Slavery issue surfaces in federal probe in Los Angeles

Against the backdrop of a national debate on illegal immigration, a disturbing new dimension of exploitation may have come to light here: slavery.

The controversy stems from a federal crackdown on a ring of people allegedly operating in wealthy Beverly Hills and parts of Los Angeles -- an operation which, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, used fraudulent means to bring at least 30 Indonesians to Los Angeles. They were then, according to an FBI agent, ''sold'' as indentured servants for $1,500 to $3,000 each.

Although the federal government is not expected to reveal details of its 11 -month investigation until the case is presented to a federal grand jury sometime next week, the case raises troubling questions about the exploitation of individuals drawn to this country in search of a better life.

According to Omer G. Sewell, deputy district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, ''fraud was definitely involved'' in obtaining visas for Indonesians, who are believed to have been recruited in their home country by an Indonesian national and then flown to the US. They were allegedly sold to individuals in this country, who, federal investigators say, kept the illegal immigrants in servitude for up to two years. Felony charges of violating involuntary servitude and conspiracy laws may, according to federal officials, be lodged against individuