New Bedford immigration raid separates families but unites legal community response

Issue May 2007

On March 6, a team of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided Michael Bianco Inc, a New Bedford factory that specializes in the manufacture of leather goods, much of that work performed by illegal immigrants.

According to allegations in an ICE press release, an MBI owner and other MBI employees working on his behalf knowingly and actively hired illegal aliens. Although MBI requires all prospective employees to produce proof of their identity and their eligibility to work, the company was aware that many employees had obtained fraudulent Alien Registration Cards, commonly known as “green cards,” and Social Security Cards. ICE further alleged that MBI management even instructed prospective employees, including an undercover ICE agent, on how to obtain such fraudulent documents.

Of approximately 360 workers arrested during the raid, about 110 were the sole caregivers for one or more children in the United States, according to federal and state authorities. Those arrested were transported and imprisoned 100 miles away, at Fort Devens, to determine their alienage and immigration status. The detainees, about one-third of those arrested, were then held in Massachusetts or transported to two locations in Texas.

The night of the raid, lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union spent most of night at the Fort Devens detention facility. Even though there were six lawyers the first night of the raid and 16 GBLS staff and others at Fort Devens the second night, they were only permitted to interview 31 detainees over the course of about 18-and-a-half hours before ICE began shipping them to Texas, according to GBLS Executive Director Bob Sable.

According to an ICE spokesman, approximately 90 detainees were released on humanitarian grounds, mostly because they were the primary caregivers to minor children.

Those released still face deportation hearings. Immigrant advocates lashed out at the government for the raid, and elected officials, including U.S. Sen. John Kerry, denounced the raid for causing “what those on the ground are describing as a humanitarian crisis in Southeastern Massachusetts.”

In a statement following the raid, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said, “It is understandable that many from around the globe would want to come to live, work and raise families here in the greatest democracy in the world. However, this must be done in compliance with U.S. immigration laws – not in violation of them.”

On March 27, attorneys representing the detainees received word that the government intended to deport 123 of the 361 workers arrested at MBI, but that number may have included detainees being held in New England and those who were under prior orders or deportation or who re-entered the country after being deported before.

Although ICE claimed that many of the detainees held in Texas voluntarily accepted removal orders, on April 6, Greater Boston Legal Services and Harvey Kaplan, of Kaplan, O’Sullivan & Friedman LLP, asked for and were granted a temporary restraining order. They claimed that the rights of the detainees may have been violated because they were sent to Texas without speaking to counsel and did not have documents properly translated for them.

As part of the 10-day restraining order, ICE was required to provide GBLS with access to the detainees and with a list of the names of the detainees that ICE claimed had voluntarily accepted removal orders. The list ICE was required to provide was the first detailed accounting of those who had waived their rights. Advocates for the immigrants have suggested the detainees who agreed to waive their rights to a hearing were pressured or misled into doing so. ICE officials deny that claim, saying the immigrants had access to attorneys throughout their detentions and were continually informed of their rights.

Nine people from Massachusetts went to Texas to interview the detainees after the federal court ordered ICE to allow them access. The interview team comprised six GBLS attorneys and one paralegal, a lawyer from Catholic Social Services and a local community activist from New Bedford who can speak quiche, a Mayan language spoken by many of the detainees.

Of 80 detainees interviewed, 54 expressed a desire to withdraw their waivers and claim a right to a hearing. “It’s startling that 54 people stated that they did not wish to waive their rights once they had access to counsel,” said Kaplan. “Our position is these people have been severely prejudiced by not having access to counsel and the government went out of its way and acted in bad faith to deter counsel from conferring with these people.”

The legal community responds Striking in the chaos of the raid and relocation of detainees was the rapid, coordinated response of so many in the Massachusetts legal community.

