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Indians on Hunger Strike to Avoid Deportation

New America Media , Commentary, Arnoldo Garcia Posted: Jun 12, 2008

Editors Note: Indian guest workers who say they were trafficked to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast have launched a hunger strike to stay in the United States. Arnoldo Garcia is director of the Immigrant Justice and Rights Program at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Immigration Matters regularly features the views of the nation's leading immigrant rights advocates.

WASHINGTON, D.C. On June 11, hundreds of workers from India who were trafficked to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast held a rally outside of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. They demanded that the Attorney General grant them "continued presence" in the United States under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The workers were brought here in 2006 with H2B visas, a U.S. guest worker program, but faced threats and abuse in the United States.

Communities and organizations around the country held various local events and actions on that day to support the Indian workers' demands and challenge the use of guest worker programs.

The Indian workers, who allege that they were recruited by force, fraud and coercion by a U.S. company Signal International, LLC say they were sold false promises of well-paid and secure construction jobs. They say they were also led to believe that they could bring their families and build new lives in the United States. Each of them reportedly paid recruiters $20,000 for these dreams, selling their homes and plunging their families into debt, only to arrive into an American nightmare. The workers were held in forced labor, crammed into tiny living quarters with 24 men to a small room. They faced constant threats and humiliation by their employers.

Saket Soni, of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, who helped organize the workers, said, "When we started to organize the workers last year, Signal sent armed guards to the labor camps at the break of dawn. They pulled organizers out of beds, imprisoned them on company grounds, and attempted to deport them. Three hundred workers went on strike to demand the release of their captive organizers."

A year later, the workers escaped from their labor camps and convinced Congress to hold a hearing this year to investigate Signal's criminal trafficking practices and the use of guest worker programs in the Gulf Coast. They were also able to pressure the Indian government to hold criminal proceedings against the recruiters in India.

On May 14 this year, the Indian workers launched a hunger strike in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, to avoid the ongoing threat of deportation by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The workers desperately need to be protected under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, to be released from the continued terror of deportation and to safely participate in the federal government's investigation.

According to Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, "Guest worker programs around the world have become a means for exploiting immigrant workers as cheap and disposable labor to maximize corporate profits. Workers who are funneled into such programs as the H2B program in the U.S. often have to pay exorbitant fees to their recruiters, and then are forced to work in sub-human conditions with the threat of firings, deportation and abuse if they refuse. Large companies are working in cahoots with the government in denying immigrant workers equal treatment and their rights as workers and as human beings."

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