One hundred Indian guest workers marched hundreds of miles from New Orleans, LA, to Washington, DC, to protest their treatment by their employer, Signal International. Brought here under the auspices of the H2B visa program, the workers were promised much and given little in return. As concerns about immigration continue to hold the national spotlight, theirs is a cautionary tale.
Immigrant Laborers in Limbo
By Garland McLaurin
TEXT ON SCREEN: Each year in the United States, 66,000 temporary workers are allowed into this country under a special visa called the H2B visa. On March 18, 2008, 100 H2B workers walked off their jobs in a Gulf Coast shipyard, and began marching north. Eight days later, they arrived in Washington, DC.
SARITA GUPTA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, JOBS WITH JUSTICE: To give you a little context of this struggle, in late 2006, over 500 Indian workers mortgaged their futures for an American dream, paying $20,000 a piece for false promises of green cards and permanent residency from the US and Indian recruiters.
JACOB HORWITZ, NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE: In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, while African-American workers were locked out of New Orleans and locked out of jobs in the Gulf Coast, the government expanded guest-worker programs in the Gulf Coast. And so there was this influx of immigrant workers that was facilitated by the government and by companies looking for cheap labor.
2007 State of the Union Address
GEORGE W. BUSH, US PRESIDENT: Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America. We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis.
CROWD: We want justice! We want justice! We want justice! We want justice!
TEXT ON SCREEN: Signal International, LLC contracted over 500 Indian laborers with H2B visas to work in its shipyards.
GUPTA: Signal forced them to live 24 men to a trailer and charged them $1,050 a month for it. H2B visas bind workers to a single employer, which let Signal threaten deportation at any time.
SAKET SONI, DIRECTOR, NEW ORLEANS WORKERS’ CENTER FOR RACIAL JUSTICE: You usually come in bound to debt, because you pay a lot of money for the visa. So you become indentured, in effect, to your debt at home and to the boss in the United States.
TEXT ON SCREEN: After walking off the job, the workers were fired by Signal International. Signal CEO Richard Marler released a statement blaming Indian recruiters for misleading the workers. Contrary to Marler’s claims, in 2007, Malvern Burnett, a lawyer representing Signal International, repeatedly met with Indian workers in New Orleans.
SONI: Workers would go to Malvern Burnett’s office in New Orleans. He would charge $100 per worker, even for a two-minute conversation, continued to promise green cards, continued to promise visa extensions, while he was still working for Signal.
TEXT ON SCREEN: ANP contacted Malvern Burnett’s law offices in New Orleans. He declined to comment.
RONALD E. AULT, PRESIDENT, METAL TRADES DEPT. AFL-CIO: A lot of the very same people that ran free-to-go-home are running Signal. They did the exact same thing with the Hispanic workers back in the early 2000s. And at that time, you know, they tried to hide behind the fact that they had this broker and they weren’t responsible for the actions of the broker. So it’s the same song, and it’s just a little bit different theme.
TEXT ON SCREEN: The Indian workers went to the Indian Embassy to appeal for help.
SONI: I just want to make sure everyone understands that, you know, what we’re hearing from you is that you cannot take action within US borders.
RONEN SEN, INDIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: I said that we can take definitive action as far as our rules, regulations within India to ensure protection within the framework of rules which we already have.
SONI: Unfortunately, the ambassador couldn’t make any guarantees that he would help the men. He listened sympathetically, extended his warm regards, but couldn’t publicly communicate any promises that the Indian government or his office would come to their aid.
HEMANT KHUTTAN, H2B GUEST WORKER: I am very scared. We have to work because we don’t have anything in our hand. The company and H2B Visa rule our hand. We have to do what they want.
TEXT ON SCREEN: In response to the workers’ pleas, the Department of Justice opened a human trafficking investigation.
Rayburn Congressional Building – Washington, DC
Briefing on guest worker abuses
MARY BAUER, DIR. IMMIGRATION JUSTICE, SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER: So we’re here today to have a briefing for congressional staff about the H2B program and the abuses in that program. We really are saying, because guest-worker programs have been touted by some, including the president, as the model for immigration reform, we’ve really said, well, let’s stand back and take a look at what those programs look like in practice—and they should not be the model for immigration reform. We really don’t believe the American people would be comfortable replicating these programs on a giant scale, which is what the president’s talking about. We don’t think the American people want, you know, hundreds of thousands of people who are kept in effective, you know, servitude as part of the structure of immigration reform. We think we can do better than that.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Strategy meeting for the workers.
KHUTTAN: Every time we have the same conversation—when we are going to be a free person—because we are slaves here.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Signal International has suspended its use of the H2B guest worker visa. “Both Signal and our employees were misled. We are going to stand by our workers and do what we can to help them get justice.” (Signal International CEO Richard Marler, March 27, 2008.) Six weeks later… On May 14th, 2008 the H2B Indian workers began a hunger strike in front of the White House. They are appealing for protection under the Human Trafficking Protection Act while their case is investigated.
AULT: None of those American pipefitters from the unions have been allowed to go to work. Signal doesn’t want any union workers; they want non-union immigrant workers they can exploit and hold a life-or-death over. It’s a power thing as well.
Editors: Garland McLaurin, Colby Hartburg
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.