A massive ICE raid in this town didn't stop undocumented labor — or illegal immigration

Apr 20, 2017

The traffic blockade was ready. The vans and buses were standing by. The agents told the mayor and the Department of Social Services. And then they stormed the factory.

It was March 6, 2007, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Immigration officials raided the Michael Bianco leather factory, a defense contractor that hired hundreds of undocumented workers to sew belts and backpacks for the US military.

The agents arrested 362 workers, most of whom were deported to Guatemala.

Deportees left behind children, some so young they were still breastfeeding. Local social services groups had to take care of the kids, organize food donations and work with state agencies to try to get some of the parents out of detention.

ICE raids like these were happening across the country during President George W. Bush’s second term, sweeping factories from New Bedford to Postville, Iowa, to businesses in cities up and down California.

Related: Immigration law experts say workplace raids don't really work

Bush wanted to get tough on unauthorized immigration, and the dramatic worksite raids got lots of media attention. They also terrified immigrants and required extensive resources — Immigrations and Customs Enforcement estimates 500 law enforcement personnel were involved in the New Bedford raid alone.

Above all, the raids were meant to curb illegal immigration to the US; to deter both employers and would-be migrants from taking part in undocumented labor.

But did they?

“There’s no question about it,” says Thomas Hodgson, who’s been sheriff of Bristol County, which includes New Bedford, since the time of the Bianco raid. He’s never doubted that the raid was the right call.

A local immigration advocate, however, disagrees. She was also in New Bedford during the 2007 raid and says ICE left local and state agencies scrambling to quell the chaos caused by splitting up hundreds of families.

“No one benefited from that [raid],” says Helena DaSilva Hughes, director of New Bedford’s Immigrants’ Assistance Center. “It just created a lot of chaos and a lot of trauma.”

The undocumented population in the US has slightly declined from its peak in 2007, from 12 million then to 11 million people today. But Kevin Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies immigration raids, doesn’t think raids have much to do with that.  

“It doesn’t appear to be borne out by the evidence that raids have had much, if any, of an impact on undocumented immigrant numbers in the country,” says Johnson, dean of the UC Davis law school. “But that’s at least one of the theories for raids.”

One thing they definitely do, in Johnson’s opinion, is “strike fear in the hearts of the immigrant community.”

New deportation standards

President Donald Trump ran for office as the “law-and-order” candidate, promising Americans he would be tough on immigration, especially illegal immigration.

Since Trump took office in January, the number of illegal border crossings into the US has decreased, continuing a downward trend that began early in the Barack Obama years. Experts say it’s still too soon to tell whether President Trump’s rhetoric has hastened the decline.

But one immigration trend is clear this early in Trump’s administration: The criteria for deportation have changed.

Twice as many noncriminal immigrants were arrested by ICE in the first 10 weeks of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the Obama administration’s program that let unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children work in the country legally — were not previously a high priority for removal. Under Trump, immigration agents have detained some DACA recipients, and at least one has been deported. ICE agents have also detained green card applicants appearing at scheduled appointments to adjust their legal status.

The president is also beefing up deportation resources across the country. Such efforts could cost the US billions of dollars annually.

So far, the deportations have focused on individuals, not employers or large groups of workers like during Bush’s second term.

For Trump, illegal immigration is very much a jobs issue. As a candidate, he said of unauthorized Mexican immigrants: “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” As the Republican nominee, he said that US jobs should be “offered to American workers first.”

Indeed, the question of whether immigrants take jobs from Americans was a central campaign issue. On Tuesday, touting his pledge to "buy American and hire American," Trump signed an executive order to review the program for awarding visas to highly skilled foreign workers.

Studies have shown, however, that immigrant workers tend to benefit the US economy overall. Undocumented workers alone paid $26 billion in taxes last year. But that’s cold comfort for some Americans struggling to find work, especially those with experience in declining industries like coal.

In New Bedford, it’s clear that deporting undocumented workers didn’t do much for legal workers living there. The Michael Bianco leather plant shut down several months after the 2007 raid, and its jobs went to a firm doing work out of Puerto Rico. Overall unemployment in the city rose in the following years, before declining again in 2010.

Today, the former Bianco factory still stands empty, locked away behind a rusty white fence.

And factories in New Bedford still hire undocumented workers, possibly at a higher rate than before.

A day of chaos

The morning of the New Bedford raid, the IAC’s Helena DaSilva Hughes rushed over to the Bianco factory after hearing there were helicopters circling it.

She stood outside with other social services workers, none of whom were allowed inside the factory, where ICE agents and other law enforcement were rounding up employees.

By midday, frantic relatives had arrived, too.

“People were just coming up to me, crying,” says DaSilva Hughes. “Some of them … had medication, and they needed to get the medication to their loved ones who were working in the factory.”

Inside, Ricardo Calel was one of hundreds cuffed with zip ties. He says agents had rushed onto the factory floor in the middle of his morning shift, yelling, “Nobody move! Don’t run! Hands in the air!”

He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he heard it was Immigration, coming to check the workers’ documents. He knew that when they got to him, there’d be nothing to check.

