The language that is used to talk about immigrants in America is something that really bothers Chris. A common and unproductive trope that’s heard in media is “a flood of immigrants to the border.” At the same time, there is a growing dependance at the foundational level on the labor of immigrants in the U.S. As natural disasters are happening with increasing frequency and intensity, communities are relying more and more on immigrant laborers. Saket Soni is director of Resilience Force, a national initiative that advocates on behalf of disaster recovery workers. He’s also author of the upcoming book, “The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams In America.” The subject of the story starts when Soni, who was 28 years old at the time, received an anonymous phone call from an Indian migrant who told him about incredibly inhumane worker conditions at a labor camp in Mississippi. The extraordinary journey that follows is told in the fascinating read about how Soni and 500 workers devised a bold plan, after a series of clandestine meetings, to escape and bring attention to their cause in Washington, D.C. He joins WITHpod to discuss writing about one of the largest human trafficking cases in modern American history, his deeply personal story coming to the U.S. from India, the importance of a well-protected skilled resilient workforce, rebuilding social fabrics around this topic and more.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Saket Soni: As the climate crisis has grown and as these disasters have become more frequent and more intense, more destructive, the need for labor to rebuild and repair has grown. So, wherever these disasters hit, workers arrive. The workers follow the storms and we, at Resilience Force, follow the workers. We attend to them and we're trying to organize them.
And our ultimate vision is that there actually needs to be a permanent, well-treated, at-scale skilled workforce that helps America prepare for the climate crisis.
Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
Let me start off with a little bit of a hobby horse of mine. Something that really bothers me about the way we talk about immigration in this country. The metaphors we use, particularly even metaphors that wind their way into ostensibly mainstream press. One of them is a flood of immigrants. You ever hear this term? A flood of immigrants at the border.
Now, this is very common trope. It's almost a cliché. And believe me, I'm a journalist and I have a cable news show, so I use clichés more than I should, and we all do and we all traffic in them. It's kind of an occupational hazard.
Of course, good, clear writing and communication avoids clichés. But this is a particularly insidious one because a flood is a metaphor of destruction. It's a metaphor of inhumanity, right? It's not sentient, it's not a group of people, it has no agency, right? This is implacable force of nature that comes and wrecks things.
In fact, it's, in a literal sense, the ur-disaster (ph), right? There is the flood in the first essentially written story we have, the "Epic of Gilgamesh," there's a great flood. And there's a Noah figure who sort of prefigures Noah. There is, of course, Noah in the Bible.
So, the flood is the ultimate ur-metaphor (ph) of destruction, of havoc. So, when you call a bunch of people showing up, a flood of immigrants, you're doing really insidious conceptional work. You're saying these people are destructive. You're saying these people are something that you need to keep out the way that a dam or dike might.
You're saying that if they let in, they will sort of go everywhere and everywhere they go, they will bring destruction with them, which is what water does when it floods a place whether that’s flooding a basement or flooding a city. It finds its level, right. And it works in this kind of incredibly damaging fashion, anyone who's (ph) ever dealt with the aftermath of a flood.
I find this, like, a really gross cliché and I would like everyone to stop using it when talking about human beings. Now, you can say a surge. I think it's more morally neutral because there has been a surge of asylum crossings at the border. There has to be a way to convey the fact that the number of people, say, showing up at the southern border has gone up and it, in fact, has quite dramatically. That is just a fact in the world and there's a way to say that.
And there's a way to discuss the policy implications of that, which are real, and in some senses, there really are places if you use the word overwhelm when you're talking about certain social service agencies or Catholic charities or NGOs and non-profits in say El Paso or San Antonio that really are overwhelmed. That is true.
I mean, we really do have a situation in which the sort of capacity is being outstripped by the demand in the number of people that are coming. But I hate to talk about immigrants and I hate all discussions of immigrants that see them as a destructive force, even, particularly I would say, when it is embedded in ostensibly neutral language.
And the other reason I hate that is because we have this very tortured relationship to immigration in this country. On the one hand, we have a sort of story we tell ourselves about Statue of Liberty and give us your tired, your poor, and your huddled masses.
We are a nation of immigrants. We sort of celebrate that. We, of course, are not a nation of immigrants in the sense that it's a nation that was taken away from indigenous people who were the first people that occupied this land and many of whom still continue to live on it.
We essentially conquered them, drove them out. But it is the case that, aside from indigenous folks and people brought here as enslaved people, everyone else came here somehow or are the descendants of people that came here somehow. Those are the facts, right?
And we know that, and people are proud of their Italian heritage and their Irish heritage, their heritage in the Pella settlement in modern-day Ukraine, their heritage from South Asia. But at the same time, we have a discourse in this country that is very, I think, you know, immigrant skeptical. I think there's been a rise of nativism and we've gone through different periods in American life. There's a sort of push and pull.
But underneath it all, the great irony, of course, is that, all moral considerations aside, all of our Christian, and I say that in quotes, "values" right as a nation, Christian nation aside, and by the way, let me just say for a second one of the all-time great quotes came from Mayor Eric Adams who, in criticizing the Biden administration for not stopping more asylum-seekers at the border, said of New York, quote, "There's no room at the inn."
He said this a few days after Christmas and for those who are not familiar with this story in the Bible, that is what the inn keeper says to Joseph and the pregnant Mary that forces them to give birth to Jesus in the manger, right, amongst the animals, with the unclean animals.
