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Maria del Carmen Villeda was willing to deal with working conditions that a former immigration agent likened to an industrial era sweatshop. Her children back in Honduras relied on the money she sent home, and her mother was sick and in need of medications.
But Villeda's life turned upside down one freezing morning 10 years ago, on March 6, 2007, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided the plant that employed Villeda and hundreds more people in the country illegally.
"It was a day of anguish, a day I don't even want to remember," Villeda said in Spanish on a recent afternoon, standing outside the building where she used to work in the South End of New Bedford, just blocks away from the triple-decker where she lives now.
"We started working at 7 in the morning, and shortly after that we saw the immigration agents," she recalled. "We had nowhere to go. People were running in every direction -- there were more than 500 people, colliding into each other running down the stairs."
Ten years have passed since ICE raided the Michael Bianco Inc. textile plant. While Bianco’s owner and several managers were arrested, 361 workers were detained in one of the largest immigration raids in a single location in U.S. history.
The raid was based on an ICE investigation that alleged the company had “knowingly and specifically been hiring large numbers of illegal aliens." The agent in charge at the time said it was the largest immigration raid in the history of the state — involving some 300 ICE agents in addition to an array of local, state and federal agencies.
At the time, Bianco Inc. was a recipient of Department of Defense contracts, making gear for American soldiers. Former ICE officials said they believe the order to arrest all of the undocumented workers came from the highest levels of government.
Of 361 workers, immigration attorneys estimate that 150 were deported. At least a handful, including Villeda, would return to the city.
Thirty-three years old at the time, Villeda found a hiding spot under a table in the factory. She says six hours passed before ICE agents found her.
“They found me with their dogs,” she said. “If it wasn't for the dogs maybe I would have gotten away."
Villeda was deported to Honduras, but it would only be a matter of time before she would return to New Bedford.
'A Humanitarian Crisis'
Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford, says the raid resulted in a "community-wide trauma" that’s felt to this day. She says it took a long time for some of the Bianco workers who were released to feel safe leaving their homes and sending their kids to school.
"During the raid we had families that were ripped apart, essentially, and I think it's not in the abstract for them," she said. "Everyone kind of knows someone that was impacted by the raid, so it's part of the fabric of the community."
Williams referenced the current climate surrounding immigration, adding, "It was a really, really devastating part of our local history, and hopefully we won't return to those times."
A video posted on YouTube shortly after the raid shows Gloribell Mota holding a sick baby. Mota, who spoke with WBUR about the video, was among the volunteers who flooded into New Bedford after the raid, helping to care for children who’d been separated from their parents.
"The mom was detained, she was taken,” Mota told the camera, visibly shaken up. “The baby hasn't drunk, it's dehydrated, it has a fever, it cried all night, and now we're going to the emergency room to see what can be done."
Federal authorities involved in the raid say they made every effort to prevent children from being abandoned. Ultimately, as many as 90 parents were released to care for their dependents.
Bruce Foucart was special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in New England, the top guy in the orchestration of the raid.
"When you talk about humanitarian, we covered every base," said Foucart, who’s now retired from ICE. "We worked with [what was then the Department of Social Services], we worked with Public Safety, we worked with the New Bedford Police Department, we worked with the New Bedford School Department. We did not want to have children coming home to empty houses."
Many think ICE could have done more to help in the aftermath of the raid. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick called it a “humanitarian crisis.”
Patrick declined to comment for this story, but his Department of Social Services chief, Harry Spence, recalled the impact on children who were separated from their parents.
"It is deeply traumatic,” Spence said. “Can you imagine if all of a sudden your parent or parents are seized, and you're on your own? You can imagine the trauma that that inflicted on those children."
Foucart had a special connection to the Bianco raid: He was raised in the neighborhood where the factory was located. He says he'd go back and do the raid all over again if he had to.
But he has one regret: "The failure to come back to New Bedford two or three days later and continually answer questions to the community, to priests, to politicians. It was almost as if we did what we had to do … and we took our ball and went home,” Foucart said. "We failed to answer, and because we failed to answer these pertinent questions about where their loved ones were going, it created a vacuum. And what happens in a vacuum? Falsities occur, people start making stuff up."
