Correction to This Article
A March 17 editorial on the arrest of 360 illegal immigrants at a leather-goods factory in New Bedford, Mass., misstated the number of detainees subsequently released for humanitarian reasons by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE released 90 detainees for humanitarian causes -- 60 initially plus an additional 30 in the days following the raid. The editorial also erred in saying that many of the immigrants had been flown to camps in Texas and New Mexico; the camps were only in Texas.

Hypocrisy on Immigration

Saturday, March 17, 2007

THE HYPOCRISY of U.S. immigration law was on lurid display last week in a raid on a defense contractor in New England. Accompanied by dogs and a helicopter swooping overhead, hundreds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents charged into Michael Bianco Inc., a leather-goods factory in New Bedford, Mass., that makes backpacks, ammunition pouches and other gear for GIs.

When the dust settled, the agents had arrested some 360 illegal immigrant employees at the plant, many of them women from Guatemala and other Central American nations. The workers had toiled in sweatshop conditions that allegedly included draconian restrictions on bathroom breaks, toilet paper supply, and snacking and talking at their workstations. They were seized, handcuffed, questioned and, in about 200 cases, whisked away to detention centers in New Mexico and Texas without regard to their roots in the community, their spouses or their children, including American-born children who are U.S. citizens.

Amid the pandemonium, families and communities were split, and children were left with babysitters, relatives, siblings or other families. Immigration and Customs Enforcement insisted it had released about 60 of the immigrants -- including nursing mothers and sole or primary caregivers for young children -- for "humanitarian" reasons. But reports of confusion and mistakes were common, and state officials said scores of children were separated from their parents. In one case, doctors treated an 8-month-old baby, Keylyn Zusana Lopez Ayala, for pneumonia and possible dehydration after her mother was detained and unable to breast-feed her. Keylyn is an American citizen. Three days after the raid, a federal judge was sufficiently concerned that he barred immigration officials from transporting any more detainees out of state. The raid, said Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D), "reflects, for me, not what this country is about."

Federal officials have been under mounting pressure to enforce immigration laws, and there have been other sweeps recently. But even if such raids net tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, they will not seriously address the issue of 12 million undocumented immigrants. Few Americans have the stomach for mass deportations, and few politicians support such a policy.

Among the absurdities revealed by the raid, consider the following: Because the factory held military contracts worth more than $90 million, the Pentagon maintained a quality control office there, staffed by an inspector who must have known or suspected the plant employed hundreds of undocumented immigrants. Apparently the inspector was operating under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and for good reason -- the federal government, like so many other enterprises, depends on illegal immigrant labor.

Or consider the factory owner, Francesco Insolia, who has been charged with conspiring to recruit and hire illegal immigrants, and with imposing harsh workplace conditions. He was arrested along with plant managers but was released the next day in time to make a scheduled business trip to Puerto Rico. In his first public statement after his release, Mr. Insolia noted in his own defense that the Pentagon inspector "interacted with our workers without incident or complaint."

Activists who oppose illegal immigration say undocumented workers take jobs from U.S. citizens. But it's unlikely that many native-born Americans would have put up with the conditions at the New Bedford factory. The activists argue that state and local governments should take matters into their own hands by cooperating with federal authorities and harassing immigrants with get-tough laws. In this case that would have meant interfering with a firm that furnishes combat troops with vital supplies.

Cruel, self-defeating and illogical, the New Bedford raid is an inelegant example of how badly this country needs a clear-eyed immigration policy, one that provides not only for tough enforcement but also humane protections and a path to citizenship for immigrants who have put down roots and contributed to the national economy. The current regimen is a blight -- on immigrants who need the work, on employers who need the labor, and on a nation whose ideals of fair play and image as a welcoming and caring place are seriously at risk.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company