No room at the inn is like the embodiment of the heartlessness that Baby Jesus and his family are facing. So to say that as a policy prescription is an amazing thing for Eric Adams to say.
But all that aside, beneath all the rhetoric, there's a reality about immigrants in this country, which is they do a lot of work. And they do some of the most dangerous and the most difficult work, day in, day out. And they care for people that are the people that are the most beloved people in our lives and the people who are the nearest to death.
When an actual flood hits a place, the people that come in, ironically enough, tend to be huge armies of immigrant workers. I'm using armies there. It's another metaphor which just adds some interesting balance (ph) to it.
After Hurricane Ian in Florida, I mean, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, after Harvey in Houston, who are the people do you think that physically rebuilt places that have been destroyed? What do you think of the quotient or ratio the folks that did that work who are immigrants? Enormously high, right?
There is this dependence at the foundational level on the labor of immigrants in this country that is very, very easy to hide or overlook and to view as hidden. Or they're very easy to hide or overlook and just sort of take for granted.
And this tension between the fact that at almost the most practical level we need immigrants in this country and yet their presence does, of course, change the country, I think for the better, and makes the country more like itself in a sort of elevated way. This presence, this tension is shot through the entire immigration debate.
Part of what makes the immigration debate complicated and difficult and hard to solve, right, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is on the side of sometimes more immigrants, and the reason is because they want labors, but they want those labors without many rights. Because they would love to have people whose visas, for instance, depend on their employer because, are you going to tell your boss to go shove it if he can take you out of the country? Probably not.
So, there's a whole bunch of complicated power structures around immigration and they continue, I think, to bedevil us. And I wanted to talk to someone who sort of uniquely understands this conundrum because I think the immigration debate is very broken in the country and has gotten really nasty in a lot of ways.
And it's a guy who I met years ago. He was staging a play on the north side of Chicago when I was in Chicago. I think we had a mutual friend that was invited, too. And it was a play that was performed by people at a place called Kovler Center, associated with the Kovler Center, which is nonprofit, that worked with refugees from countries often fleeing political violence, often survivors of torture.
And it was a play that sort of reimagine Greek myths through the voices of these folks. And I still remember it to this day, this is 15, 20 years ago, and I remember being introduced to the guy who did it. It was a guy named Saket Soni who was kind of this fascinating, kind of jack of all trades. He was an immigrant rights organizer but also maybe a playwright. And he was definitely like a theater dude, because I can recognize a fellow theater dude the second I met him.
And I had sort of, through the years, kind of followed Saket and always remembered that interaction and always remembered how incredible that work was that I saw in this, I think it was a Chicago Park District building on the Lake Shore.
Well, Saket has a fantastic upcoming book. It's called "The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America" which shows this wild tale of basically a bunch of laborers from South Asia who are trafficked to the U.S. after New Orleans, after Katrina, and Saket's work to essentially organize and allow them to free themselves.
And he's also the Director of Resilience Force, which is a new national initiative that focuses on advocating on behalf of disaster recovery workers who very often are immigrant workers. So, it's a great joy to welcome Saket to the program.
Saket Soni: Thanks, Chris.
How amazing to reconnect with you when I remember that night when we met. And I'll just say, you know, those immigrants and refugees in that basement of the Park District building who were performing those plays would come out and bow and the audience, you know, would applaud and go home.
And what you don't know about those nights is after everybody went home, I'd close the door and lock it and sleep in the theater. I was undocumented during that time. Something that I'd hidden from other people, hidden from my family, I was living in Chicago as an undocumented immigrant.
And the work I'm doing now with Resilience Force and the book all goes back to that night, that time 20 years ago when we met. So, it's just amazing to reconnect with you from way back then.
Chris Hayes: Wait, tell me more about that. When did you come to the U.S. and from where?
Saket Soni: I'd come to the U.S. a few years before that from India. I grew up in Delhi. I came to Chicago as a foreign student. And after I graduated, I missed an immigration deadline and let my immigration status lapse.
And I didn't think it was a problem. I thought it was about as serious as an unreturned library book, and I had a lot of those. I just assumed it was something that could be fixed, a glitch in paperwork.
That may have been true at that time. But then 9/11 happened, and everything changed for immigrants --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: -- after 9/11.
And so, that theater project came out of stories and fears of immigrants and refugees living in Chicago, many of whom were economic migrants, many of whom were political refugees, most of whom like me were undocumented. But now had an additional threat, the compounded threat of post-9/11 enforcement policy, post 9/11 policing of immigrants after had been positioned as a threat.
So, you know, I was among the most stable and secure immigrants in America before 9/11. A foreign student at the University of Chicago who had convinced his parents, Indian parents, to let him pursue a theater career, maybe the only Indian parents whoever encouraged their son to pursue theater dreams.
Chris Hayes: Mom and dad, don't worry, the tuition is enormous. But I'm also going to be far away and also, I'm going to study theater.
Saket Soni: That's right. That's right. That's right. Something like that. And then 9/11 happened and I was living with this community of immigrants. We would go from house to house, you know, sleep 8 to 10 people in a place, and do theater in the day and eat and sleep at night while doing service jobs in restaurants to make money.
And actually, the environment during 9/11 got so bad that I almost didn’t make it. I lost my will. Things got so harsh that many people decided to leave.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Saket Soni: At some point, I decided to self-deport. I bought $1,000 plane ticket on Devon Street in Chicago, took the train to O'Hare airport and was almost out the door through security headed back to India when I decided to turn around and come back to Chicago to American life.
