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“The Great Escape”: Saket Soni on Forced Immigrant Labor Used to Clean Up Climate Disasters in U.S.

StoryFebruary 10, 2023
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As the rate of climate-fueled disasters intensifies, we speak with author and organizer Saket Soni about the workers who are hired by corporations to clean up after hurricanes, floods, blizzards and wildfires. Soni’s new book, “The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America,” focuses on hundreds of Indian workers who were brought to the United States with false promises and subjected to grueling working conditions at a shipyard in Mississippi. When one of those workers called Soni in 2006 for help, it set off an extraordinary chain of events that led to their escape from the work camp and eventually focused national attention on the plight of the workers. “As disasters have grown, this workforce has grown. And these workers do all this without legal protections, without legal status,” says Soni, a longtime labor organizer and the director of Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant workers who help rebuild communities after climate disasters.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to the issue of labor coming to this country and being trapped here. As the rate of climate-fueled disasters intensifies, we spend the rest of the hour looking at the immigrant workers lured into forced labor by corporations who hire them to clean up after hurricanes, floods, blizzards and wildfires.

This is what longtime labor organizer Saket Soni writes about in his new book, The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America. Saket Soni is the director of Resilience Force. He first joined us in 2007 when the story was still unfolding with a man named Sabu Lal, one of hundreds of guestworkers from India protesting conditions at a shipyard they were hired to clean up in Pascagoula, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina by the company Signal International.

SABU LAL: When I stepped into my man camp that is provided in the yard of Signal International, I just surprised that, because in my 20 years of experience, I didn’t dream of such a situation, because there is 24 peoples in a room, like I think it’s a pigs in a cage.

AMY GOODMAN: The men were fired when they complained about their living and working conditions. But they didn’t stop there.

Saket Soni recently joined us from New Orleans to share more about the “great escape” he documents in his new book. I asked him to take us back to 2006, when he received a mysterious call from inside a heavily guarded work camp in Pascagoula, Mississippi, where hundreds of welders and pipefitters had been recruited from India to come to the Gulf Coast to repair oil rigs after Hurricane Katrina.

SAKET SONI: Thanks, Amy.

That’s right. It started with a mysterious midnight phone call after Hurricane Katrina. I was a labor organizer running a scrappy, small workers’ rights nonprofit. And this was a time when the post-Katrina flooding had turned the U.S. Gulf Coast into the world’s largest construction site. I was protecting the workers who were doing the cleanup and the rebuilding. Most of these were Black and Brown workers, who would stand in the morning under a giant 60-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee, when contractors would pick them up and take them out to do the rebuilding of the distant dark corners of the Gulf Coast. That’s what I was doing. Those were the workers I was talking to when I got the mysterious phone call.

The person who called me was unlike most of the workers who called. He wasn’t from Mississippi or Louisiana. He wasn’t either white, Black or Latino. He was an Indian man, flown in from India, calling from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And I thought, “What was an Indian man doing coming here to clean up after Hurricane Katrina, all the way from North India?”

I discovered that he was one of 500 workers who had been recruited to come to Mississippi and Texas to work for a large oil rig builder to clean up, rebuild shipyards and oil rigs. And when he arrived in the Gulf Coast, he found himself in atrocious conditions. These men had been promised green cards and good jobs in India and had been told that they would get those if they paid $20,000 apiece. Twenty thousand dollars. I mean, that is generations of savings. Workers sold ancestral land. They took on extraordinary loans from violent loan sharks to come. But when they arrived, they found themselves not on green cards but on tempering work visas in labor camps in company property.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the security on the company property, not exactly security for them but for the company, Signal, that still exists, right?

SAKET SONI: Well, the company, Signal International, decided to build a labor camp on company property. This was a series of trailers that were placed on a toxic waste dump. The workers were living there 24 people to a trailer. The labor camp, which the company itself called a man camp facility, was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Workers were working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to build these oil rigs for the company. This was a private equity-owned, rising behemoth in the Gulf Coast, Signal International. And they were getting these workers, the most skilled workers in the world, at a fraction of the cost of U.S. workers. There were security guards. The men were only allowed out of the labor camp chaperoned by American security guards, and the places they were allowed to go to were Walmarts, where they would buy provisions to come back. That’s how the workers lived. Those were the living conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the food?

SAKET SONI: The food was atrocious. Atrocious. The workers were given, most mornings, stale bread and frozen rice. There were no microwaves, Amy, on the worksite, so the way the men would eat the frozen rice would be to suck on it. The men would suck on frozen ricicles in order to gain the sustenance to do their really difficult and dangerous work.

In fact, the whole great escape, the escape out of a heist film that’s at the center of the book, was actually imagined and engineered over a secretive — over a series of clandestine meetings that featured food. I started partnering with a man deep inside the labor camp, a worker named Rajan, someone who is — he was a labor organizer’s dream. He was extraordinary. He taught me about the pressures on the men. He taught me about the conditions at the labor camp. But he also taught me to cook. And over a series of months, I would smuggle in to him spices and ingredients to create Indian food. He commandeered the kitchen in the labor camp. And through a series of magical meals, he brought the men back to life from their catatonic state. And he convinced them then to undertake the great escape at the center of the book. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involved —

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, you have to. Saket, you have to tell us —

SAKET SONI: Well —

AMY GOODMAN: — the story of what happened.

