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3/6 New Bedford, MA: Up to 350 in custody after New Bedford immigration raid
Released 07 March 2007  By Yvonne Abraham - Boston Globe

Up to 350 in custody after New Bedford immigration raid

By Yvonne Abraham
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

An army of 300 federal immigration agents raided a New Bedford leather manufacturer today and arrested the company's owner and three managers on charges that they hired illegal workers to meet labor demands fueled by millions of dollars in contracts with the US military.

During the early morning blitz, agents also took into custody up to 350 employees who had been working at Michael Bianco Inc., a waterfront factory that employs about 500 people, predominantly immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. Some employees fled when agents stormed the building, and helicopters hovered overhead to alert authorities of escape routes, said Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford, which has been fielding calls from worried immigrants.

US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan called the working conditions at the factory "horrible" at a press conference today in Boston. The 350 workers have been taken to Fort Devens for processing, officials said.

Michael Bianco makes handbags and leather goods, including military backpacks and survival vests. Since 2003, it has received almost $100 million in defense contracts, and its workforce has grown from 85 to 500, according to a federal indictment unsealed today.

The indictment accused the company's owner, Francesco Insolia, of having knowingly and actively hired illegal immigrants to expand his workforce. It alleged that not only did Insolia and his management staff knowingly accept false documents, but that they also instructed illegal immigrants on how to obtain fake documents. Others named in the criminal complaint include Ana Figueroa, the company's payroll manager; Dilia Costa, the plant manager; and office manager Gloria Melo.

The indictment also charged Luis Torres, a New Bedford music store worker, with providing fake documentation to illegal immigrants.

The arrests followed an 11-month investigation by federal officials, working with state and local law enforcement, in which undercover agents used recording devices, according to the indictment.

"Members of the community are just devastated. People are just in disbelief," said Williams, the immigrant advocate from in New Bedford. "They're hard-working people."

The arrests were made as Congress is preparing to grapple again with the issue of comprehensive immigration reform and as the agency has stepped up efforts to target employers who hire illegal immigrants.

"I question the timing on this," Williams said. "We're on the eve of another introduction of comprehensive immigration reform. My hope is that many people will have the opportunity to normalize their status. This is going to drive people back into the shadows and make them much more vulnerable."

Posted by the Boston Globe City & Region Desk at 03:52 PM

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