And I wish that I could say the reason was because I had some profound sort of, you know, recommitment to American democracy and I marched back into the lion's den to make a better life for myself and a better America. The truth was I'd gone to the airport in fear of what was in Chicago and then at the airport, encountered a wall of immigration agents standing behind TSA, lost my nerve, didn't think I'd make it to the flight and then ran back right back to Chicago.
But on the way back to Chicago --
Chris Hayes: Oh, man.
Saket Soni: -- that Blue Line train back to Chicago, that's what turned me into a community organizer. So I also now have the only Indian parents in the world who are actually happy that their son took on community organizing, maybe the only profession more lucrative than theater.
Chris Hayes: How old are you at that time?
Saket Soni: You know, I was in my mid-20s. Yeah.
Chris Hayes: You know, it's so interesting, and this is a little bit of a side note but I think an important one because I'd love to hear your thoughts on that where you’ve spent now decades working with immigrants, is one of the recurring themes of American life, and I don't know if this is true in other places but it's true here, which is, you know, the thing I hate most in my life, and I'm incredibly privileged individual, is like battling bureaucracy paperwork.
Like someone's got nine forms, you got to fill them out and then you got to send them to these different people. And even for a very high-functioning person, even for someone with lots of resources, it could be a difficult thing and, like you said, the unreturned library book, like their stuff on my to-do list I haven't done, you know, God, the car lease is up, I got to get on that.
The more marginalized you are in American society and the further you are from power, the higher stakes all of that bureaucratic paperwork is for you and the more of your life is spent navigating it and the worst things are if you miss it.
So, that's true for native-born Americans who don't have a lot of money and are dealing with various welfare agencies. It's true with folks who have investigations opened on them from child services. That can be incredibly difficult to navigate. It's true for immigration.
I mean, just the idea that you miss a deadline, it's true for people involved in a criminal justice system, right? They miss a warrant because they couldn’t get the day off work, or they just forgot, or they overslept, or they were hung over or whatever, and all of a sudden, you know, they miss a court date and now they have a warrant. Like, it's amazing how much and how high stakes bureaucratic interfaces are, the less privileged, the less power that you have in American life.
Saket Soni: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. And it also allows the gatekeepers of that knowledge --
Chris Hayes: Yes. Yes.
Saket Soni: -- to exercise an enormous amount of power over you. I remember when I learned I was undocumented, I was given the business card of an attorney. I took the train downtown. And Saul Goodman style, he had an office in the back of a much larger mall, you know. And he told me that if I fill out a form, he'd apply for my amnesty.
Well, you know, doing the research for the book years later, I mean, it's obvious how absurd that was. There was no amnesty insight. You know, there was talk of amnesty, but it wasn't that he had a form at his disposal --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: -- that was a legal form. But, you know, I sold my books to a secondhand store, to Powell's, to raise the money for that legal consultation. And again, I was in the 99th percentile --
Chris Hayes: Right. Right.
Saket Soni: --of privileged immigrants, spoke English, you know, could research things myself. So, yeah, I think that the bureaucracy is often part of a war of attrition on people that the system doesn't want to gain a foothold.
Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.
Chris Hayes: So, I want to get into your moving to New Orleans. But just before really this, how did you end up regularizing your status?
Saket Soni: You know, I got myself an H-1B visa working as a dramaturg for a small Chicago theater company. I ended up convincing a theater company to let me turn Salman Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" into a traveling play that would go from Chicago school to Chicago school. And for that, I convinced U.S. immigration to give me a short-term temporary visa.
And I went from a foreign student to an undocumented immigrant to a temporary guest worker and went from one visa to another until finally, I gained my status.
Chris Hayes: You end up in New Orleans after Katrina. How'd you end up down there?
Saket Soni: You know, I became a community organizer in Chicago, and I was knocking on doors in Chicago.
Chris Hayes: Were you organizing immigrants specifically or --
Saket Soni: I was assigned this turf in Chicago. And Chicago is, you know, organized within --
Chris Hayes: That's a very, very organizer (ph) speak --
Saket Soni: Yeah. Chicago has the highest density of organizers --
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Saket Soni: -- probably any city in America and --
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Saket Soni: -- when you become an organizer, someone scrawls on a map, or at least at that time scrawled on a map that --
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Saket Soni: And puts a dot on the middle of it, and that's where you go. And so, I would go there and that was a part of Chicago where a lot of African American residents lived. Many of these were older African American residents whose families were in Chicago because of the Great Migration, because of their --
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Saket Soni: -- own immigrant story. But in this case, from the South where lynchings and racial terror had driven them out and they had found their place in other parts of the country, in this case, in Chicago.
And I was knocking on doors one night, I'd become friends with them. They liked me. I had come over to their homes. I'd learn about their difficulties and their problems. And one night, when I was knocking on doors, I got a particularly hushed response as if this whole community suddenly was in mourning for something far away.
And I came in and sat down, it was August 2005, the end of August 2005, and I sat down and watched TV with them. And we watched Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath unfold. We watched New Orleans being flooded night after night, people being rescued from rooftops.
And it was really interesting, the liberal discourse at that time was this isn't America, how could this be happening in America. This is not what we expect from America.
But for these residents, people who knew the South, people who are African Americans who came from the southern United States, what they were saying, well, of course, this is America.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Saket Soni: Of course, this happened in New Orleans. Where else could it happen? And, of course, this is how they want to treat us.
