In his new book Tom Juravich takes us behind the statistics of the economic collapse and into the work and lives of Americans who feel like they are being sacrificed At the Altar of the Bottom Line. More

At the Altar of the Bottom Line

Exploited

Photos

Juan, New Bedford Rosa, New Bedford Guillermo, New Bedford Fish house worker, New Bedford Roberto, New Bedford

Cutting fish in New Bedford

As the debate on the McCain-Kennedy bill continued in earnest in Congress, on March 6, 2007, ICE returned to New Bedford—to Senator Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts. This was not just another low-key raid but a major operation referred to by ICE as “Operation United Front.” Under police escort, 600 ICE agents traveled the sixty miles from Boston for an early morning raid at MBI in the south end of New Bedford.

The company, founded in 1985 by Francesco Insolia, originally made handbags and other leather goods, but between 2001 and 2003 it received $10 million in contracts from the U.S. military for vests and backpacks. It moved to a larger facility and grew to 86 employees. By 2004 these military contracts had ballooned to $82 million, and by 2005 MBI had 520 employees (ICE 2007b, 2); however, its 2007 Dunn and Bradstreet filing— a filing that virtually all U.S. firms use to borrow and lend money—lists only 62 employees.

In what was reportedly an eleven-month investigation, ICE documented incredible violations of employment law and workers’ rights: “docking of pay by 15 minutes for every minute an employee is late; fining employees $20 for spending more than 2 minutes in the restroom and firing for a subsequent infraction; providing one roll of toilet paper per restroom stall per day” (ICE 2007b). Juan explains that his brother-in-law worked at MBI and said everybody knew about the conditions.

All the people knew how they got treated. You can’t spend more than three or five minutes in the bathroom. You can’t use a lot of toilet paper. You have to work fast. Everybody knew about it. We talked about it all the time. But we always said, what are we going to do about it? We have no voice. You can complain and cry about it but where are you going to go? If you go to somebody who can do something about it, who’s going to lose their jobs? All the people. So the people decide to deal with it. They say, you know what, let’s just deal with it. That’s what my brother–in-law used to say and a couple of friends. Just deal with it. (2007, 10) The workers also all knew about the overtime scam at MBI. After eight hours, wage workers in the United States are entitled to overtime pay at one and a half times their hourly rate. Not wanting to pay this extra amount, managers at MBI came up with an ingenious plan. Corinn Williams became suspicious of MBI’s operations while helping Guatemalans file their taxes. She noticed that some had two W-2s, one for MBI and another for a company she had never heard of before, Frontline Defense. Workers’ testimony helped her piece together the explanation: “Essentially what would happen is that people would work an eight-hour day. They’d go to the time clock to punch out and then they’d punch in at Frontline” (2007, 10). This way the employer would not have to pay overtime.

Guatemalans in the community knew about these practices and that MBI exploited workers who were hungry for extra hours, even at standard pay. As Juan explains:

My people, we’re here to work. If there’s a company that can give us extra hours we’ll take it. That’s what we want. We don’t care how many hours we work a day. We’ll do it. My brother- in- law—he used to work somewhere else— but [at MBI] he was making like $6.75. If you go there and work six days a week you can make $325 a week. That’s some money. So we talked about it with him and he said, you know, I’m going to go there. So he left the place he was working and went there for more money. (2007, 10)

Corinn Williams describes the morning of the raid. “I’m home. It’s just down the street from the plant. I live by the water over there.” About 8:15 she got a call from the wife Earl Chase (the founder of the first organization to work with the Guatemalan immigrants in New Bedford). “She said, ‘I’m on my way to work and there’s something really crazy happening down your way.’ So I jumped in my car, and it was a bitter, bitter cold morning. It was just freezing.” Williams met a worker for whom she had just done taxes. “He had started this wonderful little family and I just looked at him and he looked at me and it was deer in the headlights. He said, ‘Oh my God, Maria is in there, my wife. My sister- in- law is in there.’ We just kind of looked at each other in shock. We didn’t know what to do” (2007, 13).

Inside, ICE had arrested the owner, the plant manager, the payroll manager, and the office manager. In town, they had also arrested Louis Torres, who had reportedly supplied fraudulent documents for many of the workers at MBI (ICE 2007). In a massive show of force, hundreds of agents entered the factory. When they announced their presence over the public address system in the plant, some employees started to run, but all exits had already been blocked. ICE detained every worker and began methodically checking their immigration status.

Outside a crowd began to gather as the news spread, despite the bitter cold. Corinn Williams received a call on her cell phone from the police chief to meet him at the command station set up by the New Bedford police. He introduced her to the public information officer from ICE, who told her, “Don’t worry ma’am, we do this kind of thing all the time. Everything is under control. Not to worry!” (C. Williams 2007, 14). Inside, however, it was a very diff erent story. Anna was one of the detainees. She reports:

I heard someone scream. When I moved back to see, I saw a whole bunch of people enter. I saw they were grabbing people. They mistreated the men especially, because they tried to get loose, and get away. So they grab them and throw them to the floor, even hitting their faces. The word I kept hearing them use was ‘fuck you.’ ” (2007).

