Saturday, March 29, 2008

INB 3/29/08: H-2 Workers Sue, March; Detainee Deaths Protested

Immigration News Briefs
Vol. 11, No. 5 - March 29, 2008

INB has not been published for the past six weeks (since Feb. 10)--we apologize for the unusually long lapse! We hope to resume a fairly regular weekly publication schedule with this issue.

1. H-2 Workers File Suit, March to DC
2. Construction Workers Arrested in Virginia, Tennessee
3. Restaurant Raided in Charlotte, NC
4. PA: 64 Arrested in Warehouse Raid
5. NJ Detainees Protest Medical Neglect
6. Judge Blasts ICE over Detainee Death
7. Sister Files Suit Over Detainee Death
8. Al-Arian Still Jailed, on Hunger Strike

Immigration News Briefs is a weekly supplement to Weekly News Update on the Americas, published by Nicaragua Solidarity Network, 339 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012; tel 212-674-9499; INB is also distributed free via email; contact to subscribe or unsubscribe. You may reprint or distribute items from INB, but please credit us and tell people how to subscribe.

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On Mar. 7, a group of Indian welders, pipefitters, and marine fabrication workers employed under the federal H-2B visa program filed a federal lawsuit against Signal International, alleging that they were lured to work at the company's shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Orange, Texas, with false promises of permanent US residency. Once in the US, the workers say they were forced into involuntary servitude and overcrowded labor camps. The class action lawsuit, David v. Signal Int'l LLC, was filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in New Orleans, by several organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

According to the suit, a network of recruiters and labor brokers engineered a scheme to defraud the workers. The suit seeks injunctive relief, compensatory damages, and punitive damages for all Indian H-2B guestworkers who were recruited by Signal International since 2003 and who traveled or were transported to the US under the auspices of H-2B visas assigned to Signal. The class is believed to number more than 500 individuals.

The plaintiffs claimed they were trafficked into the US in late 2006 and early 2007 through the H-2B temporary guestworker program to work for Signal after many workers left the region following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. After the workers arrived, they discovered they would not receive green cards as promised but only 10-month H-2B guestworker visas. Led by class representative Kurian David, the plaintiffs say they incurred substantial debt, liquidated their life savings, and sold their family homes in India to pay mandatory recruitment, immigration processing, and travel fees totaling as much as $20,000 per worker. The main recruiting agents in India and the United Arab Emirates held the workers' passports and visas and threatened, coerced, and defrauded them, the complaint states. The plaintiffs say they were forced to live in guarded, overcrowded, and isolated labor camps while the company deducted $1,050 per month from their paychecks for room and board. According to the plaintiffs, Signal "generally perpetrated a campaign of psychological abuse, coercion, and fraud designed to render plaintiffs and other class members afraid, intimidated, and unable to leave Signal's employ."

Two plaintiffs charged that Signal attempted to forcibly and unlawfully deport them in retaliation for speaking out against discriminatory conditions in the company's labor camp in Pascagoula. Several workers were illegally detained by company security guards during a pre-dawn raid of their quarters after they began organizing other workers to complain about abuses they faced.

The suit says Signal violated the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and the Fair Labor Standards Act. [BNA Daily Labor Report #50, 3/14/08]

The litigation came out of a broader organizing campaign spearheaded by the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, a project of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. On Mar. 6, a day before filing the lawsuit, nearly 100 of the H-2B workers reported themselves to the Justice Department as victims of and witnesses to human trafficking, and demanded federal prosecution of Signal. They then marched to the main gates of the Signal International shipyard in Pascagoula carrying signs with the word "dignity." In a symbolic action, the workers down threw their hard hats toward Signal's main gate. [BNA Daily Labor Report #50, 3/14/08; (Mobile, AL) 3/6/08; New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice Press Release 3/6/08]

On Mar. 18, over 100 of the workers launched a nine-day journey by foot and bus from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to demand a meeting with Indian ambassador Ronen Sen and call for an end to abuses of the H2B guestworker program. They described their protest as a satyagraha, a word used by Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi to describe a nonviolent battle against injustice.

The workers met with a growing network of supporters and allies as they traveled through key sites of the US civil rights struggle of the 1960s. On Mar. 20, the workers rallied at the capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, where worker and organizer Sabulal Vijayan challenged Signal "to hire poor and African-American workers from Mississippi to take our place." Vijayan presented a list of 10 certified Indian trainers from the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity who are willing to train Mississippi workers if Signal will hire them. "We don't just want Signal to hire workers on Signal's terms," clarified Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "We want Signal to hire workers from Mississippi with a union contract, with fair wages, with health benefits, with immigrant rights, with a chance to move forward and make life better for all of Mississippi."

