An American Nightmare

Mexican immigrants enslaved in New York

Revolutionary Worker #918, Aug. 10, 1997

A young Mexican woman comes into the subway car like so many others who work the trains to survive. She waits for the train to pull into the station. When the doors open, she quickly enters and begins her routine. Her backpack is full of key chains with cards attached that say: "I am deaf." She lays one down near each passengers, carefully avoiding those who indicate by look or gesture that they didn't want to be bothered. Then she retraces her steps, collecting the unwanted trinkets or a dollar.


It's a familiar scene to anyone who rides the subway in New York City. And there are different responses. Some don't even bother to look up from their newspaper. The mean-spirited deliver a dirty look or dismissive wave of the hand. The compassionate dig into their pockets for a dollar.

Whatever the response, most commuters never realized these deaf Mexican immigrants might be living in slave-like conditions. The horror story behind this everyday phenomenon remained hidden--until July 20, when seven Mexican immigrants were arrested on charges of running a smuggling ring that sneaked deaf Mexicans across the border, stashed them in safe houses in California, flew them to New York City and forced them, under threat of beatings, to work as trinket vendors in the subways.

The next day, newspapers revealed the story: 57 deaf people from Mexico had been lured to the U.S. with the promise of a better life. What they got after coming to El Norte was a slave-like existence.

Deaf Mexicans have been recruited in cities and towns all over Mexico and then assembled into groups in Mexico City, bused north to Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez, given false documents to cross the border, and then transported to different cities in the U.S. where they were forced to work for almost no pay.

The 57 immigrants in New York were forced to get up every day before dawn and work 12 to 18 hours selling trinkets. They started out with a backpack filled with 100 key chains to be sold for a dollar. Some of these vendors ended up working until midnight because they knew if they returned without $100 they would be slapped or punched. They had only two days off a month. Most of this group of deaf immigrants lived in a first floor four-bedroom apartment in Queens where bunk beds and mattresses were crammed into the small rooms. Three young women said they were routinely molested by the boss of the operation.

Throughout the history of America, people have been forced to immigrate under conditions of bonded labor--working with no rights or wages in order to pay off the cost of their trip to this country. In this case, the immigrants were even more vulnerable because of their disability, and the smugglers were able to isolate and exploit them tremendously. The 57 immigrants had been forced to surrender all their personal documents, like birth certificates, Mexican identity cards and, for some, fake tourist visas. They knew they could be turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service at any moment to be deported. And faced with this threat, they turned over most of what they collected on the subways to the people who brought them to America.

Federal and local police have used this whole incident to step up repression against immigrants and extend their powers to hunt down and arrest undocumented immigrants. A national task force has been established and there is a nationwide search to "break up" similar operations. Federal authorities have already arrested and/or taken into custody people in New York, North Carolina and Chicago--including the victims of these operations, who will most likely end up being deported. And federal officials also began an investigation in Mexico and announced they would request the help of the Mexican government if extradition was required.

The 57 immigrants in New York were put under house arrest in a motel and interrogated for days. And officials have said that once the investigation is concluded, most of them would be turned over to the INS, which could decide to deport them.

After the story of the deaf immigrants hit the news, New York City officials went out of their way to fake concern and act as if they had no idea such operations exist. But city officials have acknowledged that in recent months, several city agencies went to one of the apartments where the immigrants lived to investigate overcrowding or a medical emergency. And other evidence has come out that city agencies and the police knew about, but ignored, the slave-like conditions of these immigrants.

On one occasion, police and emergency workers went to the house to aid a woman who then, probably out of fear, refused medical attention. Three neighbors told the press that the police had been in the house twice before--once, two months ago, after a complaint that too many people lived at that address. And Fire and Building Department officials had also been to the house.

The media and various politicians have seized on this incident to try and portray themselves as the "saviors" of these deaf immigrants. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been trying to pass himself off as the most outspoken and outraged advocate for the Mexican immigrants. But this is the same man who was the number three man in the Justice Department when Ronald Reagan was president and was point man in the forced detention of hundreds of Haitian boat people in the early 1980s. And this is the same Giuliani who as mayor made it one of his first acts to target "quality of life crimes" by arresting and removing people panhandling and vending on the subways. This is no friend of the people. And the public relations tears of such politicians reek of hypocrisy.

