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.'"
Bolivian workers scammed
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.
Each day, Sanchez would take them to lunch at a Colombian restaurant next to his Northwest Miami-Dade office in a van meant for half their number. The workers were on their own for breakfast and dinner. After the first week, Sanchez moved them to another motel, at NW Seventh Avenue and 81st Street — "barely an improvement," Pablo says. "We were still crammed into rooms and quickly using up the limited cash each of us had brought."
Finally, after three weeks, Sanchez told the laborers they were on their own. He helped some of them find hotel or restaurant work. Rasmussen said she arranged jobs for others.
About a dozen of them set out to seek the truth. On April 22, the group showed up at the Moss Point, Mississippi headquarters of Five Star Contractors. They laid out their story and paperwork to company president David Knight. "They, like us, were caught in a scam," Knight says. He immediately realized someone had distributed photocopied Five Star contracts and forged an accompanying letter with his signature. The firm had never in its history requested guest workers from Bolivia.
The group was glad to finally have an explanation, but that relief didn't last long. "While we were in his office, [Knight] dialed a number and then put us on speaker phone as we explained our side of the story," José recalls. "A little while later, the migra showed up, we were on our knees, and handcuffed." Four of the men were taken into custody (the rest of the workers had already left) but were released hours later.
Soon the U.S. Consulate in La Paz learned of the forged contracts. Authorities questioned Rasmussen about the matter. The interrogators were worried because they had issued the visas.
"It didn't make sense," Pablo says. "The U.S. is the hardest country in the world to get into, and there we were with documents that looked like they had been photocopied a thousand times. But [consul staff] didn't bat an eye."
The case against Rasmussen has yet to go before a judge. But a check of legal history reveals she has been in hot water before. In 2006, she sent dozens of Bolivians to work in New Orleans hotels that offered such low wages and terrible conditions that the workers sued the luxury hotel chain Decatur. In May 2007, the Eastern District Court of Louisiana ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that guest workers are entitled to the same rights as anyone else under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The decision has since been appealed and the parties are awaiting a ruling.
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Rasmussen contends she lost money on the workers. And, she says, Sanchez owes her upward of $25,000 from other joint ventures. "This is all Juan Sanchez's doing," she claims.
Celso Paredes, an attorney representing the Bolivians, hopes to send Rasmussen to jail. "Rasmussen accepted workers' payment and that makes her liable in Bolivia for the outcome of their contractual agreements," Paredes explains, adding that the fraud charges carry a penalty of one to six years for every infraction.
In the end, this whole disaster has a strange irony for people such as Marco. One of the four arrested in Knight's office in April, he is still in the United States awaiting a decision regarding his deportation. "We are the ones who do everything right to come to the U.S.," says Marco, who misses his wife and eight-year-old son in Bolivia. "We enter legally to work for companies that have asked us to come. And look what happens. It all just makes me feel really bad."