The Forum newspaper – Workers are victims, pastor says

4 11 2008

Workers are victims, pastor says
Patrick Springer
The Forum – 11/04/2008

A Lutheran pastor who has visited some of the 23 men jailed on charges they are illegal immigrants from India believes they are victims of a human trafficking scam once held as “indentured servants” before escaping to North Dakota.

The Rev. Grant Stevensen, who visited six of the men in the Cass County Jail this weekend, said Monday that each of the men paid $20,000 to a Mississippi company in the belief it would help provide them legal jobs as welders or pipe fitters.

All of the men were arrested last week at the offices of a local construction company, and have been charged with obtaining counterfeit identity cards and making false statements. They are expected to make their next appearances Friday in U.S. District Court in Fargo.

The men were working on the ethanol plant under construction near Casselton, N.D., for Wanzek Construction, which became suspicious of their legal status and alerted federal officials.

Stevensen, pastor of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul, met with the men Saturday after learning from a fellow social justice activist that they were Christians and wanted to see a clergy member. He brought Bibles and was able to speak with six of the men, who spoke Hindi, with the aid of an interpreter.

After showing up in Mississippi to work at a shipyard on the Gulf Coast, the men were held in a compound where they were not free to come and go, Stevensen said.

The men are accustomed to traveling abroad for work to support their families back in India.

“They’re like monks,” Stevensen said. “All they want to do is weld and do pipe fitting. They live simple lives.”

After a large number of workers escaped in March, they picketed the company. Some walked to Washington and met with members of Congress, Stevensen said. Their protests, with support from advocacy groups, prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last summer wrote justice officials to ask that the workers be given “continuing presence” status, which would enable them to remain in the U.S. pending the outcome of the investigation. The men would be important witnesses, he said in the letter.

Leahy’s staff called to check on the status of the 23 men being held in Cass County, spokesman David Carle said Monday.

“These folks are not running from the law,” Stevensen said. “They decided to take action in Mississippi and shed light on it.”

Immigrants’ rights advocates have said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be targeting the traffickers rather than arresting and jailing exploited workers who triggered an official investigation.

“Why isn’t ICE spending national resources investigating criminal traffickers, instead of targeting and terrifying the victims?” said Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice.

Drew Wrigley, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, has said his office is aware of the Justice Department’s investigation but declined further comment. Requests Monday for comment from Justice officials in Washington were not returned.

“When it comes to investigations we generally don’t talk about it,” spokesman Tim Counts of ICE in the Twin Cities said. “I can’t confirm or deny any of that except to say the investigation is continuing.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522