Anyone who believes the 57 Mexican immigrants in New York have been "rescued" by the authorities should remember what happened four years ago when a ship carrying 300 Chinese immigrants ran aground in Rockaway Beach, Queens. These immigrants, "rescued" from the Golden Venture ship, spent the next four years locked up in federal detention facilities before finally being released.

The 57 immigrants in New York were exploited by an operation that has reportedly been going on for 10 years in several different cities in the United States. Authorities say it was headed by a Mexican immigrant named Renato Paoletti, who was known back in Mexico as "los burgueses"--the bourgeoisie of the neighborhood.

U.S. authorities and the media are now trying to act as if Paoletti's operation and the extreme exploitation of Mexican immigrants are not the "American way." But the truth is, the people in charge of the New York operation were exploiting immigrants on a much smaller scale than what is done by all kinds of capitalist businesses and employers in the United States. For example, the multimillion-dollar agri-business in California depends on being able to take advantage of and super-exploit Mexican immigrants who are undocumented. Such employers know these immigrants, who live every day with the fear of being deported, will accept extremely low-wage jobs with no rights in order to survive.

And as various officials try to distance themselves from what happened to these 57 Mexican immigrants in New York, it should be pointed out that the U.S. government has created the very conditions which made it possible for someone to keep these immigrants in such slave-like conditions. For years now, the government has been waging a vicious war on immigrants--from militarizing the border and passing all kinds of anti-immigrant laws to mass raids and deportations and creating broad public opinion against immigrants.

The neighbors of the deaf vendors in New York said they heard screams, doors slamming and fists pounding the walls. One night some of them saw a shoeless women in a nightgown running away from some men. But none of these neighbors called the police.

Most of the neighbors are themselves recently arrived immigrants from Latin America. Many also have no immigration papers. And when reporters asked them why they had not notified the police, many of them expressed fear and a profound mistrust of the authorities. Several neighbors said they had considered calling the police, especially when the children cried for hours or when some young woman would go to her job in the trains with a swollen face. But they said they decided against calling because they feared the police would come and either deport the Mexicans or take their children away.

Two young men, who are also immigrants with no papers, said they didn't call the police because they were worried that if they did, they would jeopardize their own immigration status. One of the men said he didn't trust that calls to the police could be anonymous and added, "I see an officer coming down the street, and I cross the street. How am I then going to call the authorities myself?" Others said they felt that even if they called, the police would not have responded. One neighbor, a Colombian immigrant who works removing asbestos from buildings, said, "We speak with an accent, we can hardly make ourselves understood. They are not going to come here just because we call and complain about something that is happening to one of us."


The story of the 57 deaf Mexican immigrants in New York underscores the way so-called "illegal immigrants" are exploited and oppressed throughout the United States. The peonage-like condition of these particular immigrants was certainly extreme. But the story of horrible living conditions, poor pay, threats and brutality certainly strikes a chord with the masses of immigrants who come to America and are forced to suffer such indignities as the unofficial price of living and working without official papers.

There are an estimated 200,000 Mexicans living in New York City and, as manufacturing jobs have left the city, many of them have ended up in low-paying jobs in restaurants, delis and sweatshops. And those who survive by selling candy or trinkets in the subways, or go above-ground to sell fruits and flowers from carts, are routinely hounded and harassed by the police. There is a constant fear of being scooped up and deported. And this fear has now been intensified. Right before the story of the 57 immigrants hit the news, a federal court decision overturned the city's policy of not disclosing immigration status when residents seek social services.


Back in Mexico, there are many who dream of coming to the United States to work hard, save money and overcome poverty. But for many immigrants who make it to El Norte, reality is an American nightmare.

One Mexican immigrant, a woman living in New York with no papers, talked with a reporter a few days after hearing about the enslavement of the 57 deaf Mexican immigrants. Wearing a New York City T-shirt with the images of the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center towers, and the masks of comedy and tragedy, she said, "I had imagined this city to be a palace, something beautiful. Not so much cruelty, racism, or the ugly things in this country."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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