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Bound for America

They are nurses. They are teachers. They pick your apples. How immigration law has set legal foreign workers up for a new kind of indentured servitude--and this time, there's no paying off your contract.

IN THE SPRING OF 2004, Nikhom Intajak, a 35-year-old rice farmer in Thailand's Lampang province, met a labor recruiter who made him an attractive offer: a contract to do farm labor in the United States. He'd work for three years and earn the minimum wage of $7 to $10 an hour, depending on where he was deployed; best of all, he'd be a legal temporary worker, protected by American laws.

Intajak, who weighs 139 pounds and stands 5 feet 4 inches tall in a baseball cap, had worked overseas before, spending a total of about seven years in chemicals, electronics, and luggage plants in Taiwan. The money he'd sent home helped build a new house and pay school fees for two daughters. For each of his stints abroad, Intajak had paid a recruiting fee somewhat higher than the Thai legal maximum (currently about $2,000), and so he wasn't surprised when the new recruiter, Pochanee Sinchai, asked for one as well. He was, however, taken aback by the size of her demand: The job in America would cost him $11,700 up front.

Intajak's home, a hamlet called Banh Santicome, is poor, but not destitute. The climate is suitable for growing rice and produce, and earning opportunities range from farming garlic to foraging for mushrooms, bamboo, and wood. A formal job, if one can be found, might pay $2,000 a year. Three years of work in America at $7 an hour would come out to about $50,000. If one-fifth of that went to Sinchai, Intajak figured, then so be it. He asked his mother to put up her new house as collateral to borrow the money from a bank at 15 percent interest. Then he traveled to the Bangkok office of the recruiting firm that hired Sinchai, AACO International Recruitment, where he signed a number of documents, including several written in English, and also some blank pieces of paper.

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Intajak (who asked me not to use his real name for fear of retribution) landed in Seattle on the Fourth of July. He was met by an employee of Global Horizons, the American company for which Sinchai and AACO had recruited him. According to Intajak, the man drove him and a vanload of new arrivals from Thailand to an isolated Yakima Valley apple grower named Green Acre Farms, where he confiscated their passports. Global Horizons agents stayed in the barracks and came to work in the orchards, Intajak says, to make sure the Thais didn't run away.

Intajak worked there for about three months. The pay, $8.53 per hour, was reasonable enough, he told me, but the work was so unsteady that he earned far less than he had been promised. Some days there might be eight hours of work, other days four—or none. After witnessing 30 or so coworkers get sent home after only a few months' work, Intajak began to realize that the contract he had signed back in Bangkok guaranteed nothing like three years of steady employment. Rather, he was eligible to work as many hours as Global saw fit to give him, for up to three years—as long as Global chose to renew his visa. If it didn't, if the work ran out, or if he did anything to displease his bosses, he'd have no way to pay off the $11,700 he'd borrowed. Ever.

LAST YEAR, some 60,000 workers arrived in the US under the federal H-2A guest-worker program, which allows agribusinesses to bring in foreign labor for jobs they say are hard to fill at minimum wage. Similar temp-worker programs in industries like seafood processing, tree planting, and hotel maintenance brought in an additional 59,000 workers, and 60,000 more came in through temporary programs for professionals in fields deemed to have labor shortages—teachers, nurses, computer programmers.

These men and women are bound to the companies that requested them. They remain on American soil at the pleasure of their employers, who can send them home at any time. As Mary Bauer, an expert on temporary-worker programs at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has written: "These workers are not treated like 'guests'...Unlike US citizens, guestworkers do not enjoy the most fundamental protection of a competitive labor market—the ability to change jobs if they are mistreated."

Many, like Intajak, arrive with crushing debt from recruiting fees. I reviewed the cases of dozens of Thai workers employed by Global Horizons who had paid between $11,000 and $21,000 in recruiting fees, money they had borrowed from banks or relatives, often with family or communal property as collateral. In theory, they were free to leave their job anytime. In practice, they were modern-day indentured servants.

Global Horizons, which brought in more than 1,000 Thais in 2004 and 2005 but was banned from recruiting guest workers in 2006, is now being investigated by the Department of Justice for human trafficking, according to Susan French, a long-term prosecutor in the DOJ's civil rights division. If a charge is brought, it could be the largest human trafficking case in US history.

As the “perfect immigrants,” one scholar notes, guest workers serve to please employers whose problem has been “not so much a shortage of labor as it was a shortage of tractable labor.”

Yet Global is neither an isolated case, nor—except in terms of size—is it especially egregious. Every year, several companies are prosecuted for keeping H-2A workers in near-slavery conditions, and it is safe to assume that those cases are the tip of the iceberg, given federal and state authorities' minimal capacity to oversee the programs. To monitor the job sites of all 137 million US workers, the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division has 953 staffers—a number that has fallen by 14 percent since 1973, while the number of workers under their purview has increased by half. Exactly two of them speak Thai.

Despite the obvious flaws of H-2A, the program assuages concerns of all interested parties. Pro-immigrant liberals can feel good about bringing foreign workers into the "light of legality." Ag employers sick of regulations and politicized, uneven enforcement are freed from dealing with recruiting, housing, and supervision of workers. Anti-immigration activists find relief in the fact that, in theory, these temporary workers will all be sent home when their job is done. Which is why bringing in more temporary foreign workers is the one thing almost everyone in the immigration debate can agree on. In 2007, a proposal known as the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS) (pdf) garnered the support of everyone from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to President Bush and the US Chamber of Commerce, and it became the cornerstone of the immigration reform bill that almost passed the Senate. It would have increased the number of H-2A jobs more than eightfold, from 60,000 to half a million. AgJOBS is also part of the immigration reform proposal (pdf) under debate in Washington now; Congressional Democrats have said they want a vote on an immigration bill this spring.