On Mar. 21, the workers visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, then marched through and out of the city. As they left the Memorial Center, organizers questioned undercover immigration agents at the scene who reluctantly admitted engaging in ongoing surveillance of the group. Montgomery police also tried to stop the marchers on their way through the city, claiming they needed a permit, but eventually let them continue. The workers spent Mar. 23-25 in Atlanta, staying in a church and meeting with supporters and media, then made a stop in Greensboro, North Carolina before arriving in Washington on Mar. 27.

In Washington, nearly 100 of the workers held a three-hour meeting with Ambassador Sen in the central hall of the Embassy of India. The workers plan to remain in Washington for a week and meet with members of Congress. A rally is scheduled for 11:30am on Mar. 31 in front of the White House with support from the labor solidarity organization Jobs with Justice. The workers' journey is chronicled in a text and photo blog at [New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice Press Release 3/18/08; AP 3/20/08; BBC News 3/27/08; blog postings from]

Signal International issued a statement on Mar. 27 saying it would hire no new temporary workers under the H2B program until the program is "reformed to better protect foreign workers and US companies that were misled by recruiters." Signal accused recruitment firm Global Resources of deceiving the Indian workers and said it has ended its contract with the company. Global Resources claimed that Signal was "totally and completely in charge of the relationship with the Indian workers," including their visa and living arrangements. [BBC News 3/27/08]


Early on Mar. 24, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 34 immigrants working for CMC Concrete Construction in Manassas, Virginia. The workers from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador were stopped by ICE as they were being transported to work; they are being charged administratively and are in ICE custody undergoing deportation proceedings, said ICE spokesperson Ernestine Fobbs. According to Fobbs, ICE executed two search warrants in connection with the operation, but the warrants remain under seal. [Washington Post 3/25/08]

On Mar. 25, ICE agents arrested 34 immigrant construction workers employed by various contractors and subcontractors building the new National Guard Air Base in Memphis, Tennessee. ICE made the arrests at the Memphis International Airport while conducting a gate check at the worksite location. The agency said it initiated the "ongoing criminal worksite investigation" after receiving information from the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations that some of the workers at the site were unauthorized. All those arrested said they were from Mexico; according to ICE, they were being processed at the agency's Detention and Removal Office facility in Memphis and will face deportation proceedings. [ICE News Release 3/25/08]


On Mar. 20, ICE agents arrested nine workers at an Olive Garden restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. The workers from Indonesia, Mexico and Guatemala were arrested on unspecified immigration charges and will face deportation proceedings, ICE said. Adriana Sanchez said her mother, Amalia de la Cruz, was among those arrested. De la Cruz was from Mexico and had worked at the restaurant for eight years, according to Sanchez. "We want to talk to her and tell her not to sign anything," Sanchez said as she went to try to see her mother at the Mecklenburg County jail. [News & Observer 3/22/08 from AP]


On Mar. 18, ICE agents arrested 64 workers at the warehouse of F.C. Young and Co. in the Bath Industrial Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Of the total workers arrested, 48 were women: 41 from Guatemala, five from Mexico and two from Honduras. Two of the 16 men arrested were from Mexico; the rest were Guatemalan. According to ICE spokesperson Mike Gilhooly, 20 of the workers were released the same day of the raid for humanitarian reasons including childcare concerns. The other 44 remain detained. [AP 3/19/08; Bucks County Courier Times 3/19/08]


In a Mar. 2 petition addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Michael Mukasey, 93 immigration detainees at Middlesex County jail in New Jersey complained about inadequate medical treatment for two fellow detainees, including a man named Arturo Alvarez who died earlier that same day. According to authorities the Cuban detainee died on Mar. 2 at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick after suffering a heart attack at the jail on Feb. 29. In the letter, titled "Re: Crime Against Humanity," the detainees said Alvarez asked for help and was given Tylenol and his own medication, "but no doctor was available to see him." The letter states that Alvarez "passed away in this jail" and was not sent to the hospital. The petition also charges that a detainee named Cemar Koc complained of pain to a first shift duty officer, got no help, and after complaining to a second-shift officer lost consciousness. [Home News Tribune 3/15/08; Copy of Petition 3/2/08 made available by New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee]

ICE spokesperson Michael Gilhooly denied the allegation of medical neglect. Gilhooly said the dead man's real name was Arturo Suarez-Almenares, and he was 72 years old. "When it became apparent that the individual was ill, he received proper medical care," Gilhooly said. "We take the health and welfare of our people very seriously." As with the deaths of all detainees, the case has been referred to the bureau's internal affairs office, said Mark Vogler, assistant field office director for the ICE detention and removal office in Newark.