“The first thing I thought of was my son,” Calel recalls.

“Who’s he with?” an agent asked when Calel brought up the boy.

“With the babysitter,” Calel replied.

“Is your wife in the country?”

“Yes.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s working, somewhere else.”

“OK, then. Don’t worry,” Calel says the agent told him. “Your wife will take care of your kid.”

The majority of the detainees were transported within hours to detention centers elsewhere in Massachusetts, and later to Texas, where Calel was held for months. He didn’t get to see his wife or his son before he was deported to Guatemala. When he left New Bedford, his wife was one month pregnant with their second child.

The raid happened on a Tuesday morning. When school let out that day, the basement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church was packed with kids whose parents had been detained. In some cases, children had lost both parents.

DaSilva Hughes says some of the children were just infants, carried in by babysitters.

“As I walked in, I was sort of traumatized,” DaSilva Hughes says. “I saw lots of children crying, and a lot of people screaming, and just people coming up to me [saying], ‘What do you want me to do with these children?’”

“I never in my life have seen so much chaos, and so much sadness, and so much confusion.”

DaSilva Hughes’s group, the IAC, worked with state lawmakers and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition on a daily basis to help reconnect families.

She says she knew that picking up the pieces would fall to state and local groups and that she had said so to immigration agents on site at the Bianco factory.

“‘You know, after you leave, we're going to be with a mess,’” she says she told them.

New Bedford’s mayor at the time, Scott Lang, didn’t think a raid was the right way to deal with unauthorized workers, either. He says it left the small coastal city in the lurch.

“The city was not equipped to open an apartment for a kid who was getting out of school, or make sure they were going to be fed,” Lang says. “We don’t have the ability to fill in for 360 mom or dads.”

Lang says the raid shocked everyone in the 91,000-person town.

Related: Undocumented workers demand rights in a city scarred by a massive raid

“There’s nothing more unsettling than seeing the federal government come into your town,” he says.

“We’re a city of immigrants, and we always have been,” he adds, “since the first [European] people landed in New Bedford. We’re very welcoming.”

Families who lost breadwinners in the raid were sustained in part by the people of New Bedford, who donated food and money. MIRA set up a donation fund so American children could get passports and travel to see their deported parents who weren’t allowed back to the US.

That’s not to say that everyone in the city shared the same view of illegal immigration, Lang points out. But the fallout from the raid touched them all more deeply than their politics.

“You could see people completely against a pathway to citizenship show up at the Lady of Guadalupe with canned goods, saying, ‘I wanna help any way I can,’” Lang says. “Everyone rallied to support the families.”

Business complicates enforcement

The origin of the raid is murky.

News stories reported that ICE officials were tipped off by a disgruntled worker who said the Bianco bosses were abusive and were helping their undocumented employees obtain false documents. (Bianco’s owner, Francesco Insolia, was eventually charged with “conspiring to encourage or induce illegal aliens to reside in the US and to hire illegal aliens.”)

Former ICE agent Eric Caron was quoted by New Bedford’s Standard-Times saying the raid addressed a risk to national security: Michael Bianco was a defense contractor, and the undocumented workers it employed were sewing gear for the US military. “We do not know what's in their hearts and minds,” Caron said of the workers.

Lang believes that concern is disingenuous because “there were government officials there every day inspecting the product” for years.

Government agents could have raided the place anytime, Lang argues, but they chose to do it in the middle of the Bush crackdown.

“It is beyond my imagination [that] the government inspectors who were there did not know [the workers were undocumented],” he says. ICE did not immediately reply to a request for comment on this.

In New Bedford, factories still employ undocumented workers.

It's hard to determine the size of New Bedford's undocumented population — legal status isn't something people are public about. But DaSilva Hughes and other aid group leaders estimate there are between 7,000 and 10,000 undocumented people in New Bedford today. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Public Policy Center, working with census data, estimated an annual undocumented population of about 3,000 people between 2010 and 2014.

From her work in the community and with local government, DaSilva Hughes is sure the population has grown since 2007 and believes it might have almost doubled.

At least one of the workers who got deported in the Bianco raid is back in the States.

Living in the US without papers, facing the constant possibility of deportation, is, for some, a safer gamble than life in Central America.

The majority of workers deported from New Bedford were from Guatemala, where poverty contributes to one of the highest rates of violent crime in Central America. The Overseas Security Advisory Council lists Guatemala as one of the 25 most dangerous places to live in the world.

Faye Hipsman, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told PolitiFact last month that Central Americans’ reasons for coming to the US remain “unchanged.”

“Violence and insecurity still grip the region, poverty has not improved,” said Hipsman, “and there are still tens of thousands of families living apart with some members in the US and in others in Central America with desires to reunify."

This is why, as New Bedford’s former Mayor Lang puts it, “You’re not gonna deport your way out of this problem.”

Two years after he was deported in the New Bedford raid, leaving behind his wife and children, Ricardo Calel was back in New Bedford — working a new job, still without papers.

He remains in the country now and says he’s worked at factories all over southern Massachusetts.

He chuckles at the irony of having been deported while working for a government contractor.