And listening to them and talking to them and understanding and seeing, watching that event unfold through their eyes gave me the sense of mission. I knew those nights that I had to go. So, I picked up a bag, packed it and closed out my life in Chicago.
I actually went to New Orleans initially for two weeks to be a volunteer to do relief work for two weeks. I ended up staying 16 years.
Chris Hayes: Wow.
Saket Soni: And when I got there, what I saw was that the Gulf Coast had turned into the world's largest construction site and the people staffing most of the rebuilding after the hurricane were immigrants and low-wage African Americans. And where they were doing it from was at (ph) the hiring hub for the entire Gulf Coast, the place that all the contractors were driving up to in buses was a place called Lee Circle. And there, at 5 o'clock in the morning, under a 60-foot-tall monument to Robert E. Lee, were all these black and brown workers raising their hands, getting into buses, and being driven out to still dark, distant corners of the Gulf Coast.
I hop onto those buses and that's where I started talking to workers who were rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
Chris Hayes: You paint a picture of this in the book. By the way, the book, you're a remarkably good writer, which is not surprising --
Saket Soni: Thank you.
Chris Hayes: -- given your background. It's really, I would say, to people to pick it up because it's not, some nonfiction books can be a little bit of a slog (ph), this really reads like a novel. It's beautifully told.
But you paint this picture in the book and the kind of weird, you know, kind of Gothic quality to this and also the scope, which you get a sense of. I mean, when you think about the path of destruction of Katrina and how much needed to be rebuilt and how much labor was needed right away and that the huge population that left, right?
So there's not people around to hire. The people that you're hiring tend to be people who are coming there to get this work and are living in these very, very kind of liminal conditions.
Saket Soni: That's right. I remember a Christmas right after Katrina, the Christmas Eve in 2005, when I went to a place called City Park in New Orleans. Now, if you've been to city Park since then, if you've been there now, it is one of the most gorgeous parks in the country. It has thousand-year-old fees and just breathtaking landscape. It's a magical place.
After Katrina, it was completely dark and turned into a makeshift camp for workers from all over the country and beyond the United States who had come, who were sold Walmart tents by contractors and were living there. So, Christmas Eve dinner --
Chris Hayes: Wow.
Saket Soni: -- at City Park that night was in the dark, you know, in a misty night where the mist was hanging off the thick air and in each tent was a family of workers. And their pickup trucks' batteries were connected to stoves and there were, you know, Christmas turkeys cooking and Christmas stew in slow cookers, all plugged into car and truck batteries.
The next morning, I'd follow those workers out to Lee Circle. A community of, at some point, the people were removed from City Park and moved under a bridge. It was under the Claiborne highway. This was the Eisenhower-era highway that was built to ram through a very vibrant black business district and now is where the Claiborne Bridge is.
And under that bridge, the government had deposited all these cars that had been flooded after Katrina. These cars were now caked with mold inside and out. But they didn't belong to anybody anymore.
So, workers came in and opened up the doors and slept there. Hundreds of workers, sleeping inside cars under the Claiborne Bridge. Well, then the police came and charged those workers rent to stay in those cars. You know --
Chris Hayes: What?
Saket Soni: -- the hotels in New Orleans that were flooded out were turned into these camps for workers to be crammed into. And in the evening in those hotels, you know, there were people there to pick up workers and drop off workers, but there were also contractors playing poker and people running illegal bars.
And you talked about the jobs, there were local people coming back and --
Chris Hayes: Of course. Yeah.
Saket Soni: -- struggling to --
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yeah.
Saket Soni: -- come back to pick up those jobs, struggling. But what had happened was that people who were previously earning $14, $15, $16 an hour were finding that while they had been out, the jobs had changed to subcontracted jobs $4, $6, $7, $8 an hour. And nobody who lived there could afford a job like that.
Chris Hayes: Right. Right.
Saket Soni: So, their city really transformed. I got a front-row seat into how an American recovery is carried out. And that's what I was doing when I got the midnight call that led me to the workers that are the subject of the book.
Chris Hayes: Right. So, you're doing the work for me here. So, that perfectly segues to the midnight call. Take us through that midnight call and who called you.
Saket Soni: Well, it was on my birthday in New Orleans in 2007. I was in a car, an unheated car, close to midnight doing something that is not usually in the job description of a community organizer. It was a stakeout. I was there at the request of a worker supporting him to rescue his nephew from a smuggling ring.
This was an immigrant worker who was working in New Orleans whose nephew had been crossing the border from Honduras but had then been kidnapped. And we'd organized ransom money and he was waiting there to hand over the money while I was in the getaway car to drive away after the nephew was rescued.
And so, there I was, and my parents were calling, and I would send their calls to voicemail. My poor parents who could never get a hold of me. All they wanted was to wish me a happy birthday, and I was sending them to voicemail.
And then I got a phone call from a 228 number. So, 228 is the area code of the Mississippi Gulf Coast where Katrina made landfall. I'd sometimes get calls from workers there, so I picked up. And this particular worker, there were hundreds of workers who called every week, this particular worker felt distinct in one way and I soon figured out why. It was that he said my name the way it was supposed to be said in India. It turned out to be an Indian worker.
