Mute Mexican slaves spark US shouting match

Click to follow
When a police raid 10 days ago turned up a group of deaf-mute Mexicans held as virtual slaves in a New York suburb, there was universal shock and disgust that such conditions should exist in the Land of the Free. Since then, however, scarcely a day has gone by without concerned members of the public or media sleuths reporting new groups of exploited immigrants, including several more groups of deaf-mute Mexicans, and the first righteous indignation is giving way to a lively public debate.

The proliferation of reports indicates that the deaf Mexican street pedlars of New York were not unique. Last Friday, immigration officials discovered a dozen deaf Mexicans after raiding houses in the small town of Sanford, North Carolina. Another seven were found in a northern suburb of Chicago, while reports from Los Angeles said that deaf immigrants had long been a common sight on the streets of Californian cities where - like their New York counterparts - they sold key-rings and other trinkets.

Both in North Carolina and Chicago, the authorities say they are trying to establish whether the Mexicans were subject to the same coercion and deprivation as they appear to have been in New York. This is a crucial question. It was, after all, less the fact that deaf-mute Mexicans were selling knick-knacks on the street that unleashed the initial public outrage than that they appeared to have been recruited on false pretences, held against their will in appalling conditions, and deprived of what money they earned.

As these cases have come to light, however, some commentators - not just on the political right - have started to ask whether the deaf Mexicans were really so badly off after all and whether slavery was really the appropriate description for their condition. Their point is not whether the Mexicans were exploited, but whether - given the extent of poverty in Mexico and the position of deaf people in that country - they would not have been worse off if they had stayed at home.

The argument has been compounded by conflicting reports about the Mexican family that is said to have recruited the immigrants discovered in New York. Some say that the Paolettis are indeed latter-day slave drivers intent on self-enrichment; others, however, say that at least some of them are generous and charitable, and help their recruits to a better life.

As opinion in many parts of the United States continues to harden against high levels of immigration, the development of this debate is fraught with risk. For the presence of deaf Mexicans who eke out a living on the streets of US cities can be seen as tending to support the anti-immigration lobby.

If immigration regulations, which include the requirement that immigrants be able to support themselves economically at least until they qualify for citizenship, are so tough, they argue, how come these Mexicans were allowed in? And if they arrived illegally, what does that say about the effectiveness of immigration controls?

Liberals find themselves divided. Their initial response was to decry the conditions in which the Mexicans were held and ask why the local authorities had appeared to ignore the situation for so long (despite, in the case of New York, complaints from neighbours).

Now, though, some are asking which is better for a deaf Mexican: a future without hope and precious few rights at home, or the possibility of lodging and work, however inadequate and menial, in the United States? The result is that while officials and priests issue warnings to the poor against falling for dubious promises of riches and freedom across the border, a section of US opinion is openly saying that emigration might be their best bet.