Important, if somewhat late posted news: Rev. Timothy McDonald announced Tuesday that he had given the workers refuge at his church to protect them from surveillance and harassment by immigration agents that took place Friday outside the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, AL. NOWCRJ director Saket Soni told the story:
Statement of Saket Soni
Director, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Two weeks ago, over 120 Indian guest workers in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast left their labor camps in the dead of the night and reported their company to the Department of Justice as a major actor in a human labor trafficking racket that sprawled from Mumbai to Mississippi. The Indian workers reported that US and Indian recruiters had sold them false promises for $20,000, lured the workers into debilitating debt, and then provided the workers to a major Gulf Coast marine fabrication company – Signal International, a Northrop Grumman subcontractor – who held them in forced labor in “man camps” and used armed guards to break organizing efforts.
The workers decided to walk to Washington, in the footsteps of Gandhi and King, to unmask the federal guest worker program as a vehicle for human trafficking and forced labor.
Along their journey for justice, on their way from a civil rights center in Montgomery to easter mass at the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, they became aware that they were the targets of a terrifying covert surveillance operation run by US immigration authorities. Today, African American pastors and labor activists called for the creation of a “new underground railroad” to ensure safe passage for these Indian guest workers to Washington, DC.
Workers were emerging from the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama on Friday, March 21, 2008. Several of the workers noticed a middle aged white man surveilling them and taking their photographs from a balcony level above them. Workers were alarmed and anxious.
I went up to the balcony and approached the man. I identified myself as part of a community group and respectfully asked him why he was surveilling the group. He belligerently responded that he was a private citizen, swore, and held a cellphone to his ear. Our attorney arrived and asked him again to identify himself; he would not. We assumed at that time that he was either a white supremacist or a rogue security agency.
A group of observers identified the man as immigration, and said that he was part of a group monitoring the workers from the parking lot across the street.
In the parking lot, a second man identified himself as law enforcement but refused to give his name or agency. He confirmed that the first man was with him, but refused to say anything else until his boss arrived. Moments later, his boss showed up in a white SUV. He identified himself as Mickey Pledger with law enforcement. He would not say what agency he was with.
When pressed, he presented his badge and identified himself as the Alabama head of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. He claimed he was present for the workers’ protection. When asked why none of the workers’ advocates had been contacted, he indicated that this was not their practice. “You’re not supposed to know we’re here,” he said several times, clearly upset that workers had outed his covert operation. He also indicated chillingly that their had been ongoing surveillance from the beginning of the journey. “Just because you don’t see doesn’t mean we haven’t been around,” he said.
Even after Mr. Pledger and his agents left, workers were terrified at the prospect of being the subject of ongoing surveillance if they exercised their rights in the United States. But they decided to continue their march out of Montgomery, towards DC, and arrived safely in Atlanta on Easter. On Easter Sunday, Pastor Tim McDonald gave the workers refuge and his sanctuary became a station in a new underground railroad emerging to protect these workers as they flee trafficking and forced labor to tell the truth about the US guest worker program.
Saket’s narrative was followed by a passionate statement by Reverend Timothy Mcdonald III, who said:
“Amost 40 years ago to the day, in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the sanitation workers carrying the exact same signs: ‘I Am A Man’ and ‘Dignity.’ He told us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
“There are far too many Americans who don’t want to believe that human slavery still exists, that human trafficking takes place in our country. But the reality is: It exists. It exists not only in New Orleans, it exists throughout our country. And there comes a point in time when people must remove from our eyes the veils of deception and lies that somehow have caused us to live under a false peace. We cannot sit idly by while our brothers have to live under the conditions that they had to live under, had to endure the cruelties and the atrocities that they had to endure with the hope of a better life.
“Amer is a country of immigrants. We come from all countries all around the world. And now we’re at a point where many are saying that we do not have to respect the rights of our brothers from India. Well, we say we must respect the rights of all workers anywhere in the world. I am honored to stand in solidarity with these our brothers as they take their trek to our nation’s capital to petition our government that no longer can hide behind these lies and these deceptions.
“We have a responsibility in the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to help them regain their dreams.”