I'd never met or dreamed of meeting an Indian worker working the post-Katrina recovery. And he insisted on remaining anonymous. He wouldn't tell me who he was or where he was. But I went on a wild hunt, and he led me to what turned out to be a labor camp in Mississippi and another in Texas that across them held 500 or more Indian workers. They were trapped in this labor camp, couldn't get out and wanted my help.
Chris Hayes: How does your name sound incorrectly?
Saket Soni: Well, Saket is now even the way I say my name.
But the Indian, the Hindi way of saying is quite lovely, it's Saket. Unfortunately, it involves one or maybe two syllables that don't quite work in American English. It's a soft T at the end.
Chris Hayes: Saket. So, what did he tell you? What was the story he told you that night?
Saket Soni: Well, what he said was he needed to talk to a company man, and he asked me if I was a company man. And I didn't quite understand but figured out that what he was trying to get to was that he had been offered a green card, which is, for people who don't know, a green card is the Holy Grail of migrant workers around the world. It is the thing that, if you're not born in the United States, allows you to become a United States citizen. Very few people can get it. Very few people who are laborers can get it. It's usually a long process of being naturalized. It takes years to get a green card.
Chris Hayes: I think it's so, to me, fitting for folks who don't know this. There's a thing called the green card lottery. And it perfectly communicates what the green card means because it's like winning Powerball, right, if you get a green card.
Like, all of a sudden, like, you are legal and all these things that were impediments and there is an actual lottery where like your number comes up, you might get it, you might not. Most people, obviously, don’t. But it means something similar to winning the lottery to get a green card.
Saket Soni: That's right. That's right. And this man called because he thought he had won that lottery. He thought he had won the global laborers' Powerball --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: -- that would allow him as a migrant worker, the kind of Indian who was never let into the United States for permanent residency, for citizenship. A low-wage Indian worker who is not part of the elite, not part of the educated class.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: You know, people who are let in as scientists and medical professions, those are the Indians that one thinks of as getting green cards. This is a construction worker from India who is poor, you know, and reads only Hindi and Punjabi, who was led to believe he would get a green card for working at this company but didn't get it. He thought I was a company rep and demanded to know where it was.
As I spoke to more and more of these workers, my name got around and my number. They'd call me anonymously. And I pieced together that somebody had promised them a green card in India. In exchange for a green card though, they had paid $20,000 apiece. Now, $20,000 at that time in India was, you know, today's equivalent in America of half a million dollars. Money that no one has.
So, these workers banded together their families, sold ancestral land, took on extraordinary debt, put homes on the hock --
Chris Hayes: Mortgaged everything, basically.
Saket Soni: Mortgaged their future.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. Right. Right.
Saket Soni: Mortgaged generations of savings and their homes and farmlands and came to the United States. But now, they face the terrible realizations that the promises might be false. They were scared, they didn't know what to do and they started calling.
And I spoke to three of those workers and went on a search for them, went on a hunt. I initially thought, well, you know, there had been cases of Indian workers being deceived into coming in the United States three, four at a time in California, living in the basement of a restaurant owned by their uncle.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: So. I thought, well --
Chris Hayes: Right. Right.
Saket Soni: --this terrible labor model, business model, had perhaps been imported and was expecting a FEMA trailer full of three kitchen workers in it.
Chris Hayes: Right. Right. Right.
Saket Soni: They told me they'd meet me in a church that they called the Secret Catholic Church. I went on a hunt for the Secret Catholic Church. It turned out to be the Sacred Heart Catholic Church --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: -- in Pascagoula, Mississippi. And I opened the door and instead of three workers in the church, there were a hundred and they needed help.
Chris Hayes: How had they ended up there?
Saket Soni: So, this is the interesting part. The way they ended up there was as the result of a very fascinating trio, the kind of confluence of interests and growing friendship between a really fascinating cast of three characters.
A liberal, even progressive New Orleans attorney who was, you know, an expert on all things immigration and lived by the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, a man who saw his entire life's purpose as helping migrants; a second man who was a right-wing Mississippi cop and sometime radio personality; and a third man who was in India-based recruiter, the scion of a very prominent labor recruitment family in India, the son of a man who exported thousands of migrants to the Middle East and he had his own American dream, which was to start exporting Indians to the United States.
And so, these three people met and built what, you know, courts later deemed as a labor trafficking scheme. In fact, one of the largest modern-day labor trafficking schemes in U.S. history.
Chris Hayes: And these specific men, the reason that they were being recruited because actually these were skilled laborers, these are people that had a set of skills that were highly in demand at that time.
Saket Soni: That's right. That's right. You know, the Gulf Coast needed to be rebuilt and employers needed workers and these particular men were working for a giant Mississippi-based oil rebuilder, a Gulf Coast oil rig builder, that was, you know, owned by private equity, was positioning to go public and they were trying to solve multiple problems and decided they could do it by using these imported Indian workers.
They built a labor camp on company property. When I met the workers, they were building oil rigs in 24-hour shifts. So, you know, you had a day shift and a night shift rotating. So, the, you know, production was going 24 hours.
And then after each shift, they'd stumble home and home was a sardine can with 12 beds, 12 bunkbeds and 24 workers lived and slept in one trailer on company property.
Chris Hayes: Just to be clear and, you know, I have the belief that many have, there's no such thing as unskilled labor. But, you know, building an oil rig is work that is more difficult than putting up drywall, for instance. I mean, there's welding involved, there's a lot of metal.
