Police: No merit to claims officer ‘kidnapped’ 30 Mexican workers

Published 3:43 pm Friday, August 24, 2007

A police department in south Mississippi said Wednesday there is no merit to claims that an officer kidnapped 30 Mexicans who were in the United States on temporary work visas.

“Allegations, with no merit, stemmed from a call for service in which two private contractors were in a dispute over who employed a group of workers,” interim Pascagoula Police Chief Eddie Stewart said in a statement.

The statement was released after the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups announced plans to sue the Pascagoula Police Department and Capt. George Tillman.

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The lawsuit will accuse Tillman of “kidnapping, kidnapping with intent to enslave, false imprisonment, human trafficking, and violations of the workers’ civil and constitutional rights,” the groups said in a news release.

Jackson County Assistant District Attorney Brice Wiggins said Wednesday his “office has not recieved a complaint or allegation on the matter.”

Stewart said his officers handled the situation properly.

“Our responding officers with the assistance of Immigration Customs Enforcement explained to both the private contractors and the workers their options,” he said.

More than a dozen of the workers held enlarged copies of their visas during a news conference Wednesday at the state Capitol in Jackson and “wanted” signs accusing Tillman of kidnapping.

A spokesman for the workers said they had been staying in New Orleans.

Here’s what the workers claim happened to them: They were recruited to work at Southwest Shipyards in Channelview, Texas. Although they are required under the rules of their H2B visa to work for the company that sponsored them, they did not like the working conditions and left for another job in Mobile, Ala.

A message left after hours Wednesday for Southwest Shipyards was not immediately returned.

Once the group arrived in Alabama, the workers said they were promised jobs through a labor recruiting company named Black Hawk. However, they said living conditions there were deplorable. Fourteen men were crammed in a mobile home with no air conditioning, no running water and no food or transportation. No listing for a Black Hawk could be found in Mobile, Ala.

Frustrated with the living conditions in Alabama, the workers said they found jobs repairing ships at SCS Enterprises Inc. in Pascagoula, Miss.

Enrique Garcia, 41, one of the Mexican workers, said he and the others worked in Pascagoula for six days. Then on Aug. 2, he said a Black Hawk official found them and showed up with Tillman and at least two other officers. They said Tillman told the workers they could return to their employer or go to jail.

When questioned, Garcia said the men were not searched by the officers, handcuffed or detained. He said it was the manner in which the situation was handled that merits claims of kidnapping. Tillman said the company “owned” the workers, Garcia said.

“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. However, she said the company had violated agreements with the workers.

The workers, all from Veracruz, Mexico, said they paid a recruiter between $1,500 and $2,000 to come here expecting to make $16.50 an hour. Instead, they said they were paid $14 an hour, and only brought home $12 an hour after transportation and living expenses.

They said they left Southwest Shipyards because they were put in unsafe conditions and two of their friends were hurt on the job and offered no compensation.