National Council on Disability Document Archive

Post news on near slavery of deaf people

Posted by: Jamal Mazrui
Date Mailed: Thursday, July 24th 1997 02:12 PM

07/20/97 -- Copyright (C) 1997 The Washington Post [Article 289164, 71 lines]

            N.Y. Police Find 52 Deaf Mexicans in `Virtual Slavery'
                               By Blaine Harden
                         Washington Post Staff Writer
          Scores of deaf Mexicans who were forced to work in conditions that
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani described as "virtual slavery" were rescued by
police today from two small, squalid apartments in the borough of Queens.
     Four of the Mexicans walked into a police station in Queens at 5 a.m. and
managed to communicate that they were being forced to work for little or no
pay. Giuliani said some of the immigrants alleged that they had been subject
to physical and sexual abuse.
     Police later found that 52 deaf adults -- along with 10 children, some of
whom could speak Spanish and English -- were living in top-floor apartments in
two separate duplex buildings in the Queens neighborhood of Corona. Each
apartment would normally house about seven people.
     The Mexicans told authorities they had been working in the streets and
subways selling tiny baseball bats that say "I am deaf" and turning the money
over to a man they called "the boss," who had brought them to New York from
Mexico and held their indentity documents.
     "It appears that at least one man and possibly more were holding a number
of people in bondage, in virtual slavery, bringing them over from Mexico and
then requiring them to work and taking their wages from them," Giuliani said.
     Police were holding Alfredo Paoletti, 37, for questioning, but as of this
evening had not charged him. A spokesman for the Immigration and
Naturalization Service said it was investigating when and how the Mexicans had
come to New York.
     "The people are brought in by Alfredo. He gets documents for them. He has
a connection for them at the airport in Mexico City, and he brings them in
through Newark. That is the best information that we have," Giuliani said in
an interview tonight.
     The mayor, who spoke to the immigrants through translators, said some of
them apparently have lived in the United States for several years. "Half of
them knew who I was. That should tell you they have been in the city for
awhile," Giuliani said.
     In both apartments where the immigrants were living, the only furniture
was mattresses, according to police spokesman Sgt. Denis Doohan. "Basically
they were living in squalor," he said.
     "They were able to communicate to us that they were subject to some
physical abuse. One woman had a black eye. They told us that [the man who
brought them to the United States] was making physical threats to them to give
him all their money," Doohan said.
     The 10 children in the apartments were turned over to the city's child
welfare agency. Police said they all appeared to be in good health. The 52
adults, including 22 men and 30 women, four of whom are pregnant, will be
taken into temporary custody by city authorities. They remained at a police
station in Corona late today.
     Giuliani said that because of barriers imposed by the immigrants'
deafness and their fear of authorities, "it is going to take two or three days
to sort out" whether they are in the country legally.
     Corona is one of dozens of neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn that have
been radically transformed by the flood of immigrants into New York City in
the 1990s. That influx -- more than 113,000 a year since 1990 -- has allowed
New York to escape the depopulation that has crippled cities such as Detroit,
Baltimore and Washington.
     The immigrants, by and large, have been a major shot in the arm for the
economy and cultural vibrancy of the city. As compared to native-born New
Yorkers, recent immigrants are less likely to use social services, more likely
to have jobs and more likely to own businesses, according to city figures.
     But the crush of newcomers has also caused a dangerous spike in
substandard housing.
     As the Corona neighborhood absorbed more than 10,000 new residents in the
past seven years, its stock of housing has barely increased. Instead, the
houses there and in many similar working-class neighborhoods in Queens and
Brooklyn have become a new kind of New York tenement.
     In these "mattress mills," each room is rented to one or more families,
and residents share the kitchen and bathroom. 
     Giuliani, like most New York politicians, has gone out of his way to
describe immigrants as "an extremely positive thing for America." Part of the
reason for their popularity among politicians is that they don't complain much.
    Giuliani said in an interview this spring, "People who are immigrants have
lower expectations."

07/21/97 -- Copyright (C) 1997 The Washington Post [Article 289247, 40 lines]

