NEW BEDFORD -- Massachusetts social workers will travel to a Texas detention center to check on scores of workers from New Bedford accused of being in the country illegally. They were flown there before Massachusetts authorities determined whether all their children were receiving adequate care.
The development capped a day of sharp disagreement between Governor Deval Patrick and federal immigration officials over the high-profile raid Tuesday at Michael Bianco Inc. that netted 361 workers, most of them young and middle-aged Latino women. State and congressional officials asserted yesterday to the Bush administration that the detention of some of the workers was endangering their children.
Patrick, at a press conference, and later in a private conference call with Homeland Security officials, protested the decision to fly 90 of the detained workers from Massachusetts to Harlingen, Texas, before state social workers had a chance to inquire about their child-care needs, potentially leaving many children with inadequate care. Two young children were hospitalized yesterday for dehydration after their nursing mothers were taken away, state officials said. Another 7-year-old girl called a state hot line seeking her detained mother. It was unclear last night where their mothers were.
"What we have never understood about this process is why it turned into a race to the airport," Patrick said. "We understand about the importance of processing; we get that. But there are families affected. There are children affected."
The two sides spent the day arguing with each other over the treatment of the detained women and their families, with Patrick's comments prompting a sharp rejoinder from a top Bush administration official.
Immigration agents "worked closely with DSS both before the operation commenced and at every stage of the operation, to be sure that no child would be without a sole caregiver," Julie L. Myers , the assistant secretary of homeland security, wrote in a letter to Patrick.
Myers, as well as a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that each of the 361 detainees was asked about child-care needs several times. They pointed out that 60 women who were found to be the sole caregivers to their children have since been released, though they will still face a court hearing.
But Massachusetts officials said some of the women -- most of whom were from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Portugal, and Brazil -- may not have been as forthcoming with federal agents as they might have been with state social workers.
"When you come from nations that have a history of violence against women and a history of a government being repressive, what can you expect?," said US Representative William D. Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy. "You have to have people with the ability to connect with these detainees."
State social workers who arrived late Wednesday at the interim detention site at the former Fort Devens army base in Ayer found 20 detainees, whom federal agents had not identified, and who they determined should be returned to New Bedford: four pregnant or nursing mothers, nine single mothers, and seven detainees who were minors under age 17. But by the time they were given access to the detainees, the 90 others who were sent to Texas had already left on a plane.
DSS Commissioner Harry Spence said he expected a team of social workers to be en route today to Harlingen.
"We expect to find some number of pregnant women, minors, and sole caregivers," said Spence.
Of the detainees who have not been returned to New Bedford or sent to Texas, 116 were flown yesterday to a detention center in Albuquerque, with the other 75 placed in various New England jails.
The debate and logistical issues underscored the complexities of the politically charged immigration issue, with tensions emerging between social service and law enforcement needs. Adding confusion was that most children left behind are US citizens because they were born here, and reuniting them with parents sent back to their native countries may be difficult, state officials said.
Even by the day's end, it was unclear where all the detainees' children were or if they were getting proper care. State officials said they were particularly worried about older children left behind who have yet to identify themselves to social workers.
For much of yesterday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at St. James Church in New Bedford, family members of the detainees huddled with community organizers and immigration lawyers to provide personal data on the detained workers.
Patrick arrived at the church in the early evening, meeting with several emotional families and advocates. "What you see in this room is a human tragedy, where policy touches people," he said. "There were stories of humiliation, fear, anxiety, uncertainty. It reflects , for me, not what this country is about."
Meanwhile, the owner of Michael Bianco Inc., Francesco Insolia, 50, was given permission by a federal judge to travel to Puerto Rico yesterday on business. Insolia is out on bail on federal charges of conspiring to hire illegal workers. His firm had been working on an $83 million contract with the US Defense Department to manufacture backpacks. The Department yesterday suspended Michael Bianco from all future contracts with the agency.
Lisa Wangsness of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Raja Mishra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.