ICE Raid Targets, Snares Human Trafficking Victims – 10/29/08

CONTACT SAKET SONI — 504 881 6610
New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice

ICE Raid Targets, Snares Human Trafficking Victims

Victims Demand Access to Their Legal Counsel, but ICE Refuses

Oct. 29, 2008-Over 20 Indian Guest Workers who triggered a high-profile federal investigation into human trafficking were targeted this morning by a raid carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency near Fargo, North Dakota. Despite workers’ repeated demands for their attorneys, ICE blocked workers’ access to their legal counsel, outraging national experts and advocates.

The workers were among approximately 500 individuals trafficked to the United States after Hurricane Katrina by Gulf Coast employer Signal International, LLC. Workers were subjected to forced labor in Mississippi and Texas labor camps. They escaped the labor camps earlier this year to come forward and report human trafficking to the Department of Justice. The workers triggered a major criminal trafficking investigation, which is still open, filed a federal class action lawsuit in New Orleans against Signal International, LLC, and labor recruiters in the U.S. and India, and staged a hunger strike in Washington, DC, to push for the prosecution of Signal.

“It is an outrage that workers who courageously came forward at great personal risk to cooperate with the Department of Justice in a federal trafficking investigation were targeted by ICE and then denied access to their own legal counsel,” said Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. “This is yet another example of immigration enforcement run amok. ICE terrorizes and detains workers rather than targeting bad employers,” added Hincapié.

Upon realizing that they were being targeted by ICE, the workers presented letters explaining they were victims and witnesses to the federal crime of human trafficking. The letter listed their attorney’s name and contact information. They communicated that they did not want to be questioned without legal counsel. ICE summarily refused the workers’ requests and questioned them individually without attorneys or interpreters.

“Why isn’t ICE spending national resources investigating criminal traffickers, instead of targeting and terrifying the victims?” asked Saket Soni, Director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. “Since these workers have come forward to report Signal International, LLC, to the Department of Justice, they have faced ICE surveillance, ICE arrests, and now an ICE sting operation.”

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley held a news conference today, briefing the press on the ICE sting operation. Wrigley omitted to mention that workers were cooperating in a DOJ investigation into human trafficking.