20 Year Anniversary for Freed Immigrant Sweatshop Workers (Part I)

October 23, 2015 6:15 am
by David Jakeman

Recent disasters in the garment factory industry in Bangladesh brought the difficult working conditions to U.S. popular consciousness, but as usual, they were quickly replaced with tabloid news about One Direction possibly breaking up. For immigration attorneys with longer memories, they might recall sweatshop workers held in El Monte, California being forced to work in slave-like situations with no freedom of movement. This year marks the twenty-year anniversary of their rescue, and it’s an important story for anyone interested in immigration law.

Immigration through Hawaii

Back in the early 1990s, several Thai workers who sought employment in the United States were directed to an agency that promised they could get them a job in the United States that would lead to a better life. One Thai woman, Boonprasit, had a friend refer her to the contractor facilitating the move. She met in a hotel in Bangkok with representatives who said that it would be difficult to secure a visa through the regular U.S. system, but there was another possibility for them to make it to the United States.

This other way involved constructing a fake passport that featured a picture of themselves but with a different person’s name and personal information. The workers did not understand the ramifications of such an action. This is often the case in different countries where a certain amount of dissembling is necessary if you want your local, state, or even national government to get anything done. The employment contractors assured the women that nothing bad would happen for such actions, so they went ahead with it.

Instead of applying for the various types of work visas, the contracting group secured tourist visas. They actually took part in a real tour group. The gateway for these Thai “tourists,” as some Hawaii immigration lawyers may recall, was through The Aloha State. The women enjoyed the tour nearly the same way any other participants in a tour group would, though they did have a woman from the employment contractor making sure they didn’t try to slip away.

Immigrants to Los Angeles

While the immigrants’ time in Hawaii may have been like paradise, their arrival in Los Angeles soon made it clear that things were going to be far from a vacation. Their employers confiscated their passports and the spending cash that the workers had been given to make it seem like they were tourists. The workers were then told that they would have to repay a debt of $5,000 for the trip, which they would have to work off.

Right away, the women were taken to their new quarters in El Monte, California, although the townhouse compound seemed more like a prison than a home. Razor wire encircled the compound and armed guards stood watch. Of course these “amenities” were more for keeping people in than keeping anyone out. And this is how the immigrants found their new home in the United States.1

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