SAKET SONI: Well, you know, it involved bribes for the guards, you know, involving Wild Turkey whiskey, flavored cigars. And Rajan and I created an elaborate pretext, a fictitious Indian wedding, to ferry the men out of the labor camp five at a time, under the noses of the guards, to put them on the path of a freedom journey. The men escaped overnight from the labor camp, came back the next morning, threw their hard hats in protest back at the company’s gates, saying that they were leaving the company.

And then they set off on a march to Washington. What we didn’t know then was that there was an agent deep in the government who was unraveling our plans. But we set off that heady morning for Washington thinking that justice was at hand.

AMY GOODMAN: And take it from there. Can you tell us the journey that they took?

SAKET SONI: Sure. Well, when the men escaped from the labor camp, they filed a civil lawsuit against the company. But the path to legal status for them was a Department of Justice human trafficking complaint. Human trafficking is a crime. And the men were alleging that this company and their recruiters had trafficked them from India to Mississippi and Texas and held them in forced labor.

The men were counting on the Department of Justice opening an investigation. We now had — I personally now had the problem of hiding 500 Brown men in Louisiana. So, we hid out in a hotel in New Orleans that had been ruined by Hurricane Katrina, flooded by Hurricane Katrina. We hid for over a week. But there was radio silence from the DOJ.

So, we set out. Like many people in social movements past, we decided to come out of hiding and come out as undocumented to the government. And we proceeded on a march to Washington. Along the way, we met with civil rights figures, who gave us strength. And although the men had it hard — I mean, we were walking on the sides of roads through Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, passing cars, were full of passengers who were jeering us. Bottles were being pelted at the workers from open windows in passing cars. But nonetheless, the men’s spirits were high, because they believed that when they got to Washington, they would get justice. In their particular English, they actually called it the Department for Justice. And they believe they would just get to Washington, and they would get the status that they deserved, the special humanitarian visas designated for trafficking victims.

What we didn’t know was that the fight would take three years, because deep inside the government, there was a federal agent, an immigration cop, with his own corrupt ties to the company and with his own secret motivations to unravel our plans. On our way to Washington, we uncovered surveillance, and we uncovered a whole federal dragnet that was working its own machinations to jail and deport these men even before they got to Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Saket, you have to stop there, because what are you talking about? There’s someone in the Justice Department who has a tie to Signal corporation?

SAKET SONI: Not in the Justice Department, but at the federal immigration agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There’s an —

AMY GOODMAN: ICE.

SAKET SONI: — immigration cop who lives — ICE — who lives in Mississippi, who has his own motivations for colluding with the company. So, now that the workers are on their march and headed to Washington, he appoints himself as the investigator for the DOJ. When the Department of Justice launches an investigation, they bring in a law enforcement official to investigate. We’ve been waiting, at this point in the story, for ICE to bring in the FBI. We did get a call from the FBI, but after that, they were nowhere to be found. When the investigation actually did start, an ICE agent came forward to tell us he was in charge of the investigation.

And again, I don’t want to give a lot away, but this very ICE agent had his own ties to the company, had been working with the company for years and years, and now was in charge of the investigation. What he was doing, though, Amy, was — we’d find out later, wasn’t investigating the workers. He was turning the investigation into a weapon against the workers. He was trying to frame the men we were representing, the 500 Indian workers, as the criminals, and working to jail and deport them.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, this is not just a story of a corporation that is exploiting, that is, to say the least, not just terrorizing but deeply abusing these workers, but it’s a story of corporate-government complicity. Talk more about what the government knew, what the government did and didn’t know along the way.

SAKET SONI: Well, you know, in the — right at the middle of the story, there’s this smoking gun that we find. It’s the astonishing revelation of a long-standing collusion between Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, police, and the company. And it really gets at, Amy, what we see all the time. I’ve seen this for years and years in my work as a labor organizer, after disasters and also across the South, which is that companies have at their behest cops who moonlight as private security, immigration agents who work deeply with the company to keep workers feeling like they can’t come forward and report abuse, because they might be deported, they might be punished.

In this story, when a few brave workers came forward to meet with me clandestinely, and, after that, these brave workers demanded things from the company — not anything major; their demands were hot tea in the morning, because they’d get up in the morning in the cold and need to warm themselves to go to work. They demanded microwaves on site so that they could warm up their frozen rice. These were their collective demands. I mean, it is a sad day in 21st century America when workers have to press collective demands, not for union rights, respect and a contract, but for microwaves on site in their labor camp, on company property, to warm up their rice. Those were their demands. And for making those demands, the company worked with law enforcement agencies to punish the workers. And that was — the details of that revelation were ultimately what blew all this up in Washington. And I tell that story in The Great Escape.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened when the workers and you — I mean, we’re talking about hundreds of workers who escaped from a Mississippi labor camp, there to clean up after Hurricane Katrina, and then they make their way to Washington. What happens there?

