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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.

THE PRESIDENT and founder of Global Horizons is a 44-year-old Israeli named Mordechai "Motty" Orian. I interviewed him in Global's office, a vibrant 3,000-square-foot chunk of an office tower in West Los Angeles, rising above Santa Monica Boulevard. The floors are blond wood, and the esprit d'office is urbane and upbeat.

Orian entered the manpower business in Israel in 1989, during his compulsory national military service. Jobs that could no longer be trusted to Palestinians needed to be filled, and Orian was tasked by his commanders with finding replacements. He experimented with Eastern Europeans, then branched out, discovering along the way that each population had its own workforce peculiarities: Romanians were clumsy with tiles, marble, and mosaic, but great with plastering, concrete, and brickwork. Chinese did wonderful things with marble but had zero interest in farmwork, even if they'd been farmers at home. Thais he found to be sensitive to others' religious preferences and, moreover, highly suitable cooks and farmworkers.

After leaving the military, Orian took his manpower operation private, expanding in 1992 into the US and European markets. Y2K was a huge boon, creating a seller's market in computer programmers. Nurses were good for a while, but not so much after 9/11, when visa requirements became more stringent.

For H-2A farmworker contracts, Global charged growers a percentage over and above each worker's wages—somewhere between 45 to 80 percent, Orian told me. In return, the company handled transportation, housing, food, payroll, workers' comp, and health care. Besides these conveniences, a key reason farmers would pay a premium for bringing in H-2A workers may have to do with control. Orian recalled a North Carolina client who complained, "If I bring 200 Mexicans from Mexico, I know 100 will run away. Then I apply for another 200 so I can have another 100 stay with me." Orian laughed. "Mexicans run away. Right away! After one week! Because somebody down the road was offering them 50 cents more!" Imported Thais, isolated by debt, distance, and an absence of cultural or community links, were simply more stable.

When I asked Orian about the debt his workers took on, he offered a variety of responses. One was that the workers were lying about the size of the fees they'd paid. Another was to scoff at the idea that anyone could be stupid enough to sign blank pieces of paper. A third was to blame the system. "The problem," he said, "is that the workers go through sub-sub-sub-subagents." Each subagent makes extravagant promises and extracts their cut. But what can you do? "Middlemen are always going to seek an incentive," Orian said. "And Third World governments are always going to be corrupt."

Orian stressed that in the messy, imprecise, red-tape-filled business of labor contracting, he had tried everything to keep his operation as clean as possible. Still, by 2004, he found himself in hot water with agencies in several states over housing and tax violations. In 2006, after finding that Global "knowingly gave false information" to applicants, the Department of Labor banned Orian from bringing in more foreign workers.

Several times during our conversations, Orian launched into cogent diatribes detailing the shortcomings of American immigration policy. The system was broken. America had become the world's largest prison camp. No one wants to do farmwork in any country. "You know how much I pay when I came to this country?" he said. "You know how much I spend on immigration until now? For my own paperwork? Over $25,000. From visa fee, embassy fee, government fee, lawyers—25,000 goddamn dollars." When I suggested that this hardly compared to loss of family land and home, he scoffed. "Come on. Come on!" Everyone knew that poor workers will say anything to stay and work in the US. Where was the proof that these Thai workers were really losing their homes? "When it comes to money," he shrugged, "people will do crazy stuff. You cannot stop it and come to blame me."

When I mentioned that most people with whom I'd discussed the case felt that his workers had been not just exploited, but trafficked, he dismissed the idea with a jerk of the head. "Let me tell you something," he said. "Every day, I take my kids to school. Sometimes, I get into a traffic jam. That's the only trafficking I do."

DELTA EGG FARMS is two hours south of Salt Lake City, 14 miles from the town of Delta (population 3,200). It's surrounded by scrub desert and improbable agriculture: a stockyard here, a peach plantation there. The egg farm is a behemoth of industrial agriculture—the processing facility is next to a series of 600-foot-long "layer houses" housing 1.5 million chickens. Another Delta egg facility—another few hundred thousand chickens—lay half a mile to the right. At sunset, the alien isolation of the landscape seemed both bleak and beautiful. The Intermountain power plant, about a mile behind the egg plant, shot indigo steam into the pale evening light. If I had just arrived here from Thailand, I might wonder if I'd landed on the moon.

In the town, Alfredo Laguna, an outreach coordinator with Utah Legal Services, showed me some two-bedroom homes where Global's Thais had stayed between shifts at the egg factory. A few blocks away stood a run-down hotel that looked like an immense horse stable. Empty now, it sometimes housed farmworkers too. "The Mexicans stayed on that side, and the Peruvians stayed on the other," Alfredo said. The Peruvians had paid about $5,000 each for their jobs. The Mexicans, who knew? A bit farther down the road, there was a mushroom plant staffed by Laotians. Everyone in their own shadow.

Later, I met a Thai worker who'd been sent to Utah by Global. In his trafficking visa application, he stated, "We never really knew where we were." The worker, who had done two previous stints working outside Thailand, testified that "in Israel and Singapore, they would give us maps of where we were along with bus routes so that we could get around. Here we would just be dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We would have to wait until a supervisor would take us to Wal-Mart or something like that to check our accounts. We were forbidden from running errands on our own."

Another worker I met in Salt Lake City recalled his time at Green Acre Farms, where Intajak had worked. "I felt I had to be very careful about what I said and what I did," he said. "The group before us had been deported. We felt we had no control over our lives or our pay."

