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Originally published March 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist

Anger over immigration mess is not just a Republican thing

Iowa Republicans are peppering their presidential hopefuls with pointed questions about illegal immigration. Media reports...

Iowa Republicans are peppering their presidential hopefuls with pointed questions about illegal immigration. Media reports tend to characterize these discussions as a Republican-base thing, but the reality is otherwise — as careful positioning by Democratic candidates would suggest. The immigration free-for-all is driving nearly everyone crazy.

New Bedford, Mass., is worlds away from Iowa, particularly its Republican strongholds. It is ocean-blue Democratic and votes every two years for liberal Rep. Barney Frank.

But when federal immigration agents raided a local plant and took away 361 illegal workers, Frank didn't get up and give the speech about illegals doing work Americans won't do.

You don't say that in New Bedford, a depressed factory and fishing town with a magnificent work ethic and an unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, the highest in Massachusetts. (The day of the raid, the copper company founded by Paul Revere in 1801 added to the misery by announcing plans to leave town.)

For the city's beaten-up working class, factory jobs are diamonds. After the raid, 400 people immediately applied for the openings.

Frank blasted the Defense Department for awarding more than $100 million in contracts to Michael Bianco Inc., which, it appears, was flagrantly employing illegal workers to sew military backpacks and other gear. Frank also quoted a Michael Bianco competitor who called him after the raid, saying, "Now I understand how they kept outbidding me."

This is hardly an anti-immigrant town. Up to 40 percent of New Bedford's 100,000 residents are foreign-born, the majority here legally. And while there's sympathy for the arrested workers — mostly women from Central America — there is also widespread disgust at what was allegedly going on at Michael Bianco and the lenient treatment of its owner, Francesco Insolia.

Where to start? The pay was minimum wage, no benefits. Employees said that Insolia would fine them $20 if they used too much toilet paper or were a minute late. He charged them 25 cents for a Tylenol. Heat was frequently off in mid-winter, and the emergency back door chained.

Insolia worked all angles. Upon landing a fat defense contract in 2004, he trotted to New Bedford City Hall for his special tax break. The city agreed to forgive $80,000 in taxes over five years if he retained 65 jobs and created 85 new ones, with preference given to "qualified New Bedford residents."

Insolia himself lives in a posh Boston suburb and has a second home in Palm Beach. The cost of providing services for his illegal workforce, naturally, fell on the threadbare taxpayers of New Bedford.

Mayor Scott Lang is frustrated by a federal government that ignored illegal immigration for 15 years but has not reimbursed his city for its costs. And he holds contempt for employers who exploit the vulnerable workers while undercutting New Bedford's reputable manufacturers.

"How about a year in jail for every illegal immigrant you employ?" Lang suggested. "That would drive them out real fast."

At the same time, Lang was shocked by the fed's rough handling of the illegal workers, some of whom were temporarily separated from their children. "I asked Julie Myers (who heads U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) whether there were any humanitarian guidelines," he said.

"There weren't."

Insolia and his managers face felony charges, but unlike the illegals being held in detention centers, they're out on the streets. A federal judge even gave him permission to travel to Puerto Rico on business.

It doesn't matter what party you affiliate with: This is not a pretty picture. And anger over the immigration mess is clearly not just an Iowa-Republican thing.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

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