests for our troops and tell her to leave? How can we look into the eyes of a young father of an eight- month old baby dehydrated because his mother has been detained and tell him he doesn’t belong here?

If we allow this to continue, we will turn our backs on liberty and the American Dream. Irrational fears will only drive us to the wrong side of history. Let us live up to the dreams of every immigrant of every generation that had the courage to come to this country to make a better life for their families.

Ali Noorani is executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.