Immigration reform -- now

The dramatic raid resulting in the detention of more than 300 undocumented aliens in New Bedford March 6 and the mayhem that followed -- children left unsupervised, families abruptly separated -- has generated a humanitarian crisis. While we understand the raid was conducted simply to enforce the law, that law is obsolete and in dire need of reform.

Undocumented aliens enter the country illegally, enticed by the prospect of a better life for them and their families. Once here, most become hard workers, take the lowest paid jobs and perform the least desirable, yet indispensable, tasks in the agricultural, manufacturing or service sectors.

Our economy needs that workforce and hires them. They, in turn, settle among us, rent our apartments, shop in our stores, buy our used cars and pay taxes along with us. They are our neighbors, form families and have children who, by birthright, are U.S. citizens.

Entering the country illegally should have consequences. Yet, is deportation the only way to deal with individuals whose only real crime was to find honest work in an attempt to realize the “American dream” of a better life? We do not believe so.

Another troubling aspect of this story is the working conditions under which these immigrants labored at Michael Bianco Inc., the New Bedford manufacturer of military backpacks and protective gear where the raid took place.

Media accounts have described the manufacturing plant as a “sweatshop.” The Catholic News Service report that appears in this week’s Pilot describes it this way: “workers were docked 15 minutes pay for every minute they were late or left early; fined -- and sometimes fired -- for talking; and fined $20 for spending more than two minutes in the restroom -- where one roll of toilet tissue was to last for an entire day but usually was gone in 40 minutes.”

Shameful working conditions such as these are only possible in 21st century Massachusetts because the fear of arrest and deportation keeps workers silent. Indeed we wonder how many of the detained workers would gladly return to those horrid conditions rather than face separation from their loved ones. It is a Solomonic choice no one should have to make.

Immigration reform is urgently needed. New legislation should open a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented workers who are contributing to our society.

A guest worker program is urgently needed that will allow needed immigrants to enter our country and yet grant them the legal status that will prevent their exploitation.

Opponents of immigration reform stress the need to increase the security of our borders as the solution to the current immigration crisis. We agree that our nation needs more secure borders, but that alone will not resolve the problem.