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Patrick Springer, Published December 21 2008

Immigrant controversy lingers after pleas

These aren’t your ordinary illegal immigration defendants.

The 23 workers from India, arrested Oct. 28 in a sweep of a construction project, have attracted an assortment of supporters who believe they are victims of a human trafficking ring.

The workers entered the country legally, with temporary guest worker visas.

They were skilled workers, all welders and pipe fitters, who earned the equivalent of $72,000 a year helping to build an ethanol plant near Casselton, N.D., according to prosecutors.

The men, who came to the United States following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, claim they were victims of human traffickers who recruited them with false promises and extracted $20,000 fees.

Despite that, 14 have pleaded guilty to a charge of knowingly possessing a false identification document, and the remaining nine are expected to follow suit.

Once convicted, the men face possible deportation back to India – and to what their supporters say is likely a life of indentured servitude.

Advocates – who include a Minnesota congressman, a Lutheran bishop and about 30 clergy members – wonder why federal authorities haven’t been as quick to get to the bottom of the trafficking allegations, which surfaced last year.

“Why isn’t that being questioned at this point?” asked the Rev. Jeff Sandgren, a pastor at Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo. “To me, that’s the bigger crime. To me, those are the bigger fish to fry.”

Sandgren, who has met with some of the workers and has twice traveled to India, believes the workers were exploited by unscrupulous recruiters and a contractor in the Gulf Coast that originally hired them.

Sandgren and others also contend the men were arrested just as their work was finishing at the ethanol plant. “It seems a little fishy to me,” he said of the timing.

Federal prosecutors vehemently deny they timed the arrests to allow the project to avoid delays, but said it took two months to complete the investigation, arrange for interpreters, and coordinate an orderly mass arrest.

“My office would grant no deference at all in a situation like that, never,” U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said. “No such request was made. They certainly never made it to me or anybody in my office.”

Nick Chase, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said the contractor building the ethanol plant, Wanzek Construction, tipped immigration officials about their suspicions.

The contractor, facing a project deadline, would have no reason to report the possible illegal immigrants, apart from acting responsibly. In fact, he said, Wanzek wanted to keep the workers on, if they could obtain legal status.

Wanzek and its lawyer did not return calls for comment.

The “Cass 23” quickly attracted a coalition of supporters who have rallied, fasted and prayed on their behalf, urging they be freed from jail and allowed to remain in the country to be witnesses in an investigation of the trafficking allegations.

Supporters who have met with the men in the Cass County Jail, where they have been described as model prisoners, say they have told horrific stories about being confined in close quarters and not allowed to come and go freely when working in the Gulf Coast.

Saket Soni of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice is helping the workers in a civil lawsuit involving the trafficking allegations.

“The workers are in a very strong position with their civil litigation,” Soni said. Unfortunately, he added, the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal investigation into the human trafficking allegations hasn’t progressed enough to provide protection for the “Cass 23.”

“It is a very sad statement about the misguided priorities of the U.S. law enforcement,” Soni said.

Justice Department officials have declined to comment, except to say their investigation continues. Wrigley said he consulted with senior justice officials before filing the charges, and notes the defendants themselves have admitted possessing false documents.

Sandgren said demonstrations on behalf of the workers have shifted to the Twin Cities, where the defendants likely will face administrative deportation proceedings. They hope that, somehow, the men will be allowed to remain in the country so they can help support family members back home.

“These families are left high and dry,” Sandgren said. Still, he added, “My sense is they’re hopeful.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522