NEW BEDFORD, MASS. — Before heading off to jobs stitching safety vests for U.S. soldiers, the mothers kissed their babies goodbye, leaving them at nurseries or with sitters.
The factory employees -- mostly women from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador thought to be in the U.S. illegally -- had just started their workday earlier this week when the immigration officials arrived.
Tiodora Tejada, 37, sat at a sewing machine in the back while Vilma Inestroza, 22, cleaned military backpacks nearby. Tejada recalled hearing someone shout: "Turn off the machines.... Don't run!"
At first, she said in an interview, she thought it was a fire drill. Then she saw hundreds of workers running toward her -- along with dozens of immigration officers with guns and barking dogs.
The raid was the latest in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdown on illegal workers nationwide. In all, 327 employees were detained for possible deportation.
Company officials also were arrested.
By Thursday, officials said, 60 of the workers had been released on humanitarian grounds. They included immigrants who were pregnant, had medical issues or did not have someone to care for their children.
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang called the factory a sweatshop, like "something out of a Dickens novel." He said that though the federal government was right to investigate the conditions and crack down on illegal immigrants, the workers should have been given a chance to take care of their children and put their affairs in order while awaiting legal hearings.
"The idea that we completely disrupt families, homes and the community in this matter," he said, "is not appropriate in the United States of America."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Richard Rocha said Thursday that the raid on Michael Bianco Inc., a leather goods manufacturer, was part of an 11-month investigation coordinated with social service, law enforcement and city government officials.
Tejada, who had dropped her 1-year-old daughter off at day care the morning of the raid, was among those whom authorities let go pending a hearing. Many who were not released were transferred to detainment centers in Texas and across the country.
The arrests of the workers in this community 50 miles south of Boston stranded about 140 children until someone could be found to take care of them, said Bethany Toure of the New Bedford Community Connections, which is helping the immigrants find legal and social services.
Search for relatives
A church was turned into a triage center Tuesday, as husbands showed up looking for wives, and children came looking for mothers. One baby was rushed to a hospital for dehydration after she refused to drink anything other than her mother's breast milk, Toure said. Residents dropped off diapers, bottles, juice and formula at the church.
"When a child today in New Bedford asks where his mother is, we don't necessarily have the answer," said state Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios. "And we can't say that we will have the answer tomorrow, or next week, or next month, because the federal government has chosen to send some of these mothers to another state.... We don't know when they will be reunited with their children."
Harry Spence, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, said two teenagers were missing as of Thursday night. The other children had been accounted for. Social workers were able to locate relatives of one 7-year-old girl who called a hotline Tuesday night, saying she could not find her mother.
"We met the children and made sure they had a safe place to go," Spence said. "But for the long-term arrangements, we don't know."
During the raid, Tejada said, she spent seven hours on the factory floor -- her hands tied behind her back and her feet bound in front of her with plastic cuffs -- as officers rounded up illegal workers. All the while she worried about her baby and a 16-year-old daughter. She said she was not allowed to drink water, make phone calls or go to the bathroom.
Outside, she said, a helicopter hovered above the factory, and boats searched a nearby lake looking for workers who had escaped. On Wednesday night, she still had the identification tags on her wrists.
Francesco Insolia and three managers at Michael Bianco Inc. -- which has $92 million in defense contracts to make products, including vests and backpacks, for troops -- were also arrested Tuesday for allegedly exploiting illegal immigrants. The four were released, said Samantha Martin of the U.S. attorney's office for the district of Massachusetts.
A fifth person was arrested on charges of helping illegal immigrants obtain fake identification.
Many of the factory's employees came to New Bedford from Guatemala. They settled in this industrial city of 100,000 residents after fleeing civil war in their homeland in the 1980s.