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ICE and Big Business: Too Close for Comfort

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Today, workers, along with immigrant and civil rights advocates, exposed evidence of a disturbing and dangerous attack on workers' rights by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Testimony in the case David et al. v. Signal et al. has revealed that high level executives of defense contractor Signal International worked closely with ICE and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to quash organizing efforts by courageous workers from India who were allegedly caught in a human trafficking ring.

The case should be alarming to all workers, because an attack on the rights of any group of workers puts all workers' rights at risk.

Lured by the chance to pursue the American dream, hundreds of workers from India were recruited in 2006 to work at Signal as part of a post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort. These men, welders and pipe fitters, paid fees averaging $20,000 apiece to labor recruiters, who had promised them permanent jobs and green cards. When the workers arrived in the United States, they were subjected to horrific conditions in what Signal called "man camps," and tethered to Signal by short-sighted immigration laws. Under the current guest worker visa program, workers who enter the U.S. on temporary employment-based visas are bound to the sponsoring employer and become undocumented if they are fired or quit their job--even if they do so to escape exploitation.

Refusing to suffer in silence, the workers organized a campaign to assert their rights. Signal, instead of negotiating with workers to address their issues, sought guidance from ICE on how to deport workers who were causing "unrest." An ICE official advised Signal to "take [the Indians] out of line on their way to work, get their personal belongings, get them in a van...and send them back to India." According to the workers, Signal held a pre-dawn raid against its employees in March 2007. The deposition transcripts indicate that for the next two years, ICE met repeatedly with Signal and developed a plan for Signal to share information with ICE so that ICE could "send a message to the remaining workers that it is not in their best interests to try and 'push' the system."

In 2008, former Signal workers showed their faith in the American legal system by writing to the Department of Justice, stating that they had been victims of human trafficking and labor abuses, and asking the department to conduct a criminal investigation.

Our justice system is based on the belief that workers who allege abuse will receive a fair and impartial investigation. The Signal workers were denied this fundamental right. The evidence of collusion between ICE and Signal shows that ICE has a flagrant disregard for the rights of immigrant workers, which casts serious doubt on the agency's ability to effectively enforce federal immigration law. As a result of ICE's interference, the workers' ability to remain in the U.S. even long enough to plead their cases is in jeopardy.

The Obama administration must act swiftly to undo the harms caused by ICE under the previous administration and ensure that the current investigations proceed with full impartiality. The immigration and border patrol agents implicated in the case should be held accountable for their actions and violations. The Department of Homeland Security must sign a strong Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Labor, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other labor and employment agencies to prevent ICE and CBP from interfering in labor disputes.

Finally, Congress should hold oversight hearings to determine whether the disturbing evidence obtained in this lawsuit reflect an isolated case, or whether this is one of many examples of ICE interference in labor disputes. Congress must do more than simply wag its finger at ICE. Elected officials should hold the agency accountable for its actions and put protections in place to ensure that this abuse of authority does not happen again. Protecting labor laws for the most vulnerable workers keeps standards high for all workers. America deserves a justice system that is free and fair for all of its residents, not only a select few.

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