                               AROUND THE NATION
                              From News Services
Seven Arrested
In N.Y. Bondage
Of Deaf Mexicans
    NEW YORK -- Seven people were arrested yesterday after scores of deaf
Mexicans were kept in slave-like conditions and forced to peddle trinkets for
the smugglers who had brought them here, authorities said.
     Police found 62 Mexicans, many of them mute and 10 of them children,
crammed into two Queens apartments divided into cubicles, Mayor Rudolph W.
Giuliani said Saturday. The children ranged in age from 4 months to 7 years.
     "It would appear that they were lured here by promises of a better life,"
said Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. Instead, he said, they lived in
squalor while working long hours for low wages, selling trinkets on subways
and at airports, threatened with deportation by the people who brought them
     Four of those arrested were charged federally with conspiracy to smuggle
aliens, said Mark Thorn, an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman.
He identified the four as Alfredo Rustrian-Paoletti, Jose Paoletti-Lemus, Rosa
Beltran-Sanchez and Refugio Gonzalez-Santa.
     City police charged Adelja Paoletti, 67, with coercion and harassment;
Adriani Paoletti, 29, with coercion and grand larceny; and Raul Alanis, 24,
with coercion and assault.
TWA Memorial Unveiled
     NEW YORK -- As hundreds of family members and friends watched, a memorial
plaque dedicated to the 230 victims of TWA Flight 800 was unveiled at the
Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
      The dedication capped four days of remembrances and tributes throughout
the New York area, marking the first anniversary of the crash of the jumbo jet.
      The Paris-bound Boeing 747 jumbo jet exploded in the air on July 17,
1996, just 11 minutes after leaving New York's Kennedy International Airport,
killing everyone aboard.
      The memorial plaque, inscribed with the names of the passengers and crew
of the flight, was placed in the cathedral's American History Bay beneath the
ornate stained Titanic Memorial Window honoring those who perished in the 1912
sinking of the ocean liner.

      Hunt Widens for Leader of Ring That Held Dozens of Deaf Mexicans in
                               `Virtual Slavery'
                              By William Branigin
                         Washington Post Staff Writer
    Federal agents and New York City police searched yesterday for an alleged
ringleader and other members of an alien-smuggling operation that forced
dozens of deaf and mute Mexicans to sell trinkets on the streets of New York
while being held in what officials called "virtual slavery."
     As investigators continued a laborious process of trying to question the
Mexicans, many of whom communicate in a sign language they developed
themselves, federal agents across the United States were checking reports that
similar rings are operating in other parts of the country.
     Seven Mexicans, all of them illegal immigrants, have been arrested so far
on state or federal charges in the case. In addition, 55 people, most of them
deaf Mexicans who were smuggled into the United States by the ring, are being
held in a motel by New York City authorities as material witnesses against
their alleged abusers. The victims were rescued Saturday from two cramped
apartments in Queens, after four of them alerted police to their situation.
     While the abuse of people with disabilities has drawn outrage from
officials in New York, Washington and Mexico City, federal investigators said
the phenomenon of which it is a part -- the exploitation of illegal immigrants
by alien-smugglers -- has become depressingly common. Authorities in recent
years have unearthed a number of cases in which illegal immigrants have been
forced into debt bondage in the United States to pay off large smuggling fees
by working in garment sweatshops, restaurants and brothels.
     Saying that she was "deeply disturbed" by the discovery of the deaf
Mexicans who were being held "in virtual slavery," Doris M. Meissner, the
commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said she has
ordered INS offices around the country to investigate whether similar
operations exist in other U.S. cities. She told a news conference there have
been "some indications" that the ring is not confined to New York.
     INS agents and New York police believe the alien-smuggling ring was
headed by Reinaldo Paoletti, a Mexican who so far has eluded police. Of the
seven people who have been arrested so far, four are in INS custody on charges
of alien-smuggling, harboring and transporting illegal aliens and conspiracy.
The other three are being held by New York City police on state charges
including coercion, grand larceny, harassment and assault. Paoletti and the
seven in custody are all apparently related, officials said.
     One of those arraigned yesterday on federal charges was another alleged
leader in the organization, Alfredo Paoletti Rustrain, 37, who pretended to be
deaf and mute when he was initially detained Saturday. 
     Of the 55 people identified as victims in the case, 10 are juveniles, INS
spokesman Russ Bergeron said. Among them are four infants who have been
identified as U.S. citizens because they were born in this country. The rest
are Mexican nationals who are believed to have been living in the United
States illegally for periods ranging from a few months to a few years.
     The Mexicans were recruited from homes and schools for the deaf in their
homeland, promised well-paying jobs in the United States and smuggled across
the border, officials said. Once in New York, they were forced to work long
hours, sometimes from dawn to midnight, peddling key chains, pens, toys and
other trinkets in the the subways and streets of the city while displaying
signs saying, "I am deaf." They were then forced to turn over the bulk of
their earnings to the ring and were sometimes beaten to ensure compliance.
     The fact that most of the victims are deaf and speech-impaired "makes
this case more shocking and outrageous than most," INS spokesman Bergeron
said. "But there is no doubt that in other instances . . . individuals who are
smuggled into the United States are abused. This type of enslavement and abuse
is a by-product of smuggling."
     Although INS officials yesterday praised the New York City government's
"cooperation" in this case, investigators in the past have expressed
frustration with a longstanding city policy of refusing to inform the agency
when local law enforcement officials encounter suspected illegal aliens. City
police and building inspectors reportedly visited the crowded apartments that
housed the abused Mexicans on at least a couple of occasions, but did not
inform federal authorities.
     The policy is intended in part to encourage people to cooperate with the
city authorities and report crimes or other problems without fear of
deportation if they are illegal immigrants. But it also "certainly provides an
added layer of insulation" for the perpetrators of immigration-related crimes,
a federal official said.
     Moreover, he said, neighbors who were aware that the Mexicans were being
abused did not alert authorities, in many cases because in the largely
immigrant Queens community, the neighbors themselves are in the country

