The Everyday Heroes of New Bedford


Six weeks ago, a nightmare tore apart the small, working-class community of New Bedford, Massachusetts. At 8:15 on a cold Tuesday morning, three hundred Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents swarmed into a leather factory, shouting and carrying guns. They rounded up and handcuffed an equal number of workers there, cuffing them painfully with tight plastic handcuffs, pushing some to the floor, refusing to let some use the bathroom unless an agent pulled down their pants and watched them go with the door open. A helicopter buzzed overhead to catch those who ran.

The largely female group of workers, mostly parents, some pregnant, were bused to Fort Devens, a former army base, and held in cold cells. They were awoken at all hours of the night for processing, harassed, and pressured to sign forms they did not understand. While some mothers were released to their children, many parents were not, and at home, infants and toddlers cried, waiting for the parents they needed.

In the days after the raid, a large number of the workers were put on planes, handcuffed again, and shipped off to detention centers in Texas, away from their children, families, and the advocacy community that had just begun to fight for them. “They treated us like murderers,” said the workers, over and over. “We didn’t know where we were going.” “They laughed at us.”

But ICE couldn’t treat people that way forever. The word got out. And members of the Harvard community were among those who supported the families of New Bedford, and who continue to stand up for basic human dignity. These people are everyday heroes: regular people who committed to do the right thing for their fellow human beings.

The clinical instructors of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services are among those heroes. The first night of the raid, a team of lawyers went to Fort Devens and asked to see the detainees, to make sure their rights were being protected, and to offer some representation. ICE hemmed, hawed, and stonewalled, and finally allowed the lawyers to meet with about 10 people. They were there well past midnight, then drove more than an hour home and were at the clinic in the morning with their students.

That Wednesday night, while most of us clinic students were eating chips at the Border Film Project opening, the lawyers went to Fort Devens again, stayed until six in the morning, and managed to see a few dozen more people. Again, they showed up at the clinic the next day.

Clinic students helped when we could. Some of us traveled to New Bedford to take statements from workers released from detention. Some of us watched immigration court proceedings to make sure judges were fair to detainees who were waiting for pro bono attorneys to take their cases. We edited affidavits, made copies, called family members, and eagerly forwarded around news articles about the raid’s aftermath. I don’t think any of us knew what an intense semester this would be to take Debbie Anker’s Refugee and Asylum Law, but I’m amazed by my fellow students.

There are other heroes, too. Community groups from the MIRA Coalition to the Catholic churches and Maya K’iche’ center in New Bedford have been on the front lines since the March 6 raid, coordinating funds, donations, and attending to the most basic needs of families that were split apart. Many HLS students have given their money, time, cars, and language skills to the community. There is a lot of selflessness going around. Over spring break, I made a phone call on behalf of a detainee who got choked up as he asked his lawyer to please call his wife to see if she had enough money for herself and their two-year-old son. When his lawyer had asked what she could do for him besides legal representation, that’s all he had asked for.

Now the Harvard clinic lawyers, including clinic supervisors Nancy Kelly and John Willshire-Carrera, are part of a team that has been fighting in federal court for a restraining order to stop the behind-the-scenes deportations that are going on in Massachusetts and Texas. Two weeks ago, the judge granted their request. It is a great victory. And the pro bono and nonprofit community has rallied to represent people at their bond hearings, and help others file asylum claims and other forms of relief. But some people have already been deported. And some detainees in Texas, far away from their families and facing sky-high bonds and a dearth of pro bono lawyers to help, are losing hope. Because the judge only stopped the deportations for ten days, last week most of the clinic instructors got on a plane for Texas, hoping to finally help in-person the people they’ve been fighting for. This story won’t be over for a while.

What happened in New Bedford is a tragedy even if you support workplace raids, immigration detention, and expedited deportation proceedings of those who lack legal authorization to be in the country. There was no reason to chain working mothers together three at a time and make them shuffle through the March cold. There was no reason to pressure people to sign their rights away at 4 in the morning on paperwork they couldn’t read. And there was no reason for the poor coordination with social services that left dozens and dozens of children, from breastfeeding infants to worried teenagers, without their parents and without knowing when or if they would ever come back.

Immigration raids continue around the country – in Colorado, California, Maryland, and more. ICE’s “Operation Endgame” is well underway, and we will likely see more lightning raids, mass arrests, and quick deportations, and if no one is watching, more civil rights violations and more traumatized families and communities. It is a credit to this law school community that there are so many everyday heroes among us, who are willing to lend sharp eyes and raised voices to this country’s increasingly cruel and dangerous immigration enforcement policies.

To support the 150-200 New Bedford children still affected by the loss of their parents, please go to and consider donating to the “NiƱos Fund.”

Andrea Saenz is on the board of the Harvard Immigration Project.

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