About 80 skilled workers facing deportation to India gathered Monday in front of Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans to draw attention to their plight: Lured to America by the prospect of temporary work that did not pan out, they now face an empty-handed return to their native land and many angry lenders they cannot repay.
They are part of a larger group about 300 Indian men in the past two years that was charged fees ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 for the promise of jobs in the United States, said Mark Massey, a lay Pentecostal minister from Tulsa, Okla., who has been trying to help them. He learned of their plight after aiding a similar group of about 50 men in his hometown.
Many of the immigrants to Louisiana borrowed from friends, family and creditors to pay the fees charged by middlemen to come to America -- debts they now cannot repay.
Catholic Charities also is assisting the men, after being approached by Massey about six weeks ago, said Sue Weishar, director of the agency's immigration services. She has pulled together a coalition of about 15 groups, including the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Its members are supporting the workers in various places throughout Louisiana.
Massey and Weishar said today they will begin applying for special visas for the men on grounds that they have been the victims "of human trafficking." They have notified the local FBI office and federal Department of Labor in the hopes they will investigate.
Monday, positioned for their demonstration between Catholic Charities' offices on Howard Avenue and the immigration office on Loyola Avenue, the men carried signs that read, "We have lost everything," and "Please help us."
'It sounded good'
Most of the men, who are pipe workers or welders, face being sent back home by the end of June, Massey said. Several of them said they fear harm at the hands of the lenders who advanced them the money to come to the United States, people whom they are now unable to repay, he said.
George Alexander, 35, who is from Madras, said that he if he is sent back empty-handed, he "may be beaten or even killed."
The shipfitter said he is the main support for his wife and son, his parents, his two sisters and their husbands, who are unemployed.
He has taken jobs outside India in the past, he said. When he heard from a friend about the chance to work temporarily in the United States, he said, "It sounded good."
He was passed on to a contact in Madras, then on to another middleman, B.J. Singh in Singapore, to whom he gave the bulk of the $14,500 required under the terms of the work arrangement, he said. He was told he would be working for an American company, Falcon Steel -- he didn't know where -- for $14 an hour, he said.
In July 2002, he arrived at an inn in Houma but was given work only briefly. Falcon turned out to be Falcon Steel Structures Inc., a Mississippi company approved to do business in Louisiana. Falcon renewed Alexander's and other workers' temporary visas until June 2003, and then, he said, "washed its hands of us."
In November of last year, Alexander began working at North American shipyard in Houma but was picked up by Border Patrol agents in February, apparently for working for a company other than the one that brought him to the country, he said. He spent nearly a month in Orleans Parish Prison.
"We do not know what will become of us," he said. "If we have to go back in this situation, we do not know how to face our families or how to feed them."
He said his first choice would be to gain permission to stay in the United States and make some of the money his family needs, he said. His second choice would be to get a refund of the money he lost and to return home. Many in the group feel the same, he said.
Bill Quigley, director of the Loyola Law Clinic and part of the coalition working with the Indian group, said, "It's a very unjust situation. Someone got a ton of money, millions of dollars" from these men.
"I know what happened to them," Quigley said. "It's heartbreaking, but I'm not sure who's responsible." The situation, he said, "may even have criminal implications."
The men mostly were brought into the United States on temporary work visas by Falcon or Comerford Enterprises Inc., Quigley said. There seems to be a connection between the two companies, Quigley said, "but I don't know exactly what."
The Louisiana secretary of state's office lists Chad Chandler of Centerville, Miss., as Falcon's president. Chandler also is listed in records in the Mississippi secretary of state's office as an incorporator of Comerford, which was formed in August 2000 and was dissolved in December 2001.
Chandler, reached in his Baton Rouge office Monday, said he has imported about 200 Indians as temporary workers in the past two years. He said most of them have been given work, although the situation has been adversely affected by the poor economy.
He said he knows and has worked with B.J. Singh, the Singapore middleman, and that Singh identified potential workers, whom Chandler screened on visits to India.
Chandler said he never took any of the upfront money the Indian men said they paid to get to America. But two of the men at Monday's demonstration, Nair Raghavan and Vasudeva Ramachandran, disputed that statement. They said that when they complained to Singh about the high fees charged to bring them to America, he told them he had to give half of the money to Chandler.
Chandler said the Indian workers he knows have told him that Massey is asking them for money in exchange for his services, a charge which Massey, who is in the home remodeling business in Tulsa, denied.
Chandler has filed a complaint with the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office accusing Massey of assault. He says Massey tried to run over him last month with his vehicle. Massey says Chandler began following him and some of the Indian workers he was helping, which disturbed them all. He said the Indians would testify that he never struck Chandler.
Another of Monday's demonstrators, Jaleswar Yadaw, said that about a year ago, Chandler threatened to hit him if he didn't sign a paper terminating his agreement with Falcon. Chandler called the allegation "absurd."
Meanwhile, Patricia Ice, a Jackson, Miss., immigration attorney who has represented some members of the group from India, said she knows of dozens of similar cases involving people from Latin America and elsewhere. She said she believes U.S. law should be revamped so that imported workers have a greater assurance of landing the jobs they have been promised once they reach America.
Joan Treadway can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3305.