Officials with knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release details of Suarez-Almenares said he arrived from Cuba in 1980, the year of the Mariel boatlift when 125,000 Cubans came to the US. He later reportedly spent five separate stints in state prison on drug distribution charges. He was sent to prison last in April 2007, released to immigration officials in October and taken to Middlesex County jail, Gilhooly said.

Cuban nationals generally cannot be repatriated because the Cuban government does not accept their return. Instead they are kept in a permanent probation-like program that requires them to maintain contact with immigration authorities. Gilhooly said Suarez-Almenares was about to be released when he fell ill.

Les Paschall, CEO of CFG Health Systems, a limited liability corporation that runs medical and mental-health services at the Middlesex County jail, declined comment on the death of Suarez-Almenares, citing lawyer's advice and security rules. [Home News Tribune 3/15/08]


In a decision dated Mar. 11, US District Judge Dean Pregerson in Los Angeles ruled that the family of Salvadoran immigrant Francisco Castaneda can continue to pursue a lawsuit against individual government officials for violating Castaneda's constitutional rights and can ask a jury to award punitive damages. Pregerson determined that the immigration agency's decision to withhold critical medical treatment from Castaneda while detaining him was "beyond cruel and unusual" punishment. The government had argued that its employees were immune from the lawsuit, and that federal law allowed only a suit against the government, with a nonjury trial and a $250,000 limit on damages. A spokesperson for the US attorney's office said the Justice Department might appeal Pregerson's ruling.

Castaneda first informed ICE medical staff at the San Diego Correctional Facility on Mar. 27, 2006, that "a lesion on his penis was becoming painful and growing," Pregerson wrote. The next day, a physician assistant at the facility examined Castaneda and issued a treatment plan calling for a consultation with a urologist "ASAP" and a request for a biopsy, according to government records cited by the judge.

The government was aware that Castaneda had a family history of cancer--his mother had died of pancreatic cancer at age 39. Yet for the following 11 months, the government refused to authorize a biopsy; officials instead prescribed antihistamines, ibuprofen and extra boxer shorts to deal with discharge from the lesion. On June 7, 2006, after oncologist Dr. John Wilkinson wrote a report saying Castaneda urgently needed a biopsy because he might have penile cancer, Dr. Esther Hui, M.D., of the Division of Immigration Health Services said her agency considered a biopsy "an elective outpatient procedure" and would not admit Castaneda to a hospital. Dr. Hui never made any arrangements for an outpatient biopsy.

Hui is one of the defendants named in the case, along with the federal government and several other federal officials, including another doctor, Timothy Shack, M.D.. Judge Pregerson said there was compelling evidence that government doctors "purposefully mischaracterized Castaneda's medical conditions as elective in order to refuse him care" and save money.

"I tried to get medical help every day," Castaneda said in his Oct. 4, 2007 testimony at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law looking into medical care at immigration detention centers.

In early December 2006, Castaneda was transferred to the San Pedro immigration detention center and came into contact with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who sent a letter on Dec. 5 to multiple ICE officials urging treatment for Castaneda. After the ACLU sent several more letters, Castaneda was finally seen by a urologist on Jan. 25, 2007, and a biopsy was scheduled for early February. The immigration agency then abruptly released Castaneda a few days before the procedure. On Feb. 8, Castaneda went to the emergency room of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center where doctors determined that the cancer had spread to his lymph system. They diagnosed him with metastatic squamous cell carcinoma and amputated his penis less than a week later. Chemotherapy failed to stop the spread of the cancer, and Castaneda died at age 36 on Feb. 16, 2008, at his home in Los Angeles.

Castaneda was 10 years old when he came to the US with his mother while El Salvador was mired in a brutal US-sponsored counter-insurgency war. He was arrested in 2005 on a drug possession charge and spent eight months in state custody; he was then detained in federal jails in San Diego and San Pedro while fighting deportation proceedings and seeking political asylum. [Los Angeles Times 3/13/08; San Francisco Chronicle 3/14/08; ABC News 3/19/08; Text of Pregerson's Ruling 3/11/08]

Judge Pregerson blasted government health officials' "attempt to sidestep responsibility for what appears to be... one of the most, if not the most, egregious" violations of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment that "the court has ever encountered." At this stage of the proceedings, "the only question is whether" the plaintiffs' allegations show that government officials "were deliberately indifferent to his condition. The court finds that they do," Pregerson said. The government's own records, Pregerson noted, "bespeak of conduct that transcends negligence by miles." [Los Angeles Times 3/13/08]

A separate lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU on behalf of other detainees at the San Diego detention center where Castaneda was held claimed that medical treatment was routinely delayed or denied in order to reduce the cost of care. The immigrants in that case said they were denied medications for months and that chronic illnesses such as diabetes were inadequately monitored. In one example, a detainee said he was denied treatment for a cut to his foot until it developed gangrene and doctors recommended amputation. [ABC News 3/19/08]


Maryland resident June Everett has filed a lawsuit charging that her sister, Sandra M. Kenley, died because of inadequate medical care while in immigration detention. The lawsuit names the Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover County and the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, as well as jail officials at both facilities, and seeks more than $2 million in damages.