The raid was especially hard on the women at MBI. Unlike men who had worked there for many years, many of the women were new in New Bedford and at the company. Many had been in the United States for only a short time, and few spoke English. Anna continues:

The truth is they did treat us badly. Because some of the women who had young children, who breastfed. I saw, because I was near them. They even made them take the milk from their breasts to see if it was true that they had young children. They had almost all of them take milk from their breasts. They even made fun of them. They [the male agents] said— one of them told another to pass an oreo cookie to eat with milk, that they were milking the cows. We were in the next room listening and the women were crying. It was so ugly. (2007)

As in the earlier raid, news traveled quickly around the Guatemalan community. Juan says he was at work when his wife called him at 1:00 p.m. “She called me crying. I got scared. . . . She told me. She said, ‘My brother got caught. All the people working in the factory got caught.’ In that moment I felt terrible. I didn’t know what to say because if I thought about— someone knows my kid? What’s going to happen now? Are they going to come up to us?” Juan and his wife agonized over whether she should go to work that eve ning. Juan came home early to be with her. “I said to myself, if they come, I’d rather be with my family. If they take us, they will take us. I shared a moment with my family. We watched the news— about what happened to all those people and how they treated them” (2007, 5, 6).

Slowly, workers who had documents emerged from the plant, while those detained in handcuffs sat in the plant for hours. By nightfall 361 detainees were left. They were shackled and herded out to board corrections buses, as their family members wept and cried out to them. The buses, escorted by police cars with sirens blaring, took the detainees to nearby Fort Devins for pro cessing. The shackles, the corrections buses with reinforced metal doors, the police escort with sirens blaring were incredibly frightening to the detainees— most of whom were very young women— and their families. Such treatment also reinforced the link the Bush administration and ICE were trying to make between undocumented workers and criminals or terrorists, the idea that these were dangerous people.

A Humanitarian Crisis

Meanwhile, people started to gather at St. James Church, which became an impromptu center for families of the detained and their supporters. “We began organizing around the information flow and trying to reconstruct the list of who was taken in,” Corinn Williams remembers. But activists were not prepared for what they would see. Many of the women were mothers, and because they had been in New Bedford only a short time, most of their children were very young. As darkness approached, babysitters, family members, and husbands of the detained women descended on St. James with the children. “There were men with their infant babies who had never taken care of them before,” Williams reports. “They were just devastated” (2007, 17– 18). The scene was chaotic as volunteers tried to cope with the many children of the estimated 200 detainees whose small children had been left behind. By the end of the eve ning it was clear that New Bedford was facing what Corinn Williams called “a humanitarian crisis”— a phrase that would be quoted hundreds of times in the news media over the next several days. Back at Fort Devins, Williams reports, the detainees, most of whom had been in custody since early morning, suff ered further indignities: “Once they got into detention they were strip- searched. They were treated like criminals. One woman told me it was as if we were the Medellín drug cartel or something. This was treated like a major criminal investigation” (2007, 17). As Juan tells it, “Like my brother- in- law was saying, the way they were treated like animals . . . they were laughing at them, you know? They were asking them why they were here. They should be happy to go back because they don’t belong here” (2007, 6).

A tug of war started almost immediately between ICE and state officials over access to the detainees. The newly elected governor, Deval Patrick, and the commissioner of the state’s Department of Social Ser vices, Harry Spence, got involved. Despite ICE’s assurance to Corinn Williams that everything was under control, she says, it was not. ICE had done a huge amount of planning to bring 600 agents to New Bedford but had made no plans for what to do with mothers— or their small children, almost all of whom were American citizens. The agents had no social workers on staff , and it wasn’t until 10:00 p.m. that they finally relented and allowed a few state social workers to visit some of the detainees at Fort Devins. To their horror, state social workers discovered that ninety detainees had already been sent to a facility in Harlingen, Texas. Governor Patrick told the Boston Herald, “What we never understood about this pro cess is why it turned into a race to the airport. By the time we got access, a number of them had already been flown to Texas” (Ross 2007, 4). The following morning 116 were flown to a detention center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Early the next day, on March 10, a federal judge barred ICE from moving any other detainees out of state, but the damage had already been done (Szanisalo 2007, 4). At the end of the day, under pressure from the Massachusetts Department of Social Ser vices, ICE released fifty- nine detainees for humanitarian reasons. But there was no mechanism to review the cases of those who had already been shipped out of Massachusetts.

