Janitor and citizen
Around midnight on Saturday, July 19, 1997,
four Deaf Mexicans walked into the 115th Precinct police station in Queens,
New York, with a 3-page letter written in Spanish. The Mexicans—three men and
a woman—left the station without turning the letter over to the police. They
came back and left again . . . and finally, around 4 a.m., gave the letter
to the police. It told a shocking story: an organized gang of smugglers,
many of whom were Deaf Mexicans themselves, had been bringing in other Deaf
Mexicans to Queens and holding them in slavery. They were recruited from schools
for the deaf in Mexico and promised good jobs and comfortable living conditions.
Instead, they were forced to put in 12- to 18-hour days peddling
trinkets—keychains with miniature baseballs, bats, and gloves, screwdriver
kits, or currency, pens, and U.S. flag pins—on the streets and in the subway
trains and airports, for $1 apiece. All of their earnings had to be turned
over to their bosses every night. If they returned without having sold their
entire day’s quota, they were punished. They lived in illegally crowded, unhealthy
conditions in two apartment houses, never had enough to eat, and were beaten
and abused. They were also terrified.
Their going to the police was an act of courage, since
they faced deportation by immigration authorities, and had already been threatened
with death if they told anyone.
That same day, police rescued some 57 adults and 12
children, brought in interpreters, and began trying to piece together the
story. At first, communication was very difficult, as the victims used
a variety of modes: Mexican Sign Language, ASL, home signs, pidgin, and/or
combinations. Several bosses and enforcers were picked up for questioning,
although no arrests were made at first. Major Giuliani refused to turn the
Mexicans over to Immigration and Naturalization Service (they would have been
taken to a detention center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and processed for deportation)
and insisted that they stay in New York under his jurisdiction until their
legal status was determined. (The INS cooperated with Giuliani and the police.)
Several of the children had been born in Queens, so they were U.S. citizens.
Most of the adults turned out
to be illegal immigrants.
The Mexicans were bused to the Westway Motel in
East Elmhurst, Queens, near LaGuardia Airport, which had originally been built
to house tourists to the 1964-65 World’s Fair and later used to house the homeless.
They had comfortable and clean quarters, and plenty to eat. Arrangements were
made with the Red Cross and Lexington Center so they could receive the services
they needed. Interrogation proceeded daily, with interpreters, and gradually
the Mexicans opened up, telling their stories. They were technically under
house arrest as witnesses to a crime. For the time being, they were safe, but
they had no money, no source of income, and their prospects for the future
Bondage/peddling rings in several other cities were
broken up, and numerous arrests and indictments were made,
the perpetrators were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced. After the
trials were over, the Mexicans were free. Those who wanted to return to Mexico
were flown back. Those who wanted to stay in New York were given support, education,
and training at Lexington. Most of them, narly 40 or the 57, chose to stay.
They found jobs and places to live.
And then what? Those who stayed in New York, how did
they turn out? What happened to them? How did they do?
Gutierrez was 17 when he was rescued from the Queens bondage ring, the youngest
of the peddlers. He met Christina Gonzalez at Lexington. She was also Deaf,
but born in the U.S. Her family treated José like one of their own. Through
Christina, he found Fedcap, which provides training and jobs for people with
disabilities. In 2007, he began working as a janitor at the Statue of Liberty
and Ellis Island under a contract administered by AbilityOne, a federal program.
He told a New
York Times reporter
that he had learned about the Statue of Liberty while a young child in Mexico,
and that he was "thrilled" to know that he'd be working there. Several other
Deaf Mexicans, likewise rescued from the bondage ring, also found jobs through
Fedcap. And they're hard workers, too.
José lives in
Astoria, leaves home shortly after 5 a.m. each weekday morning, takes an
early-morning ferry to Ellis Island, and puts in a full day's work. He cleans
bathrooms, empties the trash, dusts a giant world globe that shows the journeys
of immigrants to the U.S., and gets the center ready for its daily throng of
visitors. He earns $20 per hour plus benefits, and has a green card.
On Tuesday, June 22, 2010, at the Fedcap graduation ceremonies, José Gutierrez received a special award for excellence. Overwhelmed and touched, he signed to the audience, “Thank you. Thank you.”