After New Bedford immigration raid, voices call for mercy and justice

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Whenever a volunteer at the old church building in New Bedford asks Rosa Herrera if she needs anything, her answer is the same: "I need the father of my baby."

Eight and half months pregnant, Ms. Herrera and her husband, Santos Gonzalez, were two of the 361 undocumented workers picked up during last week's raid at the Michael Bianco Inc. factory here. She was released because of the advanced state of her pregnancy. But her husband is in detention in Texas and both still face immigration hearings.

The human consequences of the America's stepped-up immigration enforcement has brought into sharp focus the ethical conflicts inherent in a debate often presented in simple black and white. Depending on who is talking, illegal immigrants are lawbreakers or workers searching for a better life.

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They're exploiters of America's largess or victims of a capitalistic system that thrives on cheap labor.

If the answer is "all of the above," it becomes very hard to find common ground between those who want justice and those who want mercy. And yet that is exactly what is taking place. For those intent on immigration reform, the fallout from the March 6 raid in New Bedford has added urgency to find a compromise.

Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate and House say they are close to crafting legislation that would step up enforcement while creating a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

"We must enforce our laws and hold business owners accountable for abusing the system," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts through his spokeswoman. "We must also remember that the men and women in New Bedford had not harmed anyone. They were victims of exploitation, forced to work under barbaric conditions."

A key driver in the debate is compassion. But compassion for whom? On one side, it's directed at illegal immigrants like Ms. Herrera, who live in society's shadows, working long hours for low pay, and often exploited by unethical employers.

On the other side, it's directed at the millions of law-abiding middle- and working class Americans – many of whom are themselves immigrants – who have seen their wages driven down and quality of life eroded by the plentiful supply of cheap foreign labor. The challenge is to find a way to accommodate both sides.

"Clearly, these are all symptoms of a broken system that it's in everyone's interest to fix," says Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C., which represents both legal and undocumented immigrants. "It also shows how putting a human face on the issue is so important to advocacy efforts, regardless of your position."

Here on the streets of New Bedford, the impact of the nation's immigration crackdown is now all too evident. An old whaling town, it's been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs and federal regulations put in place in the '90s to prevent overfishing. The clapboard three-story houses lining Acushnet Street tell the story of a once thriving, now struggling, neighborhood inhabited largely by immigrant families, legal and illegal. Many work in the fisheries or the few remaining manufacturing firms.

After last Friday's raid, townspeople reacted swiftly. Some jumped to help. The buildings of the shuttered Our Lady of Guadalupe church were opened to house a relief center. A hand-written sign on a letter-size piece of yellow paper is taped to the door. "Estamos aquí," it says: We are here.

But the split in the community is palpable, says Bethany Toure of Community Connections Coalition and coordinator of the community-based humanitarian relief. When news leaked out about who had been arrested in the raid, one landlord locked out families whose parents had been arrested. Another landlord allowed two families to move in together and said they wouldn't have to pay rent for March, says Ms. Toure. "Illegal versus legal is a question better left for another day. On the ground, these families and children are devastated."

But supporters of a tougher crackdown see the incident in a different light. As tragic as it is, they say, the workers broke the law and must face the consequences.

"At some point we have to say they are moral agents and they have to be accountable for their decisions," says Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "They knowingly put their children in that position, and I find it hard to describe that as anything other than child abuse."

The real question raised in New Bedford is whose interests are being best served by the current policy, he says.

"We need to ask, Who is not getting a job at this leather factory because of illegal immigration? Who is paying extra taxes for these social services that they'll inevitably create?" he asks. "This isn't a preschool exercise with good guys and bad guys – this is about weighing priorities."

Supporters of illegal immigrants agree that compliance with the law is important. But they also note that there are millions of jobs Americans will not do, which is why the immigrants come.

"In order to have compliance with the laws, those laws need to be just and humane," says Carlina Tapia-Ruano, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. "That broken [immigration] system is in fact compelling individuals to enter the country illegally because there is no legal mechanism for them to enter."

That brings the issue back to Capitol Hill. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, an advocate of immigration enforcement, says he's not sure that there are enough votes to pass a compromise bill.

"The problem is that there is so little trust on either side," he says. "People say if we do the enforcement part first, we'll never get the guest-worker program. And I know that I'm very skeptical of the administration's commitment to be consistent with enforcement" if they get a guest-worker program.

In the meantime, in New Bedford and small communities around the country, there's frustration with Washington.

"We go all over the world to protect families," says Scott Lang, mayor of New Bedford. This raid only "wreaks havoc in New Bedford" and doesn't do anything to move the debate forward, he adds. "Those kids are US citizens. Taking parents away from them makes no sense to prove a point."

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