Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Slavery in our backyard puts a spin on the illegal immigration issue (

Slavery in our backyard puts a spin on the illegal immigration issue

By TOM MORTON Star-Tribune staff writer | Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 10:02 am

Bashing illegal immigrants isn't quite the all the rage it was a few years ago, but it still surfaces often as thinly disguised racism. (As the great-grandson, if not grandson, of an illegal immigrant, I don't get the crap heaped on people of color -- maybe because I'm white?)

And this week in federal court in Kansas City, Mo., ends -- though not necessarily closes -- an amazing sordid story of "how could this happen in the land of the free etc.?" It also shows how complicated this illegal immigration issue can get.

Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev of Uzbekistan was sentenced to 12 years in prison Monday for running a human trafficking ring likened to "modern-day slavery" for hotel workers in Wyoming and 13 other states. The other defendants have been sentenced, but some fled the U.S. before the feds could slap the cuffs on them.

Askarkhodjaev and other Uzbekistan nationals, Moldovia nationals and U.S. citizens set up the scheme in the Kansas City area to recruit foreign nationals from the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

He and the other defendants formed corporations that contracted with hotels, casinos and other companies to offer employees for hire, according to the 45-count federal grand jury indictment filed in May 2009.

The corporations - Giant Labor Solutions, Five Star Cleaning LLC and Crystal Management Inc. - would allow the visas to expire, causing the foreign workers to become illegal aliens and rendering them incapable of finding other work, according to the indictment. Workers who complained of their treatment were threatened with physical violence or deportation.

In Wyoming, Giant Labor Solutions held the contracts for mostly Filipinos, many with college degrees in computer science and business, with the Ramada Plaza Riverside in Casper and the Sleep Inn and Holiday Inn Express in Douglas. Giant Labor Solutions handled the business side of the contract, put the employees in a two-bedroom apartment without kitchen utensils or bedding, and deducted the rent from their wages. Giant also gave them a junker van for transportation and deducted money for that, and neglected to resolve the employees' visa issues.

Douglas residents responded to their plight with assistance from a food bank; the Zonta International Women's Organization sponsored them for a Christmas project; and the hotels' owner found them better housing.

Conditions in Casper were about the same for the Giant Labor Solutions employees, who were put in one room at the hotel with few amenities.

As an illegal immigration scheme goes, this seems pretty slick.

After the visas expired, the workers just couldn't go to an airport to fly home because they'd be arrested. Complain and they'd lose their jobs; and have few if any prospects for employment with expired visas. Complain too much and they could be beaten as well has watching their co-workers suffer as well.

By all accounts, the legal-then-illegal immigrants were hard workers, well-educated, well-spoken, and just wanted to help their families back home.

Askarkhodjaev's scheme didn't enslave people with chains of iron, fences, or overseers with whips and guns. The specter of fear was enough.

The prosecution also used for the first time a new law in which forced labor trafficking was charged as part of a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, conspiracy.

I'm still not sure what if anything people in the local lodging industry knew about these conditions before the indictment came down in May 2009, but I'm willing to cut them some slack this time around.

But I hope we'll all be a bit more vigilant when we see immigrants who may become illegal through no fault of their own.

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