Six years ago today, I was driving to work along the New Bedford waterfront when I received a frantic call from my editor: Federal immigration agents were raiding a local garment factory. Could I go check out the scene? I pulled a U-turn and headed south toward the Michael Bianco factory, which I would soon learn was employing undocumented workers to fulfill a government contract for military backpacks used by U.S. troops in Iraq.
As I approached the factory, now on foot, I saw federal agents dressed in Navy blue “POLICE ICE” jackets and baseball hats herding hundreds of handcuffed workers onto coach buses. Across the street, crowds of co-workers and family members huddled against the frigid March wind. Some sat crying on the ground. Others shouted at the buses in Spanish and Portuguese.
I left New Bedford three years ago when I stopped reporting for The Standard-Times. But every March 6, my mind returns to that scene in the south end of the city– and to the 362 Bianco workers who were hauled off in buses and flown to detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, while their orphaned children and relatives gathered in church basements awaiting phone calls, legal updates and in the case of some infants– breast milk.
Some of the detainees, mostly women, returned to New Bedford to begin immigration proceedings, while others languished in prison for months before being deported to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil, Portugal and Cape Verde. The former group I shadowed for years, visiting Boston courthouses, New Bedford triple-deckers, cultural festivals and rallies for immigrant rights. The latter I tracked down on a 2008 reporting trip to the dusty hamlets of rural Guatemala where the campesinos were as familiar with New England’s geography and economy as any Yankee.
When I left the newspaper and the “Bianco beat” in 2009, many detainees were still slogging through the murky wetlands of federal immigration proceedings. A frustrating life of limbo that drove a few to voluntarily return to their native countries. Still curious about the status of these immigration proceedings, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement last spring. In August, I received a CD-Rom with my answers hidden in the dense columns of an Excel spreadsheet. Based on my calculations, the following statistics summarize the case status for the 362 Bianco detainees as of May 26, 2012:
- 166 Excluded/removed-inadmissibility
- 16 Deported/removed
- 20 Voluntary departure confirmed
- 132 Active cases
- 22 Granted relief
- 1 Permanent residence granted
- 1 Detained at a Bristol County detention center
- 13 Terminated proceedings
- 2 Warrant of arrest/Notice to appear
- 2 Notice to appear/Released
- 2 Charging document canceled by INS
- 1 Not in ICE Custody-ICE fugitive
- 1 Not in Custody: B-2 visa valid; Released
- 1 Withdrawal permitted
(Note: Total =380 due to duplicate records for some individuals with additional cases and detention periods after the raid.)
It appears as many as 132 of the original Bianco detainees (36 percent) had active court cases five years after the raid– and are likely still living in limbo today. Immigration reform legislation has also stalled in the years following the raid. The Kennedy-McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 foundered in Congress during the Bush Administration. And only recently has Obama made another serious push for comprehensive immigration reform. Even that could be derailed by the latest fiscal crisis.
I have to wonder which way the March winds will be blowing during next year’s Bianco raid anniversary. Will the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants– including the 132 limbo-living Bianco detainees –have a clearer path to citizenship?