“You see how things work in the United States? We were doing work for the government,” he says, “and they treated us as if we weren’t worth anything. We were making products for their soldiers.”

Sheriff Hodgson says employers get away with hiring undocumented workers by using subcontractors. They hire a temp agency, which hires the workers, and each company leaves it to the other to check whether the hires are authorized to work in the US.

But Hodgson thinks worksite raids can help change business practices, as long as they’re coupled with harsher punishment: “We need to give some jail time to some of these business owners [employing unauthorized workers].”

Bianco’s owner Insolia was sentenced to a year in prison after the New Bedford raid. But both DaSilva Hughes and Hodgson think that was a light sentence.

“They need to know that it isn’t gonna be just a slap on the wrist and a fine,” Hodgson says, “because to them, it’s worth the investment: ‘If I have to pay the fine and get caught, I’ll make it up on the next [round of workers].’”

The problem with employer checks

The government does have a program meant to prevent illegal employment.

It’s E-Verify, a 20-year-old initiative that allows companies to check whether someone is eligible to work in the US.

Since the time of the Bush raids, the Department of Homeland Security has pointed to E-Verify as the way to keep employers in check — to discourage them from hiring unauthorized immigrants, no matter how cheap their labor.

It’s not mandatory across the country, however; just 20 states required E-Verify as of October 2016, and those states have about a two-thirds compliance rate. E-Verify also can’t catch cases of identity theft, which is common among unauthorized workers.

“E-Verify needs to be enforced,” says Sheriff Hodgson. The way it works now, Hodgson says, “It’s sort of like a wink and a nod: ‘If you can get in, hey, look! Here’s a place where you can come and get a job.’”

US Citizenship and Immigration Services did not respond specifically to an inquiry about plans to expand E-Verify under Trump. A spokesperson said via email that the program “is constantly growing, as new employers come aboard and more states pass resolutions expanding E-Verify.”

USCIS directed questions about enforcement of the program to ICE, whose spokesperson directed questions back to USCIS.

Kevin Johnson, the UC Davis dean who studies raids, says the undocumented population is “not likely to decline unless the economic demands for undocumented workers were to decline.”

Not afraid anymore

Ricardo Calel crossed the border back into the US after he was deported in the New Bedford raid.

Finding a job again was the least of his concerns. He wanted to get back to his family, and he knew once he made it to the US, he’d be able to find work somewhere.

Following the raid, he had spent about nine months in a Texas detention center before being sent back to Guatemala. Not long after returning to his hometown, he got a call from his wife, still in Massachusetts, saying their son was wondering where his father was.

She told Calel, “Come back, he’s really worried. He’s really sad.”

“And I told her, ‘Don’t worry,’” he says. “I have to go back. I’m going back even if I die in the desert.”

Remembering this moment is the only thing that nearly brings Calel to tears during a two-hour conversation spanning his arrest, being held at gunpoint by people smugglers and crawling through the Sonoran Desert with an injured leg.

Calel, 42, rode on any bus or truck that would take him through Mexico, encountering coyotes and Mexican federal agents on the way — and paying his way out of trouble.

It's hard to track the number of people who get deported from the US and cross the border again. But Calel certainly isn’t the only one.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse reports that about 140,000 of the people deported since 2003 were Guatemalans who have been deported more than once.

Calel got back to New Bedford in 2009, when his younger son was learning to walk. They hadn’t met before.

Ven, papi,” Calel says he’d tell the boy. “Yo soy tu papa.” I am your dad.

It took a while for the boys to warm up to him, with the help of his wife. Eventually, he won over the kids, but his wife’s feelings for him had cooled while he was away.

She was living with their kids and with another man — a friend of his who had stayed with the family before Calel got deported.

“You know how things go, when you trust someone,” Calel says. “I don’t know if they fell in love, but when I got back she didn’t have feelings for me anymore. ... But I reminded myself that I didn’t do all that [crossing the border] for her. I did it for my kids.”

The parents tried to make it work, but it was too hard. Living in the same house became toxic, so Calel moved out. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, now, working at a seafood supply company.

He says he pays his wife child support, but it’s a verbal agreement — both of them are undocumented, so they can’t go to family court.

In his living room are stuffed animals and a framed photo of his sons. He says the boys are older now than in the picture, but he hasn’t seen them in a few months. He and their mom are fighting.

He lives with roommates, a younger couple with a newborn. He doesn’t know when he’ll see his kids again, but he has enough pictures of them in his cellphone to scroll for hours.

This is his life now.

These days, he uses a fake name at work. He knows he could get deported again but says he adjusted to that reality soon after he got back.

“What was I gonna do? I couldn’t do anything, even though I was scared,” he says. “I didn’t have another option. I needed to work. I needed to support myself and my sons.”

He says his kids sometimes ask why President Trump “hates people like them” — that they understand their parents could be deported. Calel doesn’t like that they know this much.

And he says if he were to be deported another time, he’d cross the border again to come back. For them.

Before the raid, he was afraid of being deported and losing his family. Now, “I’m not afraid,” he says. “Not even of death.”

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