“Instead of punishing the criminals, they see us as criminals and set immigration after us. While they are trying to send us back, we are standing here on hunger strike until the real criminals are brought to justice.” –Guest Worker on Hunger Strike

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people, left without jobs or homes, were forced to leave the Gulf Coast and begin new lives elsewhere. Over the next two and a half years, the government and its agencies proved ineffective at revitalizing Gulf Coast communities. The massive displacement which had initially been viewed as temporary gradually assumed the aspect of a permanent “Katrina/Rita diaspora.”

Meanwhile, Signal International, a company with shipyards in hurricane-affected coastal areas of Texas and Mississippi, claimed that it could find no willing or able workers to hire. While the government continued to fail to bring Gulf Coast residents home and back to work, the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved Signal to bring in guest workers from other countries. In late 2006, Signal hired a labor recruiting firm called “Global Resources” to find workers in India.

Global Resources recruiters promised 550 Indian workers that they would receive permanent jobs with Signal International, green cards, and eventually the right to bring their families to America, in exchange for $20,000. For many of the men who accepted the offer, $20,000 represented their entire life savings. Some men borrowed money, and others sold their homes for a chance at U.S. citizenship. But when the workers arrived in the United States, they found that they had been lied to.

Instead of receiving a path to citizenship, the workers from India were given H2B guest worker visas–permission to work in the U.S. for ten months, with the possibility of renewal controlled by their employer, Signal International. The workers were forced to live on company property, paying $1,050 a month to share a room with 23 other men. Signal tried to make about 30 welders who had been promised wages of $18.50 per hour sign papers to cut their salaries to $13.50/hr. Because the welders’ permission to work in the U.S. was tied to Signal by their H2B visa, which does not permit guest workers to change employers, the threat of deportation hung over their heads if they did not comply.

When some of the workers tried to organize for better wages and living conditions in the spring of 2007, armed guards raided the workers’ bunk-rooms at 3:00 AM and detained six of the organizers with the intention of deporting them. The workers made contact with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), who called in Hindi-speaking organizer Saket Soni from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. The workers began to organize under the aegis of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity. (Saket Soni, pictured with workers & allies, left).

On March 6, 2008, after having reported themselves to the Department of Justice as victims of trafficking and demanding federal prosecution of Signal International, nearly 100 of the guest workers employed in Signal’s Pascagoula, MS, shipyard walked off the job, leaving their hard hats at Signal’s gate.

The workers launched a “Journey of Justice,” traveling, largely on foot, from New Orleans to D.C., traveling through key sites of the civil rights struggle. In May, the workers–now turned activists inspired by both the Indian Ghandi and the American King–arrived in D.C. Yesterday morning, the workers assembled in front of the White House with allies from SAALT, AAJC, UFCW, ARW, and more, and launched a hunger strike with the message: “The US needs a just immigration system that does not link the US economy to exploitable foreign workers while displacing poor and working-class American workers.”

“Our fore-father, Mahatma Ghandi, did a hunger strike against the odds, to make the impossible, possible,” one worker said through an interpreter. “And that is what we are following today.”

Through the hunger strike, the guest workers hope to pressure Congress to hold hearings on Signal International and other Gulf Coast companies’ use of the federal Guest Worker program as a legally sanctioned vehicle for exploitation.

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Lisa Swanson

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