Like, these were people that had some experience, right, in these kinds of activities before and had been brought there because of that experience. And then thought they were going to, at the end of this, get the dream of a green card. They now find themselves working in, you know, round-the-clock basically, sleeping 24 to a room. And are they getting paid, and do they know where they are, or do they have any way out?
Saket Soni: Well, their skills were exactly why they were there.
Chris Hayes: Right, they were recruited because they had them.
Saket Soni: That’s right. That's right. This whole thing started in the office of a liberal New Orleans attorney named Malvern Burnett. This is a man who, you know, considered himself the immigrants' best friend and this for him went all the way back to his childhood when his Catholic parents took in two Cuban refugees after what was called Operation Peter Pan when the U.S. government brought Cuban kids to the U.S. and resettled them because of the supposed reported threat of indoctrination in Cuba of these kids.
So, here's this young kid and he's, you know, learning to play baseball from these two Cuban refugees and the Cuban refugees eventually leave. But he keeps them in his heart, and he goes to college and then to the Peace Corps. Ad then when Reagan announced his amnesty, he puts up a sign, open for business.
He's still in law school but he opens up a legal practice. He's still clerking for a judge. He opens up a legal practice. And he's now committed to his life's mission which is to help strivers enter the United States.
Well, the problem is American politics changed. Reagan's amnesty is great. But after that, during the Clinton years --
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Saket Soni: -- there's no room for strivers to come into the U.S. Then during the Bush years, there's some hope but that’s dashed by 9/11 and immigration becomes the third rail of American politics.
And so, years have gone by and he's in his office when he gets a knock on his door and in walks Michael Pohl (ph), this Mississippi cop who has a business proposition and a question. The business proposition is there are all these shipyards in the Gulf Coast that really need cheap labor. There is a union drive. There's worker foment. You know, all of this is going on. This creates a big problem.
You know, workers are asking too much, and these shipyards and builders really need workers. But they need them fast, they need them cheap. And Michael Pohl (ph) has heard from a neighbor who's from India that there are lots of skilled workers in India. So, he asks Malvern to figure out a way to help him import them.
Malvern decides to, you know, use the U.S. guest worker program and on that day, a Mississippi cop and a liberal immigration attorney, who usually wouldn't see face-to-face on any issue in American politics, make a Faustian bargain and they start to bring in these workers.
Well, then Hurricane Katrina happens, the demand doubles and triples and Malvern decides to embrace the scheme. So, what you have is basically people who have spent their lives building the Middle East turning deserts into oil fields in Saudi Arabia.
Chris Hayes: Right. Right.
Saket Soni: You know, building palaces in the sky, building oil rigs that look like castles in the sky. And suddenly, these men are brought to the Gulf Coast to help repair crippled oil rigs after Katrina.
Chris Hayes: I've been thinking about this with like Sam Bankman-Fried and the crypto thing. Like, there's two ways to think about what his internal state was. One is that he knew he was basically pulling off a con and knew exactly what was happening, that I'm basically running a pyramid scheme and I need to be getting new money or I'm going to run out, which is what Madoff realized at the end.
And the other is he just thought, well, this is a capital squeeze, and this is actually a solid business plan, and we're just being squeezed on the margins here and we can get through it. And was kind of lying to himself a little bit, or delusional. The Attorney Burnett --
Saket Soni: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: -- like, does he realize what he's doing, is it a slippery slope, does he tell himself lies, is he delusional? Like, what do you understand about how he understood his role in the scheme?
Saket Soni: Yeah. That’s such an interesting question and I've wondered that a lot. So, there were so many parts of the scheme, and everybody was holding a corner of it.
The promise that the Attorney Malvern Burnett makes to the company executives is that he's going to bring in these workers for them on temporary visas and then they're going to be able to apply for their green cards and they're going to become legal workers. Now, he, as an immigration attorney, would have to know that's not possible.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Saket Soni: Right. Then there's the company officials. The company officials are branding themselves as bringing Mississippi back, bringing the Gulf Coast back, you know, a source of jobs and pride after Hurricane Katrina.
Well, what they decide to do is put a labor camp on company property hidden from people who live in Mississippi because if they were to bring in immigrant workers and place them in open Mississippi housing, openly visible, you know, their own residents would be upset with them. Mississippi neighbors would be upset with them. People who go to church with them would be upset with them.
So, they built a labor camp in company property, but they justify it by saying that, well, it's a lot better than the Indians have in India.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: Indians earn, you know, a dollar a day in India and here, they're earning, you know, closer to 15 and they live near where they work. So, the company executive, you know, said they'd probably be happy campers, you know.
A third part of the scheme was equally, you know, fascinating and filled with its own self-justification. When these workers felt finally that their dignity was impaired and when they started to resist, ask for things as basic as food other than frozen rice, you know, and stale pizza and tea in the morning, and when they wanted help and wanted to meet with outside groups, i.e., me, the company got the help of an ICE agent in Mississippi who advised them on how to run a private deportation.
So, the company sent in guards to pull the workers out of bed and deport them. Now, those are guards who were given orders. They carried out the orders. You know, I've met them. These are people who lived in Mississippi. They had these jobs and they actually bonded with these men. They liked the men.
But they had to justify their actions and I think this is a story of a system in which everybody thinks they're doing the right thing for the right reasons. But then the goalposts change and there's a lot of justification for doing something other than the right thing.
Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: I mean, it's an amazing story because, to me, it's a real allegory about so much, right, that people tell themselves plausible self-justifying stories about what they're doing, and in the aggregate, what's happened is monstrous, clearly monstrous.
