NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (CNS) — After federal authorities and local police raided a New Bedford manufacturing plant early March 6, detaining 327 illegal immigrants and arresting the firm’s owner and managers, Cardinal Seán O’Malley said this “alarming” event “underscores the great need we have for immigration reform in the United States.
“In many areas of the country, we do not have enough workers to perform certain types of labor,” he said in a March 9 entry published in his blog, www.cardinalseansblog.org.
“Our economy is dependent upon immigrants. It is, therefore, important that people be allowed to immigrate in an orderly and legal way so that they will have the protections that all workers have. In that way, their human rights and dignity will be safeguarded.”
“We are hoping that the United States Congress will approve comprehensive and fair legislation that will take into account the needs for security and the protection of workers’ rights.”
As news of the raid spread, offers of help for families affected by the raids came from clergy, Catholic Social Services and advocacy groups.
The immediate concern was for the children in day care and elementary schools who would return home to find parents missing.
Advocacy workers told the media the situation was a “humanitarian crisis.”
The majority of those being held were Guatemalans, Mexicans and Hondurans, “with a few Brazilians and some Portuguese and Salvadorans,” reported Ondine Sniffen, a lawyer for the Catholic Social Services office in Fall River.
“The church never supports disobeying the law and those who break it — like those who seek to hire only illegal immigrants and those who provided false identification cards — and they should be prosecuted,” said Father John J. Oliveira, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish.
“But what’s important here is that the church’s stance supports caring for people hurting and seeing them treated fairly, normally, with due process and their human rights respected and for family unification. To say these illegal immigrants have no rights is wrong,” he said.
“The church also teaches that once here and no matter how they got here, they must be treated with human dignity and respect,” he added.
His comments came a day after federal agents and New Bedford police converged on the three-story factory that houses Michael Bianco Inc., a manufacturer of military backpacks and protective gear. It receives nearly $100 million in government contracts and employs approximately 500 workers.
The plant remained in operation. But the owner and managers were taken into custody and charged with intentionally exploiting the government by recruiting and hiring illegal aliens without authorization to work, and exploiting the workforce with low-paying jobs and deplorable working conditions.
An alleged provider of fraudulent identification documents including counterfeit green cards and Social Security cards was also arrested.
The sweep also revealed sweatshop conditions where 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.
“If, as alleged, these workers were actually penalized for going to the bathroom during their working hours, then it’s a whole new issue, a labor issue, which the church is also very strong on, that the workplace environment should also respect human rights,” Father Oliveira stated.
Most of those who were rounded up were women who operated sewing machines.
According to Sniffen, “those women who did not have a valid green card — or had a false one — were restrained with nylon flex cuffs.”
“Approximately 200 women were transported to Fort Devens in Ayer for questioning and face deportation hearings within a month, unfortunately with no legal remedy at hand,” she told The Anchor, Fall River diocesan newspaper.
Sniffen said she went to the plant in response to calls from relatives of those arrested.
“I tried to go in and offer legal counsel. They allowed me in the building, but not to see anyone. Approximately 28 women, who had children under 3 years old and needed to be cared for, were immediately released. So were some pregnant women,” she said. “Those with valid green cards were not held. But several mothers, illegal aliens, who had children at home, were not released.”
Because reportedly some fathers — who were also illegal immigrants — were also detained, it was “very difficult for these families,” said Sniffen. After further processing at Fort Devens, officials let 60 women go after they were found to be eligible for release.
On the night of the raid, Father Richard D. Wilson, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Parish, opened the parish hall to immigrants and relatives of detainees, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, other immigration officials and representatives of various community agencies. They gathered to draw up lists of those were detained and missing.
“We wanted to hear from concerned relatives of those detained in the sweep so that attorneys present could determine who they were in order to assist them legally,” Father Wilson said.
“We were also very concerned and wanted to find out where the children involved were,” he said. “We spent time with the people. We celebrated Mass at 7 p.m., and we stayed open until about 11 p.m.”
The hall was also open at 8:30 a.m. March 7, with people “coming and going all day,” he noted. A press conference was held at 2 p.m.
“We asked the government officials to be more just and we heard testimony from relatives and friends” of those detained, he said.
“One man said that overall he was appreciative to the people of the United States for how he has been treated. But he added, ‘If you want me to leave, just give me back my wife and I’ll go,’” the priest said.
Pilot staff contributed to this report