Slaves of New York freed

Deaf-mute Mexican immigrants traded freedom for US entry
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The Independent Online
The shining spire of the Chrysler Building under the midsummer sun tells one story of New York City - a metropolis levitating on the updraft of a surging economic boom. The written note of a deaf-mute Mexican woman delivered at 4 am on Saturday at the counter of a Queens police station tells another.

That there is more to this miasma of seven million souls than the suspender- boys on Wall Street with their million-dollar bonuses should not come as a shock. But in this note there was a punch that appals even the hardest of Gotham residents. Deep in Queens, so close to Manhattan in distance but so far in fortune, not just terrible poverty has been uncovered, but also extraordinary and inhuman enslavement.

"I am a woman who works at Newark Airport," the note began. It ended: "I hope you have time to read this."

It was read. By yesterday morning, seven people had been arrested on charges of smuggling 60 Mexican nationals into the United States, all of them deaf and many deaf-mute, and forcing them into a life of squalor and indentured servitude from which, until now, there had seemed no chance of escape.

The Mexicans, it seems, had been lured to New York with promises so familiar to the millions who have made just the same journey: economic prosperity without horizons. Where they landed, however, was surely closer to a miserable hell than any dusty village they left behind.

These were the two dwellings to which police officers were led by the woman on Saturday morning. One was a three-bedroom apartment meant to accommodate a single family. Instead, police found it divided into cubicles and strewn with mattresses and sleeping bags. Inside, 44 of the Mexicans were living on top of one another. The remaining 18 were in another, similarly squalid, building nearby.

Their bargain with the smugglers was an unhappy one: each day they were forced to fan out across the city to tweak the charitable hearts of New Yorkers, mostly as they rode subway trains or entered airports, by distributing cards identifying themselves as deaf-mutes and then selling one-dollar trinkets; mostly key-rings with little globes, or fake $100 bills.

Each night, according to police, the adults - the several children remained each day in the apartments - would return to Queens to hand over their earnings to their masters. No one was allowed back to the apartments until they had collected at least $100.

Some have additionally complained of consistent physical and sexual abuse.

"This is a very disgusting and horrible situation that is going to emerge over the next few days," said an indignant Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York. "One man or more was holding a number of people in bondage or virtual slavery."

Similar cases of immigrants trading their freedom for help in penetrating the United States have surfaced before in New York, though previously they have almost always involved Chinese. This is the first such case where the nationals are all Mexicans. It is also the first time where the exploitation appears all the more grievous because the victims are also handicapped.