Victimized again by ICE

November 24, 2008

Alpana Mehta explains how U.S. immigration officials refused to assist immigrant "guest workers" who walked out on slave-like conditions in Mississippi--and then arrested them in North Dakota.

SOUTH ASIAN guest workers who walked off the job at Signal International earlier this year to protest illegal recruiting methods and their virtual imprisonment are facing a renewed assault after being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a workplace raid in Fargo, N.D.

The raid was an outrageous attack on workers who were part of an ongoing federal investigation into human trafficking by Signal. What's more, four of the 23 who were arrested were pressured by the Department of Justice into signing voluntary deportation papers in exchange for testimony against their former employers and recruiters.

Known as the "Cass 23" (after Cass County Jail), the workers are currently facing "financial evaluations" to see if they are eligible for a public defender.

The Signal workers were originally trafficked to the U.S. to work on the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. They paid $20,000 each in exchange for full-time jobs and the promise of permanent residency cards. While working at Signal, the workers were kept under armed guard; had their wages garnished for food and lodging in cramped, dirty quarters; and were threatened when they attempted to organize.

Indian guest workers begin a hunger strike across from the White House
Indian guest workers begin a hunger strike across from the White House (Chris Yarrison | SW)

Those arrested in Fargo were part of a larger group of around 200 workers who had walked off the job at Signal in protest.

The company fired them, which meant their work visas were no longer valid. Heavily in debt for the $20,000 it cost to get the work visas, the workers continued their fight through hunger strikes, protests and a caravan to Washington, D.C., for meetings with key members of Congress and to petition the Department of Justice for asylum as victims of human trafficking.

But no help was forthcoming from the government. Rather, the raid and arrests show that the U.S. government and employers are willing to ignore violations of human rights and allow human trafficking for the sake of cheap labor.

"Why isn't ICE spending national resources investigating criminal traffickers, instead of targeting and terrifying the victims?" Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, said in a statement released by his organization, which has provided assistance to the Signal workers. "Since these workers have come forward to report Signal International, LLC, to the Department of Justice, they have faced ICE surveillance, ICE arrests and now an ICE sting operation."

These workers, like countless others, have been failed by the Department of Justice. The recent raid and arrest should renew the struggle for the rights of these workers and an end to the unjust system of guest-worker visas that tie people to one company without the right to organize.

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