Immigrants forced into slavery in New York

Issue 

By Barry Sheppard

At midnight on July 19, four immigrants from Mexico went to the local police station in the Jackson Heights area of New York City with a three-page letter in Spanish. Nervous, they left without showing the letter to the police. They went in and out of the station several times before finally turning the letter over at 4am.

These immigrants couldn't speak to the police because they are deaf-mutes. The letter told of horrendous conditions they and many others were subjected to, and led the police to two apartments where 57 immigrant deaf-mutes were jammed together in bunk beds, on mattresses on the floor, and in sleeping bags — men, women, teenagers, toddlers and infants.

They were taken to a motel where police questioned them through Spanish interpreters using sign language. This is the story that emerged:

The immigrants were enticed to come to the US with promises that they would get good jobs working for a small business. They were then smuggled into the country or were given false entry documents. Once they were in New York, their personal belongings and documents, such as birth certificates and Mexican identity cards, were taken away from them, and they were forced to live in the two apartments.

Each day they were given 100 trinkets and told to go into the subways and sell them for $1 each. This really was a form of begging, as they were required to wear signs reading "I am deaf" to appeal to the sympathies of subway riders.

They had to stay out until they sold all 100 trinkets, which usually meant 16-hour days. When they came "home", they had to turn over the $100. They got two days off a month, and $400 in wages, of which $200 had to be given back for "rent".

$200 a month is not much to live on, and the virtual slaves complained they were always hungry. Sometimes they would not even be given this pittance, but pizza in lieu of it.

Those who refused to work or who didn't bring back enough money were beaten, including children.

The cold New York winters were especially hard on them. In tattered shoes and layers of old sweaters and coats, they had to stay out 16 hours in snow and temperatures that often were minus 10 degrees Celsius or lower.

The ring that ran this operation was able to keep control over their victims partly because they were deaf-mutes in a foreign country and consequently very isolated and susceptible to being intimidated. They also feared being turned over to the authorities, since they were undocumented and would face deportation. Of course, they never were able to save enough money to return to Mexico.

The operation had been going on for 10 years. One slave said his baby boy was taken from him by his captors five years ago, and he has no idea what became of him.

The band that ran the scheme designated certain members as bosses of the two apartments. Others collected the money. Enforcers followed the slave victims during their workday, to check up on their "productivity" and hunt down those who didn't come back at night. A 59-year-old woman leader of the ring would go to Mexico to find new victims.

Neighbours told of hearing every night screams coming from the two apartments, felt doors slamming and fists pounding the walls and saw shoeless women in night gowns running away from men who chased them through the side alley. The squalor and oppression these people suffered created the conditions where such domestic violence could flourish, over and above the violence inflicted on the victims by the bosses and enforcers.

The neighbours, many of whom also are undocumented immigrants, feared to go to the police, which is a common attitude among the poorer sections of the working class in New York, and for good reason.

Testimony from the victims and other witnesses indicates that similar bands exploiting Mexican deaf-mutes are operating in other areas of the country.

The members of the ring that ran the operation were also Mexican nationals. This and the fact that their victims were deaf-mutes make this particular operation more horrendous than the "normal" conditions other undocumented workers suffer. But it is more like an extreme example than a completely different case.

There have been other extreme examples that have come to light recently, including cases of Asian women being tricked into coming to the US and then forced into prostitution. Since they were in debt to those who smuggled them here, often to the tune of $30,000, they were kept in virtual bondage trying to pay off the debt.

The "normal" exploitation of undocumented workers is not so extreme. In most cases, their employers are US citizens running big companies, especially in agribusiness. They get substandard wages and conditions, and find it difficult to complain to the authorities or to fight the bosses for fear of being deported. That's why farm worker unions have to try to organise them.

There's currently an anti-immigrant campaign here just as in Australia. Undocumented immigrants bear the brunt of the attack. But this doesn't mean that the powers that be actually want to get rid of them. Too much super-profit is made off them.

What these bosses want is to keep the undocumented employed, but keep them social pariahs who always face the threat of deportation, and thus can be paid illegally low wages with bad conditions, and find it that much harder to fight back.