10 Years After The New Bedford ICE Raid, Immigrant Community Has Hope

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Adrian Ventura is the director of <em>Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores</em>, or Community Workers Center, which was founded in the aftermath of the raid.

Under the cover of darkness on a freezing March morning, 300 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents headed for New Bedford, Mass. Once there, they would raid a factory and arrest 361 immigrants in the country illegally, along with the people who hired them.

It's been 10 years since federal agents raided the textile plant. Hundreds of workers were detained on March 6, 2007, in an operation the governor at the time said brought on a "humanitarian crisis."

The raid stemmed from an investigation into a Defense Department contractor that was hiring immigrants without work permits. It disrupted the lives of many, but some say it galvanized a community.

"When you talk about humanitarian, we covered every base," says Bruce Foucart, the special agent in charge of homeland security investigations and the top ICE official overseeing the raid at Michael Bianco Inc.

Families were broken up, but Foucart says ICE did what it could to prevent the children of factory workers from being left alone.

"We worked with [the then Massachusetts 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 officials," Foucart says. "Our concern was we did not want to have children coming home to empty houses."

With tens of millions of dollars of Defense Department contracts, Bianco made gear for American soldiers like knapsacks and vests. The raid was a matter of critical infrastructure, Foucart says, and the order to arrest everyone who did not have papers came from the highest levels of government.

A "communitywide trauma"

Ten years after the Bianco raid, several workers discuss their grievances with one of New Bedford's two dozen fish factories. It's a weeknight, and they're meeting at the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, or Community Workers Center, a group founded in the aftermath of the raid.

The group "was like a fruit of the attack against us," says Adrian Ventura, who heads the center that caters to workers from Central America. "With every attack, something new is created."

Ventura says something fundamental changed with the raid. "Many of the workers now know their rights," he says. "Many now fight for their benefits."

Some refer to the Bianco raid as a "communitywide trauma" with effects still felt today. But it also brought people together.

Ondine Sniffin, the first immigration attorney on the scene after the raid, says more people are willing to stand up for immigrants today. "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," she says.

Sniffin says her practice in New Bedford is getting flooded with calls from people afraid of what's coming from the Trump administration.

Maria del Carmen Villeda is one of the people desperate to know. Of the 361 Bianco workers who were arrested, Villeda was one of about 150 estimated by attorneys to be deported.

Back in Honduras, she found herself facing unemployment, and she was menaced by gangs reaching new levels of brutality.

"This is why I went to the embassy to get a visa," she says. "But I was denied. After that, gang members killed an uncle and two cousins. I decided to leave. I left home at 1 in the morning — escaping from the gangs."

Villeda snuck back into the U.S. and turned herself in to authorities to apply for asylum.

She's back in New Bedford and has been wearing a government tracking monitor around her ankle for a year and a half. She has little recourse now but to pray that President Trump will embrace policies to help her people.

"We'll see what happens with the new president," Villeda says. "I hope God will touch his heart."

Simon Rios is a general assignment reporter with NPR member station WBUR in Boston. You can follow him at @simonfrios.

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