American Slavers: New York Immigrants Respond to Verdict in Slavery Case

December 19, 2007


American Slavers

NY Case Uncovers Rampant Abuse of Immigrant Workers

New America Media, News Analysis, Roberto Lovato, Posted: Dec 18, 2007

Editor’s Note: The case against the wealthy Long Island, N.Y. couple who were abusing their domestic servants made international news this week, with shocking headlines decrying the American slavery that was going on in the suburbs. But if you talk to immigrants on the streets of New York City, you’ll find that they weren’t too surprised by the mistreatment, writes New America Media writer Roberto Lovato.

NEW YORK — News of the guilty verdict against Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani, the multimillionaire Long Island couple accused of imprisoning and torturing two Indonesian maids, stunned most – but not all- New Yorkers this week.

The Big Apple’s immigrant residents were not so shocked at the revelations of torture, starvation and other depravities that took place behind the gates and walls of the homes of the fabulously wealthy.

While clearly angered and dismayed, documented and undocumented immigrants interviewed along the cold corridors of the Empire State provide a little-heard perspective on the case, a perspective that’s closest to that of the enslaved women in terms of their position on the social and economic ladder.

Standing outside the “C” train station, just a block from the neo-classical building that housed the New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War exhibit on the Upper West Side, domestic worker Lourdes Rivera reflected on today’s slavery.

“I’m not so surprised. You just listen to the women talking on the train, some are not paid, some are beaten like those women, some talk about being asked to have sex. Many are not treated well,” said the 31 year-old mother of two from Lima, Peru.

Like many immigrants interviewed, Rivera, who has lived without legal documents since arriving to New York three years ago, believes that the Long Island incident comes as a result of the extreme vulnerability she and other immigrants feel: “This happens because we’re immigrants. People know we’re immigrants and can’t talk. They shouldn’t treat us that way, but the government, nobody protects us.”

Michelle White, a Jamaican immigrant, agreed with Rivera’s assessment and wondered whether the slavery incident indicated the United States had entered a time when law mattered less.

“I thought slavery was abolished years ago,” she wondered, while standing on a Lower East Side corner facing towards the Statue of Liberty, “How can they let this happen? Why does this happen? Because we come from countries where people are desperate, that’s why. When somebody promises you a job, tells you you’re going to get paid well, you come here with stars in your eyes,” said the 34 year-old caregiver, adding, “but when you get here, you realize there are people that believe they have dominion over you. You realize you have to work twice as hard and some come here to be enslaved. Those poor (enslaved) women probably thought they were coming to streets lined with gold. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.”

As an employer, smoke and cigar shop owner Joseph Massih, feels shame that some of his fellow employers see opportunity in the lack of protection of his fellow immigrants. “It’s a disgrace that these people took advantage of people that are desperate,” said the Lebanese immigrant who has lived here for over 22 years. “I’m glad they caught [the accused slaveholders] and I hope they go to jail for life. I hire people, but don’t treat them like that.”

For his part, 29 year-old bike messenger Juan Flores looks at the headlines in his Spanish language newspaper about immigration raids and sees some of the reasons for the slavery story he’d read about on another page.

“As long as they don’t resolve the situation of those of us without papeles (papers), we’re going to keep hearing about these kinds of abuses,” says Flores. “I’m not surprised.” Flores immigrated from Tlaxcala, Mexico, where he says there are also people living under slave-like conditions in rural and urban areas.

“We left this kind of treatment in our countries. It makes me feel angry. I know people here in New York who are in similar situations. They don’t know what to do, they don’t know who they can call.” Flores says he is not confident that immigrants in the U.S. will secure legalization and other solutions to the problems that gave rise to the Long Island incident. Instead, he said, immigrants will have to look to themselves, “We’re the only ones who care enough to solve these kinds of problems. We’re isolated and need come out to the light. That’s the only way.”

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