NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – Immigrants brought prosperity to New Bedford. They manned its lucrative whaling fleet, ran its textile mills and provided the muscle for the fishing boats that leave here daily for the Atlantic.
But this New England city, which occasionally gives a knowing wink-and-nod at its illegal immigrant population, found itself in turmoil Wednesday, one day after federal agents raided a leather factory and detained more than 300 undocumented workers, most of whom Gov. Deval Patrick has said are from Guatemala and El Salvador.
In the aftermath, about 100 young children were stranded at schools and with baby sitters. Anxious fathers learned how to feed infants with bottles. Friends and relatives crowded a church basement to scan a list for names of the missing.
"If you feel you don't want us here, just deport us and let us go," said Carlos Miranda, who begged to be reunited just hours before learning his girlfriend was released.
Patrick, who earlier had voiced concern that the children may not be receiving proper care, on Thursday urged federal authorities to not move any more of the detained workers out of the state until their children are located and arrangements made for their care. His call came after he said authorities had already sent about 150 of the workers to a detention center in Texas.
Federal authorities halted a third flight that was scheduled to depart at noon, he told reporters Thursday.
"We are particularly concerned about the Guatemalan community and the risk that they may be fearful about disclosing the existence or whereabouts of their children given their history with government agencies," Patrick wrote in a letter asking U.S. Rep. William Delahunt to ensure federal authorities allow social workers access to the detainees.
Federal immigration officials insisted they coordinated with state social services agencies in advance to prepare for child care. At least 60 of the 327 people detained in the raid at Michael Bianco Inc. have been released for humanitarian reasons, most related to child care issues, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi said the agency coordinated with state officials before the raid, and those still in custody were given the option of letting their children stay with a guardian or putting them in state care.
But Corinn Williams, director of the Community Economic Development Center of Southeastern Massachusetts, said her center was hearing stories about infants that were left behind. "It's been a widespread humanitarian crisis here in New Bedford," she said.
New Bedford has occasionally displayed indifference toward illegal immigration. Local police have publicly promised not to quiz crime victims on their immigration status. Federal agents have raided employers before, but mostly on the waterfront and they rarely detain more than a handful of workers.
"They need to work," said Jilmar Lovos, 18, who said his cousin was still detained late Wednesday. "This country has a lot of work."
In the raid, company owner Francesco Insolia, 50, and three top managers were arrested. A fifth person was arrested on charges of helping workers obtain fake identification.
Authorities allege Insolia oversaw sweatshop conditions so he could meet the demands of $91 million in U.S. military contracts to such products as safety vests and lightweight backpacks.
Investigators said the workers toiled in dingy conditions and faced onerous fines, such as a $20 charge for talking while working and spending more than two minutes in the bathroom.
"The whole story will come out, and at that point it will be a very different scenario," said Insolia's lawyer, Inga Bernstein.
An Army spokesman did not return a call seeking comment about the status of the company's contracts.