Although their constituencies may be different, recent debates about comprehensive immigration reform have forged relationships among immigration attorneys and their varied organizations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Because of those relationships, attorneys from these organizations were able to connect, even while the raid was happening. AILA New England Chapter Chair Punam Rogers, Foley Hoag LLP, was among those who contacted the media, informed immigration attorneys as to what was happening, recruited volunteers to go to the detention center and drafted a federal court action.

“There was information sharing and coordination; everyone was working together. Because of that, it got the press it deserved and a lot of issues that would have been overlooked got examined,” said Rogers.

In particular, the humanitarian issues, not just the legal issues, were spotlighted in the media. The public was made aware that the majority of those to be deported were women, caretakers of their dependent children.

The public learned that MBI owners were criminally sanctioned but were out on bail the next day, while the undocumented workers were transported hundreds of miles from their families, with no access to legal resources.

“The response was truly amazing,” said Rogers. “Eighty-five attorneys went to training by PAIR Project. A lot were not immigration attorneys, but they just wanted to help. People really responded, I think, because of media and coalition partners who got everyone together, who got people together from the start.”

The PAIR immigration bond training session was held at the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC. According to Sarah Ignatius, PAIR’s executive director, the initial training was on bond issues and ways to put together a bond hearing so that people could be released. But in order to be successful in immigration court, to get a bond that the client could afford to pay, clients have to speak about the kind of relief from deportation they might be eligible for. This requires attorneys to be trained in interviewing, to get facts and to know the legal requirements.

“We have all been so impressed by the tremendous response of the private bar in volunteering to help families torn apart by this raid,” said Ignatius. “I’m overwhelmed by the strong show of support and the willingness to take this on, since our time frames are so short. These attorneys have had to become instant experts on immigration issues.”

She notes that the detainees’ cases can be time and labor intensive. The volunteer attorneys have had to go to the detention centers, arrange interpreters and deal with prison officials and families.

“It can be challenging, emotionally difficult and compelling. People have really risen to the occasion,” said Ignatius. “The legal community in Massachusetts has been tremendous,” said Kaplan. “We’ve had at least 80 lawyers volunteer. It touches a nerve, to any attorney, that there’s something wrong [with the conduct of the raid].”

Roy J. Watson Jr., chair of the MBA’s Immigration Law Committee, said, “It’s fortunate that the attorneys were able to respond so quickly. We can’t praise these attorneys enough.” Watson explained that it was honorable for the responding attorneys to put aside their busy lives to offer assistance.

The silver lining In addition to demonstrating the unity and commitment of the legal community, the New Bedford raid has had a positive impact on other fronts.

According to Ali Noorani, executive director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, it has been a challenge for his organization to meet the incredible social, financial and advocacy needs that have come as a result of the New Bedford raids. Yet, this local crisis may serve as the national issue in the campaign to push comprehensive immigration reform.

In addition, much like FEMA’s emergency action plans, AILA is using this experience to inform the action list it is drafting on how to respond to an ICE raid. The issue was highlighted with the Swift meat packing plant raids last December, and AILA now has a task force with attorneys from all over the country putting together a tool kit on how to respond to the different aspects of a raid — how to handle employees and employers, detention issues, federal court, immigration court, removal proceedings and humanitarian parole.

“The raid has brought out, in some ways, the best qualities of people, of compassion, a willingness to help families in their desperate situations,” Ignatius said. As proof, she revealed that in early April, PAIR hired a new staff attorney whose only assignment was to mentor pro bono attorneys working on the cases resulting from the New Bedford raid.

“That position was solely funded by one very generous individual, Robert J. Hildreth,” she said. Hildreth is a philanthropist and head of International Bank Services in Boston. “We had not known him before, but he has supported other efforts involving people from Latin America. He stepped forward and genuinely wanted to help.”

Watson is impressed with the response of the MBA’s Immigration Law Committee members.

“The MBA has been incredibly supportive of the council’s efforts and everything we’ve done.” According to Watson, 43 MBA members volunteered to provide follow-up support to the detainees. “I’m proud we stood up and helped, and I’m optimistic we can do more in future,” he said.