07/23/97 -- Copyright (C) 1997 The Washington Post [Article 289439, 75 lines]

       Riders Report Vendors on Metro in Conditions Similar to N.Y. Deaf
                                  Alien Ring
                              By William Branigin
                         Washington Post Staff Writer
     Federal and local authorities yesterday began investigating reports that
an alien-smuggling ring similar to one that exploited deaf Mexicans in New
York may have been operating in the District in recent months.
     Following the weekend bust of a ring that forced deaf and speech-impaired
Mexicans to sell trinkets on New York City subways and held them in virtual
bondage, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has received tips that the
practice is much more widespread and involves similar sales in other U.S.
cities, including on Metro trains in Washington, officials said
     While the smuggling of illegal immigrants into the United States has
become a growing problem in recent years and has involved occasional egregious
human rights violations, the abuse of disabled people has aroused widespread
outrage in both the United States and Mexico.
     According to a complaint filed in federal court in New York, the ring
lured deaf Mexicans with the promise of well-paying jobs in the United States,
smuggled them across the border and forced them through threats and beatings
to work as peddlers. Some of the women were also sexually abused, and the
vendors faced cutoffs of food rations and other sanctions if they did not turn
in enough money, the complaint said.
     In addition to the probes already initiated by the INS and New York City
police, the Justice Department's civil rights division announced yesterday
that is opening its own investigation into possible violations of the deaf
Mexicans' civil rights with a view to filing peonage or slavery charges
against their alleged abusers. So far, seven Mexicans have been arrested on
various state and federal charges in the case, including alien-smuggling and
assault. Other suspects are being sought, notably a Mexican identified as
Reinaldo or Renato Paoletti, whom vendors have tagged as the "boss" of the New
York ring.
     In Washington, the INS contacted Metro authorities yesterday afternoon
after receiving tips from passengers, including INS employees, who had
witnessed sales of trinkets on Metro trains. However, there was no immediate
information on the vendors' nationality or living conditions, or whether they
were working for an organized ring.
     One regular Metro rider who spoke with The Washington Post said she told
the INS that she recently saw a young Hispanic woman selling key chains
similar to those sold by victims of the New York ring. The rider, who did not
want to be identified, said the key chains bore tags reading, "I am deaf" and
"$1.00." The vendor, who looked to be in her late teens or early twenties,
walked the length of the Metro car laying the trinkets in the laps of seated
passengers, the rider said. Then she walked back and collected dollar bills
from buyers or the key chains from those who declined. Without uttering a
sound, the woman got off the car at the next station and boarded another Metro
car on the same train.
     Other riders have reported similar incidents involving Hispanic men and
women who boarded trains to sell pens and pencils with similar tags attached.
     The INS has received reports of similar sales in Los Angeles and Chicago,
officials said. In Mexico City, students at schools for the hearing- and
speech-impaired have reported that friends also have wound up working in
Dallas and Boston after being recruited by rings known in Mexico as "the mafia
of the deaf."
     In Washington, a Metro spokeswoman said the transit police have been
contacted by the INS and would cooperate with the agency in its investigation.
Metro had not previously received reports from riders who have been approached
by deaf people in rail cars to solicit contributions for key chains or other
trinkets, she said. Transit police chief Barry J. McDevitt advised riders who
see solicitors to step off the train and report them immediately to police.
     INS officials said they doubted, given the publicity stirred by the New
York case, that deaf vendors recruited by a smuggling ring would still be
selling trinkets on Metro trains. They said the investigation would focus on
locating places where groups of such vendors live and on checking into any
reports of abuse by an organized ring. 
  Meanwhile, the INS was working out an agreement with New York City
authorities on the transfer of at least 55 victims of the ring to federal
custody. The men, women and children -- including at least four infants
identified as U.S. citizens because they were born here -- are being held in a
Queens motel by New York police as material witnesses in the case. 
   The ring bought the trinkets in bulk for about 25 cents each and priced
them at $1 each, keeping almost all the profits.
Staff writer Stephen Fehr contributed to this report.

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