Town's Immigrant Students Stay Away from School

In New Bedford, Mass., the aftermath of an immigration raid in March is rippling through the public schools. Dozens of students didn't show up for school this fall, and officials say their families may have gone into hiding.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

There are some empty desks this fall in classrooms in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In March, federal immigration agents arrested 361 people working illegally at a leather goods factory there. Most were women with school-age children born in the U.S. and that has school leaders concerned. They worry that the raid has so traumatized immigrant families that many have gone into hiding and kept their children out of school.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Undocumented workers in New Bedford have been hiding in plain view for decades.

(Soundbite of knocking)

SANCHEZ: Now, many are just hiding. A three-story apartment building at the end of a narrow, steep, spiral stairway, a middle-aged woman no taller than 4-foot-10, black hair pulled tight in a bun, answers the door of a small apartment. A little boy clings to the woman's dress. He groans. He doesn't speak, she says. But he was born in this country, as if that somehow made up for her son's disability.

We sit at a tiny table against the kitchen wall. It's really dark. She's $200 behind on the electric bill so she's trying to use as little electricity as possible.

DOMINGA (ph): (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken)

DOMINGA: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: On March 6th of this year, Dominga's husband, Ricardo Garcia Gomez(ph), was arrested at Michael Bianco, Inc., a defense contractor which produces safety vests and backpacks for U.S. troops in Iraq. Ricardo entered the U.S. illegally back in 1994 and had been working at Bianco less than two months, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the place.

Dominga, who uses a different last name for fear of being deported, was working at another factory that morning. She tells me her supervisors thought they were next. They panicked and fired her and dozens of workers on the spot.

DOMINGA: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: I called and I called my husband's cell phone. No answer, she says.

She got a ride to the Centro Guadalupano at St James Church, which had been fielding calls from its huge Latino congregation. There, Dominga finally heard from Ricardo.

Ms. DOMINGA: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: He said, don't worry. Just take care of yourself and our son. I felt horrible, says Dominga, stunned, not sure what to do.

Across town, New Bedford school officials say they kind of felt the same way.

Mr. FRED FUENTES (Assistant Superintendent for Equity and Diversity, New Bedford School District): Because even trying to understand this dynamic until you experience it, until people get to see it, I don't think that the school districts or any other school district could be really prepared.

SANCHEZ: Fred Fuentes is special assistant to the superintendent of schools in New Bedford. He says the day after the raid, he sent letters in Spanish and Portuguese, reassuring parents that it was safe to keep their children in school, that no one was going to turn them over to immigration. Still, attendance dropped off. Some of the children who returned have not been the same since, says Fuentes.

Mr. FUENTES: Kids were coming into the schools all traumatized. And they've been like that. There've been some counseling supports. We have some supports at the schools. There're some wraparound services from the community that are there. There's not to the extent that everyone needs it. But more than the kids being traumatized, you have whole families being traumatized.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: A few doors down from Fuentes' office, student registrations this fall have slowed to a trickle. Overall, though, the number of kids whose parents are undocumented has been growing in New Bedford every year. The vast majority of these students were born here. They're U.S. citizens. Based on school records, Fuentes estimates that between two to three hundred children and teenagers were left without one or both parents after the raid.

Those numbers sound made up, says Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Mr. MARC RAIMONDI (Spokesman, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): I like dealing with facts, and right now what you have is speculative guesses. What isn't speculative is the fact that we coordinated these enforcement action months in advance with the Massachusetts Public Safety officials, Social Services officials. So, ICE took extraordinary efforts to ensure that the correct entities were informed on the enforcement action and had time to get their plans in place to deal with their responsibilities.

SANCHEZ: Namely to make sure that the children of illegal workers who were cut were taken care of, says Raimondi. It's clear, though, that the dramatic increase in immigration raids across the country - in Iowa, Georgia, Minnesota, Massachusetts - have created a humanitarian quandary for federal, state and local governments. Separating children from their parents, even if they are in the U.S. illegally, is a nasty business that states were expected to handle.

ICE says it's strictly a law enforcement agency, not a social service agency. In Massachusetts, state officials say they are still not confident that the next time federal agents raid a factory, they'll get the information or lead time they need to coordinate child protective services.

In the end, though, says Raimondi, it's parents themselves who put their children at risk by being in this country illegally - not the U.S. government. For undocumented immigrants who've gone into hiding in New Bedford, meanwhile, the situation is getting desperate.

DOMINGA: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: Without a job, Dominga is living on charity. She gets calls every now and then from friends about housecleaning jobs. But she can't find anyone to care for her 4-year-old son. All the babysitters she knew have fled to Connecticut. The Catholic Church helped her with $990, enough for two months' rent. And the Food Bank has provided groceries. Her little boy, though, isn't eating well. Today, he's upset about something.

He thinks his father is coming home any day now, says Dominga.

DOMINGA: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: He points to his father's clothes in the closet and stands by the window every afternoon, waiting for him to arrive from work.

Dominga says, as long as her husband is in custody, she will stay in hiding, even if it means not putting her son back in the special education program he was in last year.

DOMINGA: (Spanish spoken)

SANCHEZ: I know we've broken the law, says Dominga. I know this country does not want us. So what future do we have here? It's time to go home, she says. I can't stay here anymore.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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