THREE MONTHS after Intajak arrived in America, in October 2004, Global Horizons sent him to Hawaii to work for the Maui Pineapple Co. Here, the pay was better than in Yakima—$9.50 an hour—but the conditions were worse. One Global Horizons agent, Intajak and other workers told me, was in the habit of carrying a knife, a gun, or a baseball bat, and of threatening workers with "deportation" if they didn't behave or meet their quotas. Just four days in, Intajak says, he watched the man beat a coworker.

The Maui Pineapple Co.'s land is nestled among gorgeous foothills, shrouded in mist and covered with volcanic soil the color of dark coffee. The now-defunct company was part of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., whose majority owner is Steve Case, cofounder of AOL; another primary shareholder is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, a generous benefactor of anti-slavery organizations. The terrain is so lovely that Martha Stewart Living featured the Maui Pineapple Co. and a smattering of pineapple recipes in its January 2007 issue.

I visited Maui in January 2008, meeting with Intajak and taking a tour of the plantation. He took me to a one-room barracks where says he stayed with 17 other workers. He pointed to a muddy spot near the parking lot, saying this was where he and others slept on the ground to make sure they were chosen to get work when the van came at 4:30 a.m. Here, he indicated, pointing to a chain-link fence, was where they snuck out to run to a store for Ramen noodles because their food rations were too small, or too disgusting. Finally, he pointed to the bush whose leaves they'd boil when they couldn't afford Ramen noodles. "Khom!" he said. "Very bitter." (A Maui Land & Pineapple spokesman says Maui Pineapple Co. was not aware of the workers' allegations at the time, but terminated its contract with Global after learning of them in 2006.)

Intajak was asking a lot of questions and his supervisor began threatening to send him home. On September 12, 2005, Intajak took stock of his predicament. After 14 months of work, his visa had two days remaining. He had no idea whether Global planned to renew it, and he still owed $6,000 on his recruiting fee. Being sent home would mean losing his home and his land, which had belonged to his family for generations. It would mean homelessness for his wife, daughters, grandmother, and aunt. He could see only one way out.

Teaming up with a friend who'd also decided to run, Intajak threw his backpack out a window, then snuck out of the pineapple compound. Within moments, another friend called his cell phone to tell him the guards were coming after him.

Intajak ran into the cane fields for cover, snaking his way in shorts and flip-flops through the twisting, two-inch-thick, 12-foot-high stalks. "I was sweating like crazy, and it was muddy and slippery," he says. "I really had no idea what was going to happen, or if I'd make it, or what would happen if I got caught." Listening for cars, trying to stay close to the road, Intajak headed down the mountain, toward the ocean. After an hour in the cane, he found his friend, and together, they walked into Paia, a surfer town.

Disoriented in a world of dreadlocked, smoothie-sipping falangs, or white people, among stores called OmZone and Drums & Tings, Intajak and his friend made their way to a grocery where, by chance, their conversation was overheard by a Thai employee. She and her husband agreed to help the runaways. They put them up overnight and, for $500 each, bought them one-way tickets to Los Angeles. Only after they boarded the plane to safety did Intajak and his friend notice that the tickets had cost $175 apiece.

Several weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, Intajak made his way to the offices of the Thai Community Development Center, a nonprofit serving the area's burgeoning Thai population. According to Chanchanit Martorell, the center's director, he was the first of many Thai workers who'd escaped Global Horizons' employ. The center was getting reports from worker advocates and legal-aid attorneys in Washington state, Utah, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Hawaii. The staff posted a US map on the wall, using pushpins to keep track of Global's sprawling empire. As the number of pins began to run into the hundreds, they realized they'd never seen anything of this magnitude.

"In the past, we had always dealt with small operations that were highly localized and had a fairly limited reach," says Martorell. "Up until that point, our biggest case involved 72 workers living under one roof and working in the same factory. All of a sudden, we were looking at over 1,000 workers in over a dozen states, working for hundreds of different establishments. Trafficking on this scale could not have taken place in the typical underground fashion. It was almost as though trafficking had gone mainstream and everybody was doing it."

Martorell uses the term "trafficking" deliberately. Some years ago, she worked on a case involving Thai welders brought in on temporary visas to help rebuild San Francisco's Bay Bridge. Prosecutors, she recalls, were leery of bringing the workers to the stand: Unlike with female sex-trafficking victims, they feared, juries would find it hard to associate able-bodied male construction workers with trafficking. (In the Global case, the DOJ has actually helped a number of the workers obtain special visas designed to protect victims of trafficking who could aid an investigation.)

Since his escape more than four years ago, Intajak has lived underground in Los Angeles, working without papers six and a half days a week as a cook in a Thai restaurant. (He has also filed for a trafficking visa.) He makes $100 a day. Although he's free from Global's direct control, he says his family is still being threatened by Sinchai, the recruiter back in Lampang province. Intajak says Sinchai has told him that one of the pieces of paper he signed promised a "guarantee fee" of nearly $5,000 if he ever "ran away" from Global's employ—and that's on top of the thousands he's already repaid. Sinchai has filed court proceedings and taken title to a portion of his property, and she is pushing to assume the rest of it. Intajak's wife and children live under the threat of losing everything. It's been more than five years since Intajak has seen them.

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