Congressman, faith and labor leaders urge release of jailed workers

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MINNEAPOLIS (Workday Minnesota) — Imagine you sell your home, even borrow money, to move to another community where you are promised a good job. But when you get there, you're forced to live in near-slavery conditions.

When you report the situation to the authorities, you're arrested and put in jail. The employer, meanwhile, faces no penalties and continues to reap profits from your work.

That — in a nutshell — is the situation faced by 23 workers from India currently held in the Fargo, N.D., jail by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Thursday, community leaders in Minnesota — including Congressman Keith Ellison and the Rev. Craig Johnson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — issued a call for the workers' release.

'It is important that people of faith stand in solidarity with those among us who have been wrongly accused,' Johnson told a group gathered in front of the U.S. Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis.

'We have a perverse situation,' said Ellison. 'It's unjust, it's wrong and we're not going to stand silent while it goes on.'

Lured to the United States

More than 300 workers were lured to the United States from their homes in India by promises of good jobs at a Mississippi shipyard operated by Signal International, said Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Many sold homes or property to make the trip and paid $20,000 each to a recruiter, he said.

In the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of immigrants were lured to the Gulf Coast with such promises, Soni said.

When they arrived, they discovered squalid living conditions. When they tried to organize to improve their lot, they were threatened with deportation, Soni said.

Some of the workers contacted the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, which helped them report the situation to the Department of Justice. But the department is dragging its feet on investigating the case, while some of the workers have been swept up in immigration raids.

The workers, who entered the country with guest worker visas, are really victims of human trafficking, said Soni. Earlier this year, the men marched on foot from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to put pressure on the Department of Justice to investigate the case and to allow them “continued presence,” a temporary visa status that allows victims of trafficking to work in the country while the investigation is still ongoing.

Some of the workers later got jobs in North Dakota, where they were picked up by immigration officials and have been held for nearly two months. The workers at the Fargo jail are currently engaged in a hunger strike.

Showing support

Last week, Ellison and faith leaders joined in a 24-hour fast to show solidarity. They also contacted the Department of Justice to urge the workers' release and an investigation of Signal International.

'To Signal International, we say, 'shame on you!'' said Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Ellison said the workers' plight might seem far-removed from the lives of most Americans, but their case has implications for everyone.

'When these workers are exploited in this manner, this diminishes all labor,' Ellison said. 'This exploits all labor.'

In a statement, Signal International said their 'employment practices and facilities have been inspected by representatives of the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of State.'

Thursday's news conference was coordinated by ISAIAH, a Twin Cities faith organization. Several of its members participated in the solidarity fast, the organization said.

Faith and community groups also have held rallies in Fargo to support the jailed workers. Supporters are urging people to contact Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, who oversee the Department of Justice.

To take action

E-mail members of Congress through the website of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, www.nowcrj.org

----- Barb Kucera is editor of Workday Minnesota (www.workdayminnesota.org).