After New Bedford immigration raid, voices call for mercy and justice
NEW BEDFORD, MASS., AND NEW YORK
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.