NEW BEDFORD — Luis Gomez clearly remembers the Tuesday morning in 2007 when hundreds of federal agents swooped in on a New Bedford textile factory and arrested 361 illegal immigrants. A high school student at the time, Gomez came home and turned on the TV to see reports about mass arrests at the Michael Bianca factory. His mother, then three months pregnant, was a worker there.
“I was just frozen,” he said. “I didn’t want to believe it.”
Gomez, now 22, was among dozens of immigrants and activists who gathered Saturday to mark the sixth anniversary of the raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The raid and subsequent deportations, which in some cases separated children from their parents, drew national media coverage and widespread condemnation from activists, state social workers, and Governor Deval Patrick.
The commemoration was held in the basement of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Church in New Bedford, the same spot that became an impromptu response center for families immediately after the raid.
Gomez said he came to the United States from Guatemala when he was 8 years old, and he was unaware of his family’s immigration status. The raid, he said, turned his life upside down.
“I missed school for a week,” he said. “I was in hiding; I thought people were looking for me.”
Once a standout student, Gomez said his grades plummeted after he realized he couldn’t accept a college scholarship because it required proof of legal residency.
“Here I was, suddenly in charge of my family,” Gomez said. “But I couldn’t work, I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t use my scholarship . . . And just knowing your mother is going through this and you can’t do anything about it made me feel powerless and helpless. I was really angry.”
Gomez said he is now allowed to stay in the United States under an Obama administration directive that grants a reprieve to qualifying illegal immigrants who arrived here before they turned 16.
In past years, the annual remembrance by United Interfaith Action, the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, and other groups, had drawn small groups of protestors who said they supported the deportation of illegal immigrants.
On Saturday, only one protestor showed up, standing across the street from the church holding a sign that read, “NO AMNESTY/NO EXCUSES.”
But activists at Saturday’s gathering said the raid did little to discourage illegal immigration and instead helped galvanize and unite a once-fragmented community.
“The raid shone a spotlight in a way it wasn’t designed to,” said Lisa Maya Knauer, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth anthropology professor who also works with nonprofits that serve immigrants. “It brought people out of the woodwork. Since then, we’ve seen a real maturation of the immigrant community in terms of awareness of their rights.”
What’s more, Knauer said, immigrants continue to arrive in the area, drawn by family members who are already here and pushed by tough economic conditions in their home countries.
“The strategy of workplace raids and detention and sending people back hasn’t stopped the problem,” she said. “People are determined to come.”
One man at the Saturday gathering, who did not wish to be identified because of his immigration status, is perhaps evidence of that determination.
He was arrested and deported in the raid, but returned illegally in 2009 to be with his family.
Through a translator, he recounted in detail the early-morning raid, which happened as he and other workers were settling in at stations where they made backpacks for the military.
“A secretary came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘don’t move from your seats, immigration is entering,’ ” he said. “Everyone got very scared.”
He described chaos as workers ran for the basement, or to the bathroom to try to jump out the window. He said he froze with fear, and was soon handcuffed with plastic zip ties.
As agents organized the workers into groups, women wept with worry over their children, he said.
“My first thought was, ‘will my wife know where I am?’ ” he said. “Tears came out of my eyes.”
He said he spent more than five months in a Texas detention center before he was deported.
Others in attendance were also detained in the raid, but said even recalling it was difficult.
“It’s very painful to think about it. It’s almost not worth remembering,” said Noelia Ramos, a Honduran immigrant who had only been in the United States for five months when she was swept up in the raid, through a translator. “Six years have passed, but the trauma doesn’t go away.”
Ramos was granted a temporary stay of deportation to care for her then-1-month-old baby.
“I came here just like everybody else, with the idea that I would work and help my family, who was very poor,” Ramos said. “Your dreams, they just fall down.”
Some of the illegal immigrants detained in the raid remain in legal limbo, organizers said, living in the United States without official permission, but wearing monitoring bracelets on their ankles or regularly reporting to ICE officials while their cases are pending.
“Six years seems like a long time, but there are still lots of people going through the process,” said Gomez, who has since become a local leader of the activist group Student Immigrant Movement. “Wearing the ankle bracelets, reporting to ICE, it’s not like a normal life. … Some [citizens] criticize us, but they don’t see these are just families that are trying to work and make a living like their families once did.”
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org