Not only did Hurricane Katrina wreak havoc on people living in the Gulf Coast, it had dire consequences for Indian laborers living halfway around the world.
When it came time to rebuild the devastated region, many employers, desperate for workers, looked abroad. Some resorted to criminal means to bring laborers into the United States. Recruiters in India and the United Arab Emirates, in collaboration with U.S. manufacturers, drafted Indian laborers to work as welders and pipe fitters. The recruiters promised that, in exchange for as much as $18,000, the laborers could come to the United States as guest workers and earn green cards for themselves and their families.
Many discovered the promises were lies. Employers kept them in terrible conditions. They were forced to live in guarded enclosures in which as many as 24 men shared a bunkhouse with two toilets and two showers. Meals were small, often containing spoiled food. Wages were garnished by more than $1,000 each month. For those brave enough to protest or attempt to leave, recruiters and private guards threatened to bring in police and immigration authorities.
Many workers escaped. Some remained in the south to pursue a civil suit filed on their behalf. The U.S. Department of Justice initiated a criminal investigation. Others scattered across the country after filing applications for trafficking visas, known as “T” visas.
Twenty-three men made their way to North Dakota to work at an ethanol plant. After arriving, they were apprehended and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Despite human trafficking claims and pending immigration cases, ICE prosecuted them for document fraud and placed them into removal proceedings.
The Advocates for Human Rights stepped in to help, and organized a group of volunteer attorneys to assist with efforts to dismiss the deportation proceedings while preserving the men’s claims to T-visas. The team included attorneys from Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi and from the University of St. Thomas Law School.
While some workers returned to India, T-visas were secured for at least nine individuals, allowing the men to remain in the United States while their traffickers’ civil and criminal cases progressed. Eventually, they will be eligible to apply for the green cards that had been promised to them.