New York Times editorial – Feb. 4, 2010
A federal agency appears to have collaborated in an effort to silence foreign workers who claimed they were lured here under false pretenses and abused by the company they worked for. The role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – reported in The Times by Julia Preston – is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.
This is the latest twist in a sad tale of human trafficking and another reason why Congress, as part of its immigration reform efforts, must solve a problem that dates back to the Mexican bracero program: how to accept guest workers in this country while preventing their exploitation.
In 2006, a company called Signal International hired 500 skilled metalworkers from India, under the H-2B temporary guest worker program, to repair oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina. The workers say they were promised green cards for themselves and their families. Some paid recruiters as much as $20,000 to make the trip to Mississippi, often taking on crushing debt or selling their homes.
The workers quickly learned that they had no hope of green cards. They could not work for anyone else and were told they would be fired and deported if they left their isolated labor camps. They were trapped as surely as if they were shackled.
When they complained, the company – according to court testimony by its own officers – sought guidance from ICE on how to fire “chronic whiners” who were threatening to organize broader protests.
The agency replied, according to one official: “Don’t give them any advance notice. Take them all out of the line on the way to work; get their personal belongings. Get them in a van and get their tickets and get them to the airport and send them back to India.”
The private deportation failed after workers’ advocates organized a protest at the shipyard gates. In an internal e-mail message 10 days later, a shipyard official disclosed that the agency had promised to go after workers who had left their jobs, “if for no other reason than to send a message to the remaining workers that it is not in their best interests to try and ‘push’ the system.”
The Indian workers are suing Signal. The company is suing Indian and American recruiters for allegedly misleading the workers. And then there are the federal investigations of ICE.
The story may yet have a decent ending for the workers, hundreds of whom are seeking the protection the government guarantees to victims of trafficking. But the broader problem remains – of immigrant workers afraid to “push the system” and challenge abusive employers and even federal agencies when their jobs, visas and futures are at stake.
Correction: February 5, 2010
An editorial on Thursday about a Mississippi company apparently enlisting a federal agency’s help to silence complaining guest workers referred incorrectly to investigations prompted by the complaints. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating the company, Signal International. It is not investigating the agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.