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Immigration Raid in New Bedford

About 350 New Bedford factory employees didn't return home last night. Instead, the workers, mostly women, are in the custody of US immigration authorities, facing possible deportation.

Federal officials detained the workers yesterday during a raid on a leather goods factory that makes backpacks and vests for the US military. WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness has more on the story.

The audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site after 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

TEXT OF STORY
BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: Men and children gathered at a Catholic Church in New Bedford last night looking for answers about their loved ones.

Mario Reyes works at the Michael Bianco, Incorporated factory and watched immigration officials detain many of many of his coworkers.

MARIO REYES: They get inside the building and said nobody move, nobody move please......a lot of people were afraid, they don't want to be arrested for immigration.

TONESS: A husband and wife who were detained put Reyes in charge of their three-year-old son. He says he'll care for the boy as long as he has to.

At least 25 other kids weren't as lucky since no one was able to claim them. The state Department of Social Services placed them in temporary foster homes last night.

Meantime, immigration advocates denounced yesterday's raid for splitting up families. Attorney Ondine Sniffen says these workers are the victims of a broken immigration system.

ONDINE SNIFFEN: It just screams the need for immigration reform. Everyday I say it can't get any worse, and I just see it getting worse and worse.

TONESS: Immigration authorities said yesterday's raid was one of it's biggest workplace operations.

Law enforcement officials also arrested the factory owner and three managers. They now face criminal charges for conspiring to hire illegal immigrants and encouraging immigrants to live in the United States illegally.

Federal immigration officials say the company, Michael Bianco, Incorporated, or M.B.I., paid low wages, didn't pay overtime, and docked workers' pay for minor infractions.

At a press conference, Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers called the leather goods company an egregious employer.

JULIE MYERS: They exploited the workers and tried to take advantage of these horrible practices to get a leg up on their competitors. And so that fits squarely into ICE's priorities in targeting egregious employers who use illegal employment as part of their business model. What happened at M.B.I., alleged in the complaint, didn't happen by accident. It was a deliberate pattern to try and evade federal immigration laws.

TONESS: According to U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, the company started small but grew because of big government contracts. The Department of Defense contracted M.B.I. in 2001 to make gear for the U.S. military.

Since then, they've received more than $100 million in government work. Even though the Department of Defense was paying the bills, Sullivan says the federal government shouldn't be held responsible for the allegedly illegal hirings.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: It's difficult to fault the government for a scheme that was really developed and implemented allegedly by the business itself.

TONESS: The company owner, Francesco Insolia, didn't return calls for comment. And it's not clear whether his factory will still operate.

The future of the detained workers is also uncertain. Immigration officials said if the workers can prove they are their childrens' sole caregivers, they will be released, but face possible deportation later.

This program aired on March 7, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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