Saket Soni: Evil.
Chris Hayes: Clearly, evil --
Saket Soni: Evil, absolutely.
Chris Hayes: -- evil and monstrous. These men are basically being kept as indentured servants, I think, you know, or they're forced labor. They are --
Saket Soni: Absolutely.
Chris Hayes: -- captive, right?
Saket Soni: And deemed to be so, by the way, by the U.S. government.
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Saket Soni: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: I'm walking a line here because this is such an incredible story that I want to, kind of, not give away all of because I do think people should read the book. You become involved in what is essentially a undercover organizing campaign in two different camps, one in Texas, one in Mississippi, that culminates in essentially a jailbreak, right, and then a march across the country.
I want to keep those stories hidden from the listener because I want, like, the storytelling there, I want them to experience in the book. But what is the ultimate result of this in terms of the fate of these men and the fate of the people that engineered the scheme?
Saket Soni: Well, the men and I worked for six months, almost a year, undercover and what happens next is part heist, part freedom march and part conspiracy thriller.
So, the men are on this journey all the way from New Orleans to Washington, being trailed by ICE agents, being applauded by some, jeered at by others. You know, traffic is whizzing by, bottles are flying towards them, but they carry on.
And the beautiful thing that happens along the way, they're marching through the South and the beautiful thing that happens along the way is that their march intertwines with past and present of the civil rights struggle in the South.
The people who supported them most, the people who came to their defense in Mississippi, the people who hosted them and hid them in New Orleans, the people who gave them sanctuary in churches, you know, as they needed to hide from ICE agents on their tail, immigration agents on their tail in North Carolina and Atlanta, were all elders in the civil rights movement who saw these workers and their struggle in essence part of the same story, the newest chapter in the same story, who criticized the idea that these workers needed to be returned to their employer, very clearly as a continuation of the same logic that created the fugitive laws, you know.
So, what ended up happening was that the struggle of 500 workers in a labor camp around their own conditions when it started getting intertwined with the civil rights struggle and when people across the South connected with these workers and gave their plight a name, it started shifting the conversation in the politics about these workers.
I also don't want to give very much away. But the big question throughout our march and the three-year-long struggle for justice for these workers was, you know, there are laws in place that protect workers exactly like this --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: -- from circumstances exactly like these.
Chris Hayes: Yes. What was happening is that it's plainly illegal, what they were doing, right, and subsequently found so by a court. This was not an aboveboard operation, I think, it's fair to say.
Saket Soni: No. And yet, you know, the reason it was allowed to continue and the reason, ultimately, a DOJ investigation, we found out later, was defanged was because of the smoking gun that we found, you know, through court depositions and court transcripts, which was, again, without giving too much away, the very ICE agent in charge of the investigation had actually been the ICE agent who helped the company and colluded with the company --
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: -- to keep the workers captive. And so, you know, what you get there is that at the end of the day, you know, a southern oil company, much like a southern plantation, has a kind of gravity of coercion and labor and has deep arms in law enforcement that helped company officials keep workers in their place and that's all of what these workers had to fight against.
And the funny thing, Chris, is that the hardest thing that I was up against with these workers wasn't their fear. It was actually their faith in America.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Saket Soni: These workers basically believed that they'd come to the greatest country on Earth, a nation of laws. And sure, they were in a labor camp because of some bad actors, but at the point where they escaped, when they got to Washington, they would get help. There was going to be an official there to take their complaint, and correct everything.
And particularly because they called the Department of Justice the department for justice. And so, they would say to me, it's right there in the name. We just got to get to the doorstep of the department for justice.
But what we found out was that even the department for justice had been co-opted by a bigger force, which was, you know, a deep connection between law enforcement and the people who ran the company.
Chris Hayes: So, one thing I think that's important about this story and, again, I want people to read the book because it's such an incredible tale, but this was not a one-off. I mean, Katrina, obviously, is somewhat sui generis just because of the scale of the destruction, because of the nature of New Orleans that it played out on national television, all of that stuff.
But the aftermath of a climate disaster, the need for reconstruction, huge surge of, you know, workers with very little power, either native-born American or immigrant, that just keeps happening over and over. And actually, you now have started this organization called Resilience Force that works at that intersection. So, tell me a little bit about that work.
Saket Soni: Yeah. That's right. You know, the thing I didn't know when I got that midnight call was that I was going to the aid of workers who were only the first of many, many workers I would meet in this new industry. I was actually meeting the first iteration of what's becoming an emerging new entire workforce that's rebuilding America after climate disasters.
Katrina was supposed to have been a once-in-a-hundred-year flood. That's what it was called at that time. It turned out that in the 17 years after Katrina, there have been over 200 billion-dollar disasters. That's 200 disasters that have caused a billion dollars of damage or more, and they have been across the country and, you know, these have been floods and fires and hurricanes.
And as the climate crisis has grown and as these disasters have become more frequent, and more intense, more destructive, the need for labor to rebuild and repair has grown. So, wherever these disasters hit, workers arrive. The workers follow the storms and we, at Resilience Force, follow the workers. We attend to them and we're trying to organize them.
And our ultimate vision is that there actually needs to be a permanent, well-treated, at-scale skilled workforce that helps America prepare for the climate crisis. What's happening now is there's a flood here, there's a fire there and workers arrive in their cars in the middle of the night and park and sleep outside of Home Depot and wake up in the morning. And billions of dollars of FEMA money and insurance money translate into repairs being carried out by workers who are susceptible to wage theft, to retaliation if they organize. They're falling off roofs. They're succumbing to accidents and even death.
