Free radical: A Wknd interview with immigrant-rights warrior Saket Soni
Soni spent years as an undocumented immigrant, then became a labour organiser. He is now the author of a taut true-life thriller about a human-trafficking scam.
In 2006, on his 29th birthday, Saket Soni’s life took a sudden turn, with a phone call. On the other end of the line was a terrified man who said he had been cheated, held against his will, and just wanted to return home to India.
This was in November, a few months after Hurricane Katrina struck in August, and Soni was working as a labour organiser in New Orleans. As he investigated the details the caller gave him, he would discover that the man was one of 500, being held at a labour camp, enclosed by barbed wire, overseen by guards.
Each labourer had paid $20,000, in exchange for a promise of a green card, a job and help with housing. They were now trapped in a cycle of debt, exacerbated by the fact that the company — marine-construction firm Signal International — deducted $1,000 a month from their earnings, as the cost of their accommodation.
Over months, Soni would dig deeper into this operation, uncovering one of the largest human-trafficking scams in modern US history.
The operation forms the plot of Soni’s first book, The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America, published in January. Told as a taut thriller, the non-fiction work features on The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2023. (More on the men, their escape, and their eventual lawsuit, in a bit.)
Soni’s own story, meanwhile, intersects with that of the undocumented immigrant. He moved to the US from Delhi as a 19-year-old, to study playwriting at the University of Chicago. When he missed an immigration deadline after graduation, he became an undocumented immigrant himself.
He sold a prized first-edition classic (William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram, 1940; ironically about the immigrant experience) to pay for legal help, was at one point evicted from his home, faced racial slurs in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and spent years with either no valid paperwork or temporary work visas. He had determined to give up and return home, but the paperwork to do that was complicated too, with the potential to endanger his future.
Then, in 2003, he met and fell in love with a Vietnamese-American woman, Tuyet; two years later, they married (they have since separated). This granted him conditional residence in the US.
Not long after, Hurricane Katrina struck. Watching African-American citizens wait to be rescued from roofless homes, Soni says he found the purpose he had been seeking. He drove there from Chicago, to offer his services as a labour organiser. And then he got the phone call.
It would be months before any of the frightened Indian labourers would agree to meet Soni. Once they did, things unfolded in a way he hadn’t imagined.
First, a small group of them agreed to meet him, at a church in their neighbourhood. “While I was driving down, I had imagined it would be the three people I’d been talking to, maybe a few more,” says Soni, 46. He practised a speech as he drove, about aiding them in the processes ahead, and not fighting for them but with them.
The speech was the last thing on his mind when he walked into the back office of the church. There weren’t three or four men, but 100; they said about 400 others were at the labour camp.
Over months of clandestine meetings, a plan unfolded. “With the help of a friend I made from among the workers, Rajan (Pazhambalakode), I undertook to help the men escape,” Soni says.
Through the wee hours, on the day of the escape, workers quietly left the camp in small groups. Some surreptitiously, others by giving the guards the usual tokens of cigars or small bottles of alcohol in exchange for being allowed out.
A hotel owner nearby had been told all his rooms were needed for a large wedding; this is where the workers and Soni first congregated. The men then marched to the company gates, where waiting journalists captured scenes of protest. The men threw hardhats in the air, and shouted that they would never return to the labour camp. There was no reaction from Signal International.
The 500 men, and Soni, then marched from New Orleans to Washington DC (a distance of over 1,800 km), between March 18 and 27, 2008. And began a hunger strike in the country’s capital, demanding justice for the trafficked workers. A civil lawsuit would drag on until 2015, when a jury awarded the plaintiffs millions in reparations. The CEO of Signal International issued an apology.
Soni, meanwhile, had become the face of a movement.
By 2014, he was director of the National Guestworker Alliance, an NGO formed to help immigrants secure temporary work visas as they arrived to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. He organised a strike by Mexican crawfish-peelers, who had been working 16-hour shifts. He was profiled as an “architect of the next labor movement”, in USA Today.
By 2017, Soni had set up his own non-profit organisation, Resilience Force, with a mission to promote the rights of immigrant workers, specifically in America’s growing climate-crisis economy (the business of rebuilding after a wildfire or superstorm, for instance; or constructing adaptation and mitigation infrastructure such as storm-surge tunnels and seawalls).
What has always driven him, Soni says, is hope. Even amid today’s fear of the newcomer, in a world of escalating refugee crises, “I feel hope”.
Much of it comes from the good he sees in people. The Great Escape, for instance, he says, is woven out of extraordinary tales of love, between friends, confidantes and brothers in arms. “While in the larger scheme of things, immigration is but one fallout of the climate crisis driven by the Global North, I believe it’s these love stories that keep hope alive.”
It also gives him hope to see the privileged partner with those locked out of the system, stepping outside their lives of convenience to stand up for others who have been dealt with unfairly, saying that this does not fit in with their value system.
“I have first-hand experience of working and living in an environment that is not friendly to immigrants,” he adds. “We need to reflect on the leaders we are choosing, but also need to be the leaders ourselves. When I was left undocumented, I asked myself if I was going to become a victim, or hold on to my dignity and fight for fairness.”
Soni’s biggest ongoing fight is one for fairness too. A dozen immigrant workers from Florida and Texas are suing a Texas company named Back to New (BTN), and two subcontractors, after they were hired to rebuild parts of a Michigan medical centre amid the pandemic, after it was ravaged by a flood in May 2020. The workers were packed into substandard accommodation, and suffered from a Covid-19 outbreak.
In October 2020, Resilience Force and the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice filed a lawsuit seeking compensation from those who endangered the workers through their living and working conditions.
“Each of us has the power to stand up, and say we are not going to stand for this, on the basis of just fairness,” Soni says.