Over the last 200 years, writes Cindy Hahamovich, a history professor at the College of William and Mary who has researched farm labor and guest-worker programs, these schemes have represented "an uncomfortable marriage between those who desired and those who resented foreign workers." In a journal article comparing guest-worker programs in South Africa's diamond mines, Germany's World War II munitions factories, Japan's pre-WWII buildup, and America's rush to build the trans-Pacific railroad with Chinese laborers, she found that temporary labor schemes consistently represented "state-brokered compromises designed to maintain high levels of migration while placating anti-immigrant movements. They offered employers foreign workers who could still be bound like indentured servants but who could also be disciplined by the threat of deportation. They placated trade unionists who feared foreign competition by promising to restrict guestworkers to the most onerous work and to expel them during economic downturns. And they assuaged nativists by isolating guest workers from the general population." As "the perfect immigrants," guest workers serve to please employers whose problem was "not so much a shortage of labor as it was a shortage of tractable labor."

The experiences of Intajak and his coworkers are the increasingly common outcomes of these pressures. A 2007 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that H-2A workers have so few rights that abuse of the system is not limited to a few "bad apple employers," but systematic and predictable. Recruiting fees, legal or otherwise, offer "a powerful incentive" to import as many workers as possible, for as long as possible, even when there is little work. The report cites ongoing legal cases involving Peruvian, Dominican, and Bolivian workers who arrived in the US owing enormous debts from their recruiting fees; when work and pay in America were not as promised, they and their families were bankrupted.

Several recent court cases document how easily guest-worker status devolves into forced labor. In one 2009 case, US v. Sou, three Hawaii growers were indicted for bringing in 44 Thai workers, pocketing a portion of their recruitment fees, then "maintaining their labor at the farm through threats of serious economic harm," according to the Justice Department. In another case, Asanok v. Million Express Manpower, Thai and Indonesian workers alleged that they had been promised well-paying, steady farmwork in North Carolina, only to find themselves housed in a Katrina-damaged New Orleans hotel, demolishing the building by day and sleeping in what remained at night, going so hungry they sometimes trapped pigeons for dinner. The list could go on, with several cases filed each year for as long as the US has deployed guest-worker schemes.

Proponents of expanding guest-worker programs say there are ways to safeguard against these problems—giving workers legal recourse, increasing enforcement, rewarding employers for treating guest workers well. Last year's reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act added a new penalty specifically aimed at labor recruiters found guilty of defrauding foreign workers. But no one has devised a way to deal with the workers' indebtedness to whoever helps them find work in America—or suggested giving them, as European guest-worker programs do, the free-market right to change employers.

INTAJAK'S extended family lives in a pair of teak homes on a family plot perhaps a quarter-acre in size. A path from the houses leads past herb and vegetable gardens and a 10-foot-square concrete frog tank before opening onto a communal rice paddy. I traveled there with a researcher helping the advocates at the Thai Community Development Center document the hardship among the families affected by Global's hiring practices. She had expected three or four families and was surprised to see a group of 45 to 50 men and women sitting on carpets thrown outside the house.

Each worker had a similar tale to tell: They had been sent home from the US 5, 7, 13, 14 months into their contract with Global. Most looked ashamed as they spoke of their financial calamities. One after another showed me documents: a signed contract with Global Horizons; a Thai passport bearing US entry and departure stamps; a series of bank withdrawals and loans—$3,000, $5000, $11,000. Some had papers indicating direct payments and debts to Sinchai, the subrecruiter. Whoever they were paying, it was clear they had collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of performing a few months' farmwork in America. Each of them said that since signing with Global, they and their families had been subjected to relentless pressure from courts, judges, agents, and lawyers. When I asked one worker why they didn't organize and demand justice, either by approaching local authorities or by hiring a lawyer, he held up his pinkie finger and shrugged, "We're just small strings!" Referring to Sinchai, he complained, "She's a big rope. She knows everyone in the government." (Sinchai could not be reached for comment; the number on the business card she gave Intajak has been disconnected.)

Another worker was almost dapper in a cream polo shirt and crewneck sweater, and cracked jokes about his own haplessness even as he described Sinchai's ongoing attempts to wrest his property from him. He had worked at Maui Pineapple and confirmed the conditions Intajak had told me about. From the first day he'd arrived in Maui, he said, "Everybody was saying, 'We're screwed.'" He recited a song he and his friends had made up to make light of their situation.

But just beneath the jokes and the struggle to save face, the desperation was palpable. Besides Sinchai, the workers had borrowed from aunts, uncles, and grandparents, who now expected repayment. In a town where I met seven sisters (all of them grandmothers) living in the same family compound, where 10 miles away was described as "far from here," where family was the primary source of identification, families were breaking apart. I spoke to a woman who told me that her husband, like Intajak, was working underground as a cook in Los Angeles. She said that they had already paid $12,300 to Sinchai, but the recruiter said they still owed $11,600. Her husband was remitting about $900 dollars a month—a lot of money in Thailand, but nowhere near enough to meet the 20 percent monthly interest demanded by Sinchai.

I visited this woman in her home, which was perched atop round log pillars 10 feet high. We sat on the floor with a dozen or so women in similar circumstances. It was her job to care for seven people, to work, to cook, to raise the kids, to keep things going. "This is our life now," she said. "Our husbands work 13-hour days, and then they call us at midnight or 1 a.m. I've been so stressed by these debts that I can't sleep at night." In Thai, she sighed, "Mot nua, mot dua," a saying meaning, "Out of flesh, out of body. There's nothing left."

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