JACKSON, Miss. – Thirty Mexican nationals with visas to work in the U.S. claim police in Pascagoula kidnapped and threatened them with arrest or deportation if they did not return to an employer.
The workers, backed by the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups, said Wednesday that Pascagoula Police Capt. George Tillman threatened to send them to jail if they didn't return to work for a recruitment company.
The workers plan to file a lawsuit accusing Tillman of "kidnapping, kidnapping with intent to enslave, false imprisonment, human trafficking, and violations of the workers' civil and constitutional rights," they said in a news release.
Enrique Garcia, 41, one of the workers, said Tillman told the workers the company "owned" them.
Interim Pascagoula Police Chief Eddie Stewart said in a statement that the allegations were without merit. He said they stemmed from a "call for service in which two private contractors were in a dispute over who employed a group of workers."
Officers handled the situation properly, he said.
"Our responding officers, with the assistance of Immigration Customs Enforcement, explained to both the private contractors and the workers their options," Stewart said.
Jackson County Assistant District Attorney Brice Wiggins said Wednesday his "office has not received a complaint or allegation on the matter."
The workers said they received H2B temporary visas to work for Southwest Shipyards in Channelview, Texas, but left the company because they were paid less than they were promised and working conditions were poor.
Under terms of their visas, the workers were permitted only to work for the company that sponsored them. A message seeking comment left after hours Wednesday with Southwest Shipyards was not immediately returned.
The workers said they were promised jobs by a labor recruiting company but that after six days of waiting in cramped mobile homes the company had put them up in, they left for Pascagoula Miss., where they found work repairing ships.
The workers said an official from the labor recruiting company tracked them down and showed up with Tillman and at least two other officers on Aug. 2. They said Tillman told them the recruiting company owned them and that could be jailed if they didn't return to work.
Garcia said the workers were not searched, handcuffed or detained by the officers, but that the way they were handled merits their kidnapping claim.
"Capt. Tillman told us that we had two options: that either we go back to work ... or be detained," he said.
Patricia Ice, an attorney for the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, acknowledged that the men were in violation of their visa agreement by leaving the original employer. But the company had violated agreements with the workers, she said.
The workers, all from Veracruz, Mexico, said they paid a recruiter between $1,500 and $2,000 to come to the U.S., expecting to make $16.50 an hour. Instead, they said Southwest Shipyards paid them $14 an hour, of which they only kept $12 an hour after transportation and living expenses were deducted.
With outside help, the workers escaped to New Orleans, where they have been living without work or money, according to The [South Mississippi] Sun Herald.