SAKET SONI: Well, one of the things that happens is we’re coming out of a civil rights memorial on the way to Washington, and we look up, and we see a man surveilling us. We see a man recording us. There’s a chase scene that’s recounted in the book, up to the top of the building, around the block, and all the way to a parked — what looks like a parked construction van, a contractor’s van. I thought it was, you know, some kind of self-appointed white vigilante operation — and flung open the doors of the van. Inside it was the Alabama director of ICE conducting a surveillance operation. So, you know, that was when it came to light that the ICE dragnet was surveilling us.

As we got to Washington, we realized that the conspiracy between the government and the company went deeper and deeper. It wasn’t just one or two ICE agents but a whole network of law enforcement officials that surveilled us all over again in Falls Church in Virginia, right as we were going into Washington. So, you know, what we were very clear about, coming into Washington, was Washington wouldn’t be easy. D.C. would be a fight.

When the campaign hit the rocks in D.C., my partner Rajan and I, over an elaborate meal, came up with the next escalation. Rajan cooked our — you know, we had become close friends. Every friendship has its rituals. We never solved problems over a whiteboard. We solved problems over extraordinary meals. And one night, that’s recounted in the book, Rajan cooked an elaborate, mysterious Bedouin dish called al-kabsa. It has rice, meat and 22 spices. And we came up with a plan, over that meal, for a hunger strike in Washington, D.C. And that was the next step.

I recount the story in the book about a long hunger strike, over the course of which all of Washington is talking about these workers. But the ICE agent blocking our plans hold steadfast. So, even in D.C., even with the world watching, even with the Department of Justice investigating, the company and its allies in law enforcement were still strong enough to hold back our justice march and keep the workers undocumented and on a pathway to being deported.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Saket Soni, in this remarkable story that you tell, The Great Escape, you bring us back to 2005, Hurricane Katrina, the cleanup. But 2005 is a few years after the 9/11 attacks, 2001. Can you talk about what happened with ICE, with DHS, the anti-immigrant fervor in this country, and then what these guestworker programs are all about?

SAKET SONI: Well, 9/11 was a very pivotal moment for America. It was a tragic event, but followed after that by multiple other tragedies. One of the impacts of 9/11 was that immigrants lost their foothold in normal American life — immigrants like me. I came to the United States as a foreign student before 9/11. I was actually in Chicago. I arrived from New Delhi to Chicago to study at the University of Chicago. I was getting a theater degree. My parents were probably the only parents in the history of Indian civilization who said it was OK for their son to go to America to become a theater director. And that’s what happened. That’s what I was doing when I missed an immigration deadline. That was before 9/11. So, I just took it as a routine thing, something I could fix. I didn’t think it was more serious than an unreturned library book — and I had a lot of those. And then 9/11 happened. And I lost my foothold in America, like lots and lots of immigrants. We were underground, working without papers, you know, doing our best through a string of low-wage service sector jobs.

9/11 was also a pivotal moment for immigration policy. Immigrant rights activists were really close to immigration reform and a large-scale legalization before 9/11. Those plans were gutted after 9/11 because of the anti-immigrant backlash, that was not connected to the perpetrators and motivations behind 9/11 but came from an opportunism in American politics to congeal an anti-immigrant sentiment in America, a sentiment that only grew after that. So 9/11 was a really, really great turning point.

AMY GOODMAN: As you publish this book now, we’re right on the end of the catastrophes that California is experiencing. Your book, you know, takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which many see as the dawn of the era of climate disasters. But can you talk about the connection between what happened then, right through to now, and what you’re looking at with, to say the least, the knowledge and organizing you have behind you?

SAKET SONI: Absolutely. You know, what I didn’t know then, Amy, was that these workers who came from India were among the first workers that would be a rising workforce, workers who we now call the resilience workforce, the workers who — largely immigrant, largely undocumented, mostly vulnerable — the workers who rebuild after climate disasters, the workers who continue to clean up, repair, heal and rebuild after hurricanes, floods and fires. The workers who I represented after Hurricane Katrina, the workers who would gather under the statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, or workers like the ones in this book who were in labor camps, were among the first resilience workers.

Katrina was supposed to have been a once-in-a-hundred-year flood. That’s what it was called, an event that would not happen for another hundred years. Well, since Katrina, as a result of climate change, disasters have become more frequent and more destructive. There have been, since Katrina, over 200 billion-dollar disasters. And as disasters have grown, this workforce has grown. And these workers do all this without legal protections, without legal status. They often have to fight to be paid. And if they fall off roofs, they’re often left at the doorstep of hospitals for dead. This is how we’re doing recovery in America. And that’s what we at Resilience Force are trying to change.

AMY GOODMAN: Saket Soni, director of Resilience Force, author of the new book, The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America. Special thanks to photographer Ted Quant.

And that does it for our show. Happy birthday to Messiah Rhodes! Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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