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A lapse in planning

Federal immigration agents first briefed senior members of the incoming Patrick administration about plans to raid a Massachusetts sweatshop that employed undocumented workers last December, days before Governor Deval Patrick even took office.

In the following two months, there were face-to-face meetings and conference calls between state officials and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to discuss the potential human as well as legal consequences of the planned roundup of laborers working illegally at the Michael Bianco Inc. leather factory in New Bedford.

Patrick himself was told in February that the raid would target the defense contractor that was using a largely undocumented female workforce to make safety vests for US soldiers in Iraq. Commissioner Harry Spence of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services was told a raid was coming several days before it occurred. The night before the sweep, Bruce Foucart, the ICE agent in charge of the operation, spoke with Spence to coordinate law enforcement and child protection aspects of the raid.

So, enough with the breast-beating pretense that the Patrick administration was blindsided by the stealth tactics of shadowy federal immigration officials. This is political grandstanding of the most transparent kind.

For all the focus on the aftermath of the raid, precious little attention has been paid to its planning. The state did play a part in that process, Spence's splenetic attacks on ICE and his denials of state responsibility notwithstanding.

Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Kevin Burke said yesterday that he and others in the administration raised questions about the children of detainees from the first meeting with Foucart and his team on Dec. 29. "They were very nice, but very vague," Burke said. "We were assured there wouldn't be any problems. . . . Next time, the state will press more for details in the beginning."

It is reasonable to ask why the state did not press more this time. Patrick did not hesitate to appeal directly to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to allow DSS social workers access to the detainees after the raid. Why, then, did he not call Chertoff before the raid to insist that the necessary precautions to protect children be in place?

Immigration authorities denied a request by Spence to allow state social workers to accompany agents during the raid, Foucart said, "because this was a law enforcement action."

"I couldn't have them interviewing people at a crime scene," he said. "I was happy to set up a triage center at the New Bedford DSS office. I assigned one of our agents there to help sort out any problems. It is just not true that we failed to coordinate with DSS."

The decision to keep the social workers out of the building "left the state between a rock and a hard place," said Burke, the longtime Essex district attorney. "It's a federal operation. Am I going to beat up law enforcement officials for that? No."

No need. Spence has the blame game covered. On Monday, he continued blasting ICE agents for a lack of cooperation and for providing a public account of events that, he charged, "has been completely different from the truth."

Given the state's performance, that is almost funny. As late as yesterday afternoon Nancy Fernandez Mills, communications director for the Patrick administration, was insisting that "the governor was not told and did not know the raid was happening until it was going on" and that "DSS did not know about this raid until it was in progress."

Told that, in fact, members of Patrick's Cabinet had briefed him about the operation weeks ago and that Spence had participated in a conference call with ICE the day before the raid -- a fact the commissioner himself acknowledged in yesterday's newspapers -- she reconsidered: "I'd like to retract that statement until I talk to someone who actually knows something about this timeline."

It is going to be a long four years.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at