And, you know, the ones that are there doing the work are hanging by a thread, and not enough. Many more workers are needed. And what we know now that we didn't during Hurricane Katrina and after was that, you know, these disasters can happen any time. The next disaster could happen day after tomorrow.
I remember when Hurricane Ida came and hit Louisiana, you know, where I work and then turned and went out to the northeast and hit Brooklyn where you live as a tropical storm. And so, it's really clear that we need this workforce.
Our work at Resilience Force is to protect the workers who are there but also to build out the workforce of the future that we need for climate adaptation.
Chris Hayes: So, you know, I think one of the great lessons, right, of COVID was, OK, when the world shut down, the chips are down and we're facing a once-in-a-century crisis, right? What's the most vital work? What's, you know, essential work?
Well, doctors and nurses, people that work in grocery stores, people that keep the grid running and the infrastructure running, people that work in meatpacking plants, delivery people on e-bikes, you know, going through city.
Saket Soni: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: It's definitely not the most highly compensated work. It's definitely not the most prestigious work. But like when you're at this basic level of is society going to keep functioning, you know, are the supply chain of toilet paper and food and all that stuff and drugs, the list of the work that's most essential doesn't look like any other category of work but it's a lot of fairly low-wage work, right, and low-power work.
And it's interesting that, you know, there's a corollary here, right, with this kind of work. Everything's been destroyed. Everything's been devastated. You absolutely need to start to get things built again, back up and running. Well, who's going to do that work?
And, again, it's essential work but it's not protected work, it's not prestigious work, it is not highly compensated work. You know, the wage the market grants to that labor is not commensurate with its value in a broader sense.
Saket Soni: Oh, that's absolutely right. I mean, you know, in brass tacks, a single school that gets flooded, a public school in Louisiana or Sonoma County, a school catches fire in California, a single public school, a small-sized public school can cost, you know, $140 million to repair.
Chris Hayes: Wow.
Saket Soni: The average wage of a worker working those repairs under six layers of subcontracting, you know, maybe the average worker is earning $9 an hour, right? So, there's a huge gap between the money coming into repairs and what's trickling down to the workers.
But I think that fact, the fact that that work is so essential, so needed, is also a lever for an extraordinary change. You know, the corollary that you're naming is absolutely right. I remember during the pandemic, we were on our roofs clapping for essential workers, right, the nurses, the doctors, the janitors cleaning the hospitals. And applause isn't enough, but it was still an extraordinary thing, an extraordinary act of recognition for these workers and the place that they were going, the frontline role they were playing.
Resilience workers are very similar. As disasters have become destructive, what we see is not just one building flooded or one home in disrepair. You come to a place after a hurricane or a fire and you have 17,000 homes at a time to be rebuilt.
There are cities in Louisiana that over the last successive two hurricanes have lost 80 percent of their affordable housing stock. And so, to rebuild those communities, you need an extraordinary number of workers and that's where there is an opening, an opening to do things differently because a disaster, because a tragedy happened to an entire community.
Do things differently in terms of wages and worker's rights; to do things differently in terms of the rules of recovery, who gets to come home and how and how quickly. But also, there's connection to be built between people who are working and the recipients and beneficiaries of their labor.
We've seen this especially to be true in places like Florida after Hurricane Ian. You know, we consistently followed the workers into very conservative communities filled with homeowners who, previous to the hurricane, thought they were against immigration and immigrants, right?
To come back to your original note, the flood they were primarily you concerned with during the election cycle was the flood of immigrants crossing the border, right, a catastrophe they did not want. Well, it turns out the catastrophe they were unprepared for was the flooding of their communities post-hurricane.
The people who are helping their communities come back who are literally helping rebuild their homes and schools and keeping, you know, a tax base intact and a city viable after the hurricane is the very immigrants they hated, the Honduran immigrants, the South Asian immigrants, the immigrants from Mexico.
And what we're seeing and utilizing is that opening to build new bonds and rebuild social fabric between those helping and those helped. You know, when a white worker and a Honduran worker are up there on a roof together after a hurricane, there's a special bond that is more unbreakable than before.
When a mayor trying to keep a tax base together after a hurricane hits the Florida Panhandle expresses gratitude to 40 immigrant laborers who just rebuilt city hall, there's a special bond that forms, and we try to use that to rebuild social fabric.
Chris Hayes: Saket Soni is the Director of Resilience Force, a national initiative that focuses on advocating on behalf of disaster recovery workers. He's a long-time labor organizer and author of this fantastic upcoming book you should definitely check out. It's called "The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America." The details there in that story are incredible and it's incredibly told.
Saket Soni, had you (ph) there, it's such a great pleasure to have you on.
Saket Soni: Thank you so much, Chris. So great to reconnect with you.
Chris Hayes: Well, once again, great thanks to Saket Soni. What an interesting dude, right? You can see why he made an impression when I met him 20 years ago.
We'd love to hear more stories from you. I'm particularly curious to hear people who have their own immigration story, whether that's undocumented or documented. I know when Saket was talking about, you know, going through the paperwork, I know it's just brutal for so many people.
So, we'd love to hear your stories on that or anything else. Tweet us with the #WITHpod, e-mail WITHpod@gmail.com. And be sure to follow us over on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.
"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.