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On a sunny morning this past February 25, Pablo, a neat, stocky 46-year-old, arrived at Miami International Airport from La Paz. He had a valid visa, a contract to work as a welder, and dreams of making enough scratch to grow his small business back home in Bolivia.
But almost immediately things began to sour. Juan F. Sanchez, a recruiter who was supposed to meet Pablo and 24 others, didn't show.
"He was two and half hours late picking us up," says Pablo, who, like five other workers interviewed for this piece, preferred to remain anonymous. "It wasn't until we were stuffed into a van like sardines that he dropped the news: 'There's been a change in plans.'"
That was an understatement. The Bolivians had been told they would be sent to Mississippi for 40-hour workweeks at $15 an hour with a company known as Five Star Contractors. Instead they were taken to a fleabag motel at NW 70th Street and 27th Avenue and crammed four to a room meant for two. Pablo recalls Sanchez saying they'd have to stay put for a few days because of "legal problems."
"Everything was dirty — the bathroom, the beds, the pillows," Pablo says, his voice rising slightly. "People were getting high all around us, and we had no idea what was going on."
The workers were caught in a scam: Their contracts and labor certification were "fraudulent," the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services would later determine. The Mississippi-based company had never even requested Bolivian workers. The 25 were stranded in the States without jobs or tickets home, but with $2,500 of debt each in recruitment fees and related expenses. In a Santa Cruz court, seven of the workers have since sued a Bolivian citizen named Elizabeth Rasmussen, director of the recruiting agency EduExchange Bolivia, alleging fraud. U.S. authorities are also probing the matter.
Both Sanchez and Rasmussen acknowledge the documents were faked, but after that, it gets complicated. Rasmussen blames Sanchez, who in turn holds responsible a New Hampshire-based recruitment firm named Global Services. "I had no idea these documents were forged," Sanchez says. "I did everything I could to help out [the workers.]"
While the problems of illegal immigrants are well known, such labor issues with legal workers are both deep and largely ignored by the public, says Jacob Horowitz of the Alliance for Guest Workers and Dignity, a New Orleans-based advocacy group. "Workers pushed from their homes by economic need are preyed upon by recruiters and U.S. companies," he says.
Sanchez has registered offices in Miami and the Dominican Republic and has been bringing foreign laborers to the United States since 2006. Most have been satisfied, he says. "For years, my business has been successfully placing hundreds of workers annually in jobs that Americans have no interest in doing. We fill an urgent labor need and provide opportunities for foreign workers."
But it's clear Pablo never got the opportunity he was promised. Father of a baby girl who hadn't yet turned a year old when he headed for Miami, he had been unable to get a loan at home to grow his Bolivian start-up business — recovering semiprecious stones from the eastern lowlands. So becoming a guest worker seemed just the thing. "It looked like a win-win," he told New Times from his current residence in Alabama. "I go to the U.S. for six months, earn more money that I could in over a year in Bolivia, and then come back home to start my own business. I didn't realize that the only real winner in all this is the recruiter, not the worker."
Recruiters such as Rasmussen, he says. A small, jittery woman who lives in La Paz, she started her business in late 2005 and says she has found jobs for more than 500 people — from housekeepers to farm workers — primarily in the Southern United States. Several interviewees, both former recruits and representatives of U.S. businesses who have received her workers, speak well of her operation.
Last November, she sought out welders, based on word from Sanchez, a colleague she had met months earlier. Dozens of laborers from the cities of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and La Paz responded to newspaper advertisements and began attending meetings at EduExchange offices. Toward the end of the year, the welders were brought to a hotel where Rasmussen introduced them to her "friend" Sanchez. He explained various prospects for work in the United States.
In January, Rasmussen called the workers to say their time had come. Sanchez was sending contracts down. The two then prepped the workers for visa interviews. Rasmussen collected hefty fees from the workers before they boarded a Miami-bound plane in late February. (She would later wire $13,000 to Sanchez's company in South Florida.)
But once they arrived at the Liberty City fleabag motel, the workers felt trapped by the situation. "Sanchez kept saying to us: 'Why are you still here? Why don't you leave already?'" recalls José, a Santa Cruz native. But the workers were in a bind. The law prohibited them from working for a company other than the one listed on the visa application. "We had heard horror stories about what it's like to be illegal in the U.S., and we just didn't want to go that route," José says from his residence in Alabama. He adds that some workers wanted to call immigration, but others disagreed. They feared returning home empty-handed.