Illegal immigration has gotten a lot of recent attention with the passage of Arizona’s controversial law. What often gets lost, however, is how immigration — legal and illegal — changes our country and our state. But few really know what goes on within these communities — to many, they are “invisible.” This is Part 1 of a WBUR Series: Invisible Communities.
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — In 2007, federal agents hauled off 361 immigrants from a factory in New Bedford. At the time, it was the biggest workplace raid in the country. Boston media outlets documented the event in graphic detail.
“Today there were horror stories of workers fleeing the building and even jumping into New Bedford Harbor to escape the federal agents,” recounted one WBZ-TV reporter.
Juana Garcia was working inside the Michael Bianco, Inc. factory that day.
“When I saw that the agents carried guns I thought they were going to shoot us," Garcia says in Spanish. "I thought we were all going to die that day."
Garcia and many others were sent to Texas. Many women with small children were released but Garcia refused to divulge any information about her two-year-old son. She was afraid that immigration agents would pick him up, even though he's a United States citizen.
“They lived, in a sense, underground, under the table. We didn’t know they were there.”Immigration attorney John Willshire Carrera
It wasn't until her son got very sick and his doctor sent a letter to immigration officials that they sent her back to New Bedford. Garcia had been detained nine days.
“When I returned home, I approached my son and he didn't recognize me," Garcia says. "For him, I was already a stranger."
Some would say Garcia and her family never should have come here, that they brought this trouble on themselves. But Garcia says leaving Guatemala was the only way to stay alive.
“We were not welcome in the country,” she says of Guatemala. “It's like we are animals. Actually, worse than animals.”
Garcia and about half of the people detained in the 2007 raid belong to an ethnic group called the Maya K’iche — indigenous Guatemalans. The Maya K’iche have had a bad relationship with the Spaniards who colonized Guatemala. The relationship culminated in a long, bloody civil war. So many Maya K’iche died in the war that the United Nations called it a genocide.
The civil war officially ended in 1996. But many say that didn't stop the persecution of the Maya K'iche. So, rather than continue to face it, Garcia and her family moved illegally to America.
“When we arrived here, we never thought of talking to anyone,” Garcia explains. “We saw that there were a lot of Maya K’iche here and people from our same town, but we didn't talk to them, and even less to strangers who weren't K’iche.”
Here in New Bedford, Garcia and her family didn’t talk because they were traumatized by what they suffered in Guatemala. That meant they never learned that some of the most established people in the group had won political asylum based on their experience in Guatemala.
“They lived, in a sense, underground, under the table,” says John Willshire Carrera, a longtime immigration attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services. “We didn't know they were there. We've been doing immigrants rights work for years.”
But when agents stormed that factory, it changed everything for this community. The group at once became visible. Ironically, it took the raid to improve the lives of many Maya K’iche.
That's thanks in part to Anibal Lucas.
Sitting in his storefront office in New Bedford, Lucas talks on his cell phone. It’s 7 p.m. and someone has just called looking for a ride to Boston the next day. Lucas sighs.
“What’s the latest you can be there,” he says.
Lucas is the unlikely hero of the Maya K’iche.
He is a grumpy man with two small kids at home, but he has spent the last three years ferrying people from New Bedford to Boston. He realized after the raid that his community would have a hard time fighting deportation since many of them don't drive and wouldn't make it to their court appointments in Boston. So Lucas and one of his assistants have done most of the driving.
Lucas never intended to be an organizer. He started Organizacion Maya K'iche before the raid to help educate children about the Maya K’iche language. Few members of the community visited the office. But now, because of his work helping people after the raid, he's become the center of this community, sponsoring classes on immigrant rights at work and even arranging social gatherings.
“It's been a lot of work,” he says in Spanish. “First of all, we don't speak English. And we didn't know anything about computers. I didn't know how to write. It was really hard for me.”
In March, Lucas took about 50 Maya K’iche members to Washington for a national immigration reform rally. Just a few years ago, these people were afraid of leaving their homes and now they're marching on Washington. All of this can be traced back to the raid of 2007.
“Remembering back on that day, at that moment, it was awful,” says Juana Capir, a 30-year-old who was detained, in Spanish. “But at the same time, I think I'm better off because of the raid.”
Capir has a green card now because she met an attorney after she was detained. After getting her green card, Capir became less afraid to do things. Now she visits her children's school and escorts other Maya K’iche women to court. She marched on Washington.
We realized we had rights. We started to understand how to live here, and that’s when I started to take charge of my life.Juana Garcia
She's not the only one who's changed her mind about the raid. Martina Hernandez received political asylum and is on her way to getting her green card. “Difficult and terrible things happened to me, but sometimes I thank God that they did,” she says in Spanish.
Garcia, in the meantime, is still waiting for an answer from an immigration judge.
Chopping vegetables in her home, she is surrounded by memories of the raid. Her nephew has received a green card after being detained that day. Her son still shows signs of trauma from being separated from her.
She's too hoping to receive asylum, but, for now, she says the raid gave her less tangible benefits.
“We realized we had rights,” she says. “We started to understand how to live here, and that's when I started to take charge of my life.”
The legacy of the raid remains complicated. Dozens of people were deported back to Guatemala. However, many are still trying to win political asylum. Some are getting green cards, and so are their friends and family who weren't even part of the raid. But the bigger legacy might be that this community, once underground, was forced out of hiding, and they've decided to make the most of it.
This program aired on May 10, 2010.