Anna, one of the detainees sent to El Paso, was desperate to speak with her six- year- old daughter, who had chronic stomach problems. She had been refused access to lawyers before leaving for El Paso and was allowed only five minutes at Fort Devins to use the telephone. She heard that her daughter was “doing poorly” and “said she wanted to kill herself because her mom wasn’t with her.” The abuse continued on the plane. Anna tells about the flight to El Paso:

When we were in the plane they put chains here on our waists, our hands and feet were also tied. When they brought the food, which they brought in bags, they threw the bags like we were dogs. Some people, since their hands were tied, dropped them. Within five minutes they came by picking up the bags— some people were still eating. They would grab the bags and throw them away. (2007)

Senator Kennedy, in the midst of desperately trying to save his compromise legislation to provide basic rights to immigrant workers, was incensed by the reports:

They have said that they had planned this raid for months, but had made no provision to house the workers they had arrested. Instead, the workers were rounded up and immediately transported by DHS to Texas and other states, far from their families, without even an opportunity to say goodbye. The DHS knew that many of these workers had children at home, but they did not do nearly enough to protect them. As a result, children came back to empty homes; at least one nursing baby went to the hospital with dehydration; and hundreds cried themselves to sleep, wondering where their loved ones were and why they had disappeared. (Kennedy 2007, 1)

Kevin Burke, the state’s public safety secretary, lamented: “It left kids and families in a position of potential danger. The moral rudder was somehow lost in this. There was more concern getting these folks out of the state than there was concern at making sure mothers and children had a chance to connect with each other” (quoted in Abraham 2007b). “We go all over the world to protect families,” Scott Lang, the mayor of New Bedford, said. This raid only “wreaks havoc in New Bedford and doesn’t do anything to move the debate forward. These kids are U.S. citizens. Taking parents away from them makes no sense to prove a point” (quoted in Alexandra and Lupsa 2007). Speaking after a meeting with families of the detainees within days of the raid, Kennedy announced, “I don’t want to go back to the Senate and hear from Administration officials about family values when what we have seen here is the tearing apart of families. ... [T]he Immigration Services performed disgracefully” (quoted in Mullenneaux 2007, 1).

Juan put it more directly:

My question all the time is if they have a family and if they have kids, they must know how much a father loves his kids. How can you do this? How can you not think about all these families who are only looking for a better life and now they have families? You have the heart to separate them from their kids, and leave their kids with who knows who? How are they going to live? You know those kids are going to suffer. They’re going to ask for their parents. But yet, it’s still happening. They still do it. It’s something I will never get, that they do that. What kind of people are these? (2007, 4)

The scene at St. James that night demonstrated the practical difficulties of the policy of the Bush administration and ICE to detain and deport large numbers of immigrant workers in a community. The anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party advocates the removal of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States, as if this could be accomplished with some kind of surgical precision, without causing any harm to others. But as the events in New Bedford reveal, immigrant communities are not entirely isolated. People intermarry and, perhaps even more important, have children who are U.S. citizens. Do these children have fewer rights as citizens because they were born to immigrant parents? And can government policy subject them to cruelties that we would never accept if they were suff ered by the white children of U.S. citizens— cruelties that would undoubtedly in any other context be termed child abuse? The events that day in New Bedford clearly demonstrate the difficulty of implementing a policy of repatriation of undocumented workers and how much that implementation would compromise American values.

Hardly a Guatemalan family in New Bedford was untouched by the raid. Juan’s brother- in- law was seized, as was one of Diego’s brothers and a nephew. His brother, Diego says, “has a daughter and two little boys who were asking, ‘Where’s my daddy? When is my daddy coming home?’ The little girl was asking the same thing” (2007, 17). A photographer from the New Bedford Standard Times took a picture of Diego’s three- year- old niece, scared and sobbing, the night of the raid. The photograph became emblematic of the raid and was reprinted in newspapers and featured on picket signs at rallies and demonstrations around the country. Visiting Guatemala on March 12, President Bush came under fire for the raid by the Guatemalan president, Oscar Berger. Still in El Paso, Anna was still trying desperately to reach her daughter: “Some officers came asking who wanted work— that they were going to pay. Since I didn’t have money . . . I raised my hand and they signed up seven people first to clean all the rooms we were in.” They spent more than two hours cleaning bathrooms, washing windows, sweeping and mopping. When they were finished, Anna said, “They then called us one by one and gave us a dollar each, no more” (2007).

For the next several weeks, many of the Guatemalans in New Bedford clung to their cell phones, waiting to hear from their loved ones. A local church took donations so phone cards could be sent to those in detention. Senators Kennedy and Kerry, along with Congressman Barney Frank, heard testimony of dozens of traumatized families at St. James Church on March 11. Families and friends tried to work out child- care arrangements. Massachusetts social workers were finally allowed to travel to Texas, where they recommended that ten detainees in the city of Harlingen and twenty in El Paso be released (Daley 2007, 1). As the courts began to pro cess the detainees, everyone focused on the pending immigration reform legislation, desperately hoping a bill would be passed quickly that would allow the Guatemalans to stay in New Bedford and stop all this suffering.