Sunday, June 22, 2008

INB 6/22/08: Indian Workers Suspend Hunger Strike

Immigration News Briefs
Vol. 11, No. 13 - June 22, 2008

1. Indian Workers Suspend Hunger Strike
2. Deport Flight to Albania, Nigeria
3. California Farmworkers Arrested
4. No-Match Firings at California Farm
5. Arizona Water Parks Raided
6. Rhode Island: 42 Arrested in Fugitive Raid

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On June 11, Indian workers who say they were forced into involuntary servitude under the H-2B visa program rallied in front of the Department of Justice (DOJ) headquarters in Washington to demand that they be allowed to remain in the US to participate in a DOJ investigation into labor trafficking. A group of the workers had been carrying out a hunger strike in Washington since May 14, demanding congressional hearings into abuses of guest workers, talks between the US and Indian governments to protect future guest workers, and "continued presence" status under the Trafficking and Victims Protection Act so they can remain in the US and pursue their case.

The workers were employed by Signal International in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas, to work at Gulf Coast oil rig repair shipyards in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. On Mar. 7 a federal class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of about 550 of the H-2B workers against Signal and several recruiters and labor brokers, charging that they engineered a scheme to defraud the workers; on Mar. 18, over 100 of the workers launched a 10-day "journey for justice" from New Orleans to Washington [see INB 3/29/08].

The June 11 rally marked the suspension of the hunger strike. "With our hunger strike, we have won concrete actions that will help protect future workers from the nightmare of forced labor we suffered," said Sabulal Vijayan, a former Signal worker and member of the Indian Workers' Congress, a group formed by the H-2B workers with help from the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "Because of the power of our hunger strike, 18 members of the U.S. Congress have written to the Department of Justice to demand continued presence on our behalf."

DOJ has "remained cold while these workers have taken extraordinary risks to open the world's eyes to the reality of guestworker programs," said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. "This suspension of the hunger strike gives the DOJ one last chance to fulfill its responsibility to combat the brutal reality of human trafficking," Soni said.

As the workers rallied in Washington on June 11, the labor rights network Jobs With Justice held solidarity actions in 10 cities across the US: Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Portland, OR; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; Chicago, IL; Salt Lake City, UT; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; and San Francisco, CA. The previous week, Jobs With Justice members wrote over 9,000 letters to the US Congress in support of the workers. [Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. Workplace Immigration Report Vol. 2, #12, 6/16/08; New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice Press Release 6/11/08]


US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 77 Nigerians and six Albanians on a flight that left Niagara Falls International Airport in upstate New York on June 4 headed for Albania and Nigeria. The immigrants removed on the flight had been held at various detention facilities around the US; they were brought to the Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York, shortly before the flight. ICE Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) Flight Operations Unit arranged the contract flight. ICE reported that "the majority of those removed had criminal histories and convictions" in the US.

ICE claims that in fiscal year 2007 it removed a record number of people--more than 284,000--from the US, "including over 41,000 who returned voluntarily to their country of nationality." ICE said "more than 93,000" of the deportees (less than a third of the total) had criminal histories. [ICE News Release 6/6/08]


On June 4, ICE agents executed a federal search warrant at the business office of Boss 4 Packing in Heber, California, a locally-owned company that provides contract workers to farms in southern California's Imperial Valley. The search warrant remains under seal. Agents arrested two of the company's foremen on federal criminal charges for misusing Social Security numbers to employ unauthorized workers. One was arrested at his home near Brawley, California, while the other was arrested working in a nearby field. ICE also arrested 32 Boss 4 Packing employees--seven women and 25 men--on administrative immigration violations. Most of the workers were arrested in the Brawley area. One woman was released the same day on humanitarian grounds with orders to report for a removal processing interview, and one underage worker was turned over to relatives. Of the other 30 workers, 18 workers had already been returned to Mexico as of June 5, while 12 were being held as material witnesses in the ongoing investigation. [ICE News Release 6/5/08]


On June 9, Sun Valley Floral Farms in northern California's Humboldt County fired 283 employees after a letter from ICE informed the company that the workers are not eligible to work in the US because their Social Security numbers do not match government records. More than half of the company's workforce was laid off, according to Sun Valley Group CEO Lane DeVries. "It's like a neutron bomb hitting our company," DeVries said. "Some of these people worked with us for 17 years. Some were team leaders for 10 or 12 years. This is very devastating to the people involved." The latest ICE action against the company likely stems from investigations and raids that took place in the area nearly a year ago.

DeVries said Sun Valley's employment records were searched at that time, and approximately seven months ago, the company was asked to submit I-9 tax forms. [Times Standard (Eureka, CA) 6/10/08]

On June 16, a week after the firings at Sun Valley Floral, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that 33 custodians who were fired from their jobs at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2003 for having mismatched Social Security numbers were wrongfully terminated. The court ruled that discrepancies found in "no-match" letters the Social Security Administration sent to their employer, Aramark, did "not automatically mean that an employee is undocumented or lacks proper work authorization." The ruling requires the Los Angeles janitors to be rehired with back pay. It was the first federal appeals court in the nation to rule on no-match letters. [Arizona Republic (Phoenix) 6/19/08; San Francisco Chronicle 6/17/08]


On June 10, sheriff's deputies in Maricopa County, Arizona, raided two water parks in the Phoenix area and arrested nine workers on charges of suspicion of identity theft and using forged documents to obtain employment. The raid followed a four-month investigation of hiring practices at the sites.

The operation is being seen as a test case for a law that went into effect in Arizona in January 2008 which allows the state to suspend or revoke business licenses of employers who "knowingly" hire unauthorized workers. Authorities also used search warrants to seize personnel records, which they will use to investigate whether a violation of the state employer sanctions law occurred, said Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is known nationally for his aggressive targeting of immigrants.

The raids took place at Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa and Waterworld Safari in Phoenix, both of which are owned by Phoenix-based Golfland Entertainment Centers; the company operates three parks in Arizona and six in California. A former employee at Waterworld Safari provided the tip that led to the investigation, said Arpaio. According to Arpaio, investigators believe as many as 104 additional employees at the parks might have used fraudulent documents or Social Security numbers to get their jobs.

Dave Johnson, director of marketing for the parks, said that since January Golfland executives have used a federal database to check the immigration status of newly hired workers as required by the state law. "Those who could not be confirmed as legal, they were terminated," Johnson said. Golfland Sunsplash, Waterworld Safari and a third water park in the area employ a total of 1,100 people, Johnson said. [New York Times 6/12/08]


On June 11 and 12, ICE agents from the Rhode Island Fugitive Operations Team arrested 42 immigrants from Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico in the areas of Newport and Middletown, Rhode Island. Half of those arrested--21 people–were identified by ICE as immigration "fugitives" (people who had failed to comply with prior deportation orders). Another 12 were described as people who had reentered the US after being previously removed, while nine merely lacked authorization to be in the US.

According to an ICE news release, those who had reentered after being removed or had failed to comply with removal orders are "subject to immediate removal," while those who had not previously been ordered removed have been charged with immigration violations and placed into removal proceedings. They will be detained at various state and county facilities where ICE has contracts for immigration detention. ICE was assisted in the operation by Rhode Island State Police, Middletown Police Department, US Marshals Service, Bristol County (Massachusetts) Sheriff's Office, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. [ICE News Release 6/12/08]


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