Rep. Ellison, rights groups show support for jailed Indian workersby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Twenty-three men from India jailed in Fargo are getting support from human rights advocates and members of Congress.
St. Paul, Minn. — The workers are charged with having false documents and they say they are victims of human trafficking.
Seven of the men entered guilty pleas Wednesday in federal court in Fargo. They will be turned over to Immigration officials who will decide if they should be deported.
Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison and other supporters started a 24-hour fast this afternoon to show support for the jailed workers.
The men came to the U.S. on worker visas as welders and pipefitters in the wake of hurricane Katrina. The workers say they promised to pay $20,000 each and in turn were told they would get permanent U.S. citizenship.
Saket Soni, with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, said dozens of workers came from India only to discover their visa expired in 10 months.
"It was impossible to recover $20,000 in earnings in 10 months, so these workers essentially were held in forced labor," Soni said. "They were held in involuntary servitude in the labor camps of Mississippi and Texas."
Earlier this year, the men walked away from their jobs and filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department.
Signal Corporation, the company the workers allege held them against their will, issued a press release calling the claims baseless and unfounded.
The workers asked for something called continued presence. That would keep them from being deported while their claims were investigated.
In October, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement arrested 23 of the Indian workers at an ethanol plant under construction near Fargo.
Their worker visas were expired and ICE said they were using false documents. The Fargo company that hired them is not under investigation.
The jailed workers case has attracted the attention of human rights advocates and members of Congress including Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison.
Ellison joined labor and religious leaders Wednesday in Minneapolis for a 24-hour fast to show support for the jailed workers.
"You know, we should go after the main movers who are the traffickers," Ellison said.
In this particular case, the U.S. Attorney made the point these workers broke the law.
"Well the trafficker broke the law too," Ellison said. "And if we don't deal with the trafficker aren't we just going to get more trafficked individuals? I think the emphasis may not be in the right place."
Ellison said Congress passed laws to protect immigrant workers who claim they are victims of trafficking. He questions whether those protections are being adequately honored by the U.S. Justice Department.
The U.S. Attorney's office and the federal Public Defenders office declined comment on the case.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Tim Counts also declined to comment on the case of the 23 Indian workers jailed in Fargo.
But he did agree to talk about the issue of human trafficking. Counts said last year 156 people were arrested in the U.S. on charges of human trafficking.
He said workers brought to the U.S. on temporary visas are vulnerable. Counts added that sometimes their passports are taken away, they're forced to work long hours and told their families will be harmed if they don't stay on the job.
Counts said human trafficking is not just a big city problem.
"One of our most significant cases happened in a small town in South Dakota where a couple had brought people in from the Philippines on temporary visas, but when they got here they were held as virtual slaves," Counts said.
He also said that investigation can be difficult because workers often don't understand their rights or don't know where to go for help.
Soket Soni of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice said that's one reason the case of workers jailed in Fargo is important. He said if the workers are sent to prison or deported, it will have a chilling effect on other human trafficking investigations.
"If this group of workers does not get continued presence then we believe many more workers will never come forward," Soni said. "Because, what is the basis for trusting that the protections that congress turned into law will actually be enforced?"
Soni says the immigrant workers are only asking for enforcement of those worker protection laws already in place.
- All Things Considered, 12/17/2008, 4:50 p.m.