By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007
NEW BEDFORD, Mass -- During her two years working in a garment factory alongside hundreds of other immigrants, there were few assurances in Marta Escoto's uncertain life. One of them was the promise she made to her children -- I will always take care of you.
It was a promise she was unable to keep this month. Escoto and at least 360 other illegal immigrants were taken into custody here March 6 after a raid by federal agents on the Michael Bianco Inc. factory -- a military contractor 60 miles south of Boston. Many of them, including Escoto, 38, were women whose detention separated them from their children, some of whom were stranded at day-care centers, schools, or friends' or relatives' homes.
Immigration officials said they made provisions for the children so none would be left alone. But in the days right after the raid -- as a 7-year-old called a hotline and asked for her mother, and a breastfeeding baby refused a bottle and was hospitalized for dehydration -- Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) began to categorize the raid's aftermath as a "humanitarian crisis."
Escoto, like most of those detained, was flown to a holding center in Texas as deportation proceedings began. A single mother, she was separated from her two young children, who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. Daniel, 2, asked for her constantly, while relatives worried about the care of frail 4-year-old Jessie -- who cannot walk and suffers from an illness that prevents her from absorbing enough nutrition.
Both children were in day care when their mother was arrested, leaving Escoto's sister scrambling to care for them along with her own two children.
The case underscores one of the pitfalls confronting federal authorities as they launch ever more aggressive raids in search of illegal immigrants: How should officials factor in their children, some of whom were born in the United States and are citizens?
It also points to a dilemma illegal immigrants face daily. They come to the United States to provide a better life for their families, but that illegal act can mean they risk the family being torn apart if they are caught.
Escoto's family is from Honduras. Escoto paid a "coyote" to guide her over the border during a grueling 15-day trek through the desert in 2000, and she came to New Bedford. This is an old mill town of 100,000 with a declining industrial base and a surging population of immigrants. Escoto's first job was in a fish-packing plant. She was always afraid of an immigration raid, a fear that lessened after she landed a job at Bianco, which maintains a $92 million contract to make backpacks and other accessories for the U.S. military. Because of the government contract, the company appeared to be safer from raids.
Escoto -- who has four older children by her first marriage -- worked alongside her two eldest sons, David and Deibin Cubas, who are 21 and 19. She earned $7.50 an hour sewing in a high-ceilinged room with boarded-up windows. Stitchers at the factory say they are fined $20 for talking or spending more than two minutes in the bathroom. But the family was beginning to feel safe.
Then hundreds of armed federal authorities burst in on March 6. In an interview with The Washington Post this week, Escoto said she heard their orders: "Don't run! Turn off the machines!"
Her sister, Andrea Maldonado, 36, got word of the raid while at work in a nearby garment factory. She said she went to Bianco and found hundreds of workers sitting on the floor, their hands cuffed. Escoto, her two eldest sons and three siblings were all arrested.
"I told them my sister has children, but they didn't do anything," Maldonado said.
Escoto was quickly flown to Texas and held at Port Isabel, near the border. For three days she was not allowed to make phone calls, she said. On the third day, she was allowed a five-minute call to tell her family where she was. Jessie had missed an appointment with a gastroenterologist to discuss inserting a feeding tube.
Thinking about her children, Escoto could not sleep at night. "I would see them, smell them," she said.
With dozens of children like Escoto's left without parents, the raid immediately sparked a public outcry here. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services dispatched two teams of 18 social workers to ask detainees in Texas how their children were being cared for.
In a letter to the chief of the Department of Homeland Security, Sen John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called for an investigation. In an editorial in the Boston Globe, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) decried "our broken immigration system," saying the government had "no effective plan to identify and help the children who would be left alone."
Under public pressure, immigration officials began to send single parents home, or if they had arrested both parents, to release one. But as of late last week, New Bedford school officials said the children of at least six arrested immigrants remained in the care of someone other than their parents, and many more were missing one parent.
One of Escoto's sisters was released to care for her infant daughter. Last Wednesday, Escoto was brought to an airport. She didn't know whether she was being deported or returned home until she landed in Boston, where she phoned her family.
Dropped off at night in a deserted PriceRite parking lot, she glimpsed Daniel in her brother-in-law's car. She rushed to hold her son, her tears dampening his face. " Mami, mami, mami!" Daniel said.
At her sister's home, her nieces and nephew, sisters and brother-in-law crowded around her, and she embraced each in turn. Spotting her ailing daughter, Jessie, she swept her up, bathing her face in kisses.
"Your mami came home to take care of you," she said. "I'm here."
"I am so happy," she later said, looking exhausted and wearing the same powder-blue sweatshirt and jeans she had on the day of the arrest. "I thought I might not come back to see them."
Still, she talked about her two sons, and her sister and brother, all still in custody in Texas.
And she promised her children, weeping, "I'll never leave you again, I'll never leave you."
Unlike some detainees, Escoto has not been outfitted with an electronic tracking device so immigration authorities can keep tabs on her. But in her pocket, she keeps a folded paper with the date in October when she will appear before an immigration judge. This judge's decision could test Escoto's promise to her children.
Staff writer Sylvia Moreno contributed to this report.