Kenley had been a permanent legal resident since 1978 but was stopped because of two prior drug convictions when she tried to re-enter the US in Miami on Sept. 2, 2005, after a visit to her native Barbados. Kenley was allowed to proceed but was ordered to report to immigration officials in the Washington, DC area. When she reported on Nov. 2 she was placed in detention. Kenley was detained at the Hanover jail until Nov. 29, then transferred to the regional jail in Portsmouth, where she died on Dec. 18, 2005. An autopsy determined the cause of her death was acute coronary insufficiency due to hypertensive cardiovascular disease, said Donna Price, administrator for the medical examiner's office.

In the lawsuit, Everett states that her sister was on medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and was scheduled for surgery because of a fibroid tumor, which was causing heavy bleeding. Everett testified last Oct. 4 at the House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on medical care at immigration jails. Kenley "complained constantly about not getting her medicine," Everett said in her testimony. "When the prison officers finally gave her pills after many weeks, they were the wrong ones." [Virginian-Pilot (Hampton Roads, VA) 1/28/08]


On Mar. 3, jailed Palestinian professor Sami Al-Arian was informed that he would be called to testify before a grand jury in Virginia which is investigating allegations that Muslim charities aided terrorism organizations. Al-Arian responded by starting a hunger strike the same day, refusing all food and water. On Mar. 20, Al-Arian appeared before the grand jury and declined to testify. Later on Mar. 20 Al-Arian began drinking water, but he continues to fast at the Northern Neck Regional jail in Warsaw, Virginia. (On Mar. 12 he was transferred to a medical prison in Butner, North Carolina, but on Mar. 18 he was returned to the Warsaw jail.) Over the course of this latest hunger strike Al-Arian, who is diabetic, has lost 30 pounds; he has not been offered an IV or treatment for any of his symptoms, including chest pains, severe dehydration and headaches.

This is Al-Arian's third hunger strike since he was arrested on Feb. 20, 2003, on charges of conspiracy to aid the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Following his arrest, Al-Arian went on a liquid-only hunger strike that lasted 140 days. He was hospitalized and lost 45 pounds. On Jan. 22, 2007, after being held in civil contempt for not testifying before a grand jury, Al-Arian went on a water-only hunger strike for 60 days [see INB 3/24/07]. He lost 55 pounds, was hospitalized and was confined to a wheelchair.

On Dec. 6, 2005, a jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight charges and deadlocked 10-2 for acquittal on another nine charges. When the government threatened to retry him on the remaining counts, Al-Arian pleaded guilty on Apr. 14, 2006, to a single count of conspiracy to "make or receive funds... for the benefit of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad." In May 2006 Judge James S. Moody Jr. of Federal District Court in Tampa sentenced Al-Arian to 57 months in prison with credit for time served [see INB 6/10/06]. The plea agreement was based on the understanding that the government would not seek his testimony in future terrorism cases, and that he would be deported as soon as his term was up.

Al-Arian is declining to testify before the grand juries because he doesn't want anyone "to be persecuted the way he was," said Jonathan Turley, his attorney. Under his original plea agreement, Al-Arian was due to be released in April 2007, but he served an additional year for refusing to testify before the grand jury in January 2007. Just as Al-Arian was due to be released on Apr. 7 of this year, the government again brought him before a grand jury, knowing he would refuse to testify. "You have a great injustice being perpetrated by the Justice Department," said Turley. "They've daisy-chained three grand jury investigations to prolong his incarceration."

Al-Arian's supporters are concerned that the grand jury subpoena is an attempt by Assistant US Attorney Gordon Kromberg to ensnare Al-Arian in a perjury trap. According to Al-Arian's daughter, Laila Al-Arian, Kromberg "has made on-the-record anti-Muslim statements; he said he doesn't want to assist in the, quote, 'Islamization of America and of he American justice system.'"

For information on Al-Arian's case see, the website of the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace. [Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace Press Releases 3/3/08, 3/25/08; Washington Post 3/22/08; Statement from Jonathan Turley 3/22/08; Democracy Now (transcript) 3/21/08; Column by Attorney Peter Erlinder in JURIST 3/11/08]


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