Foucart says rumors of abuses on the part of ICE agents were unfounded.
Former ICE agent Eric Caron, also a New Bedford native, said he led the investigation into the Bianco company.
"The conditions were horrendous for the workers in that facility,” he said. “They weren't able to speak while working, they were given fines for taking too long in the restrooms, the heat wasn't put on. Quite frankly it was a 1920, turn-of-the-century factory — in my eyes a slave labor camp, producing military articles for the U.S. military."
Caron emphasized that the Bianco raid was a matter of national security.
"It failed to provide jobs to Americans and it put our men and women serving in our military in harm’s way,” Caron said, "because we don't know the intentions of foreign individuals coming into our defense industry without the proper vetting."
Albert Orlowski is a retired deportation officer who immigrated from Poland as a child and grew up in New Bedford. He says he and his fellow ICE agents were told not to make any vacation plans the week of the Bianco raid.
"My assignment was in case anybody called the office, which we knew we were going to get all kinds of inquiries from various agencies or consulates or politicians," Orlowski said. "My job was to give them information — true and accurate information, what was going on, because there was all kinds of rumors ... I just a told everybody that it was just a regular operation."
Orlowski qualifies the operation as a sweeping success, and says the best part was that nobody got hurt. Asked if he has a sense of remorse about helping deport so many people, Orlowski shook his head.
"I have no remorse at all because every person I removed from this country, who I was responsible for, I realize that person has broken the law, he knew what he was doing," he said. "Do I feel bad as a human being? Yes. I feel bad for the children, of course I do."
'Workers Now Know Their Rights'
On a recent weekday evening, a group of workers from a local fish factory discussed what they called bullying and discrimination by their employers, and what steps to take to defend themselves. They gathered at the Centro Comunitario Trabajadores, or Community Workers Center, a group founded in the aftermath of the Bianco raid.
"The CCT was like the fruit born out of the attack against us,” said Adrian Ventura, the stout man who leads the organization and who has become a de facto spokesman for the thousands of Mayans who live in New Bedford. “With every attack something new is created. This is how we defend our rights."
Ventura is a member of the Maya Quiche people. Working without legal status at a textile plant in New Bedford, Ventura said he was fired the day of the Bianco raid because his employers thought they could be targeted next. Ventura said his wife was also fired from a textile factory shortly after the raid.
Hearing helicopters in the air the day he was fired, Ventura left his job for the last time, running to the Bianco factory to see what was going on.
Ventura said it brought him back to the Guatemalan civil war he lived through in the 1980s. "The immigration police left me completely in shock,” he said in Spanish, describing the day of the raid. “I didn't want to see them because they arrived with weapons, and this was the trauma that I came with from Guatemala -- the bombs, the helicopters, the guns. I hated it."
But now, 10 years later, he says the raid had a galvanizing effect on the community.
"What has changed is that many of the workers now know their rights,” he said. “Many now fight for their benefits.”
Ondine Sniffin was the first immigration attorney to arrive at the factory the day of the raid. She said politicians stood up to help reunite families -- but 10 years later, it's the people who also stand up.
"Now we have these massive protests and people carrying signs for immigrant rights," Sniffin said. "And I think that gives the immigrant community some hope that before another raid like Michael Bianco happens, more people are aware and there will be a greater outcry."
'I Had To Come Here'
After the raid, Maria del Carmen Villeda was jailed for three months before being deported. Back in Honduras, she said she found herself in poverty and menaced by violence -- the same situation that caused her to leave her five children and travel north in the first place. Only now, Villeda said, the gangs were reaching new levels of brutality. She said they killed multiple family members and kidnapped her son.
“I had to come here to the United States," said Villeda, who's 43 now.
Villeda applied for a visa but was denied, so she decided to return to the U.S. in September 2015 without papers and turn herself in to immigration authorities to request asylum. Officers put a monitor around her ankle, and she said she's had it on ever since.
Now, Villeda has little recourse but to pray her asylum request will be granted.
"We'll see what happens with this new president," she said of Donald Trump. "I hope God touches his heart."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ondine Sniffin's last name. We regret the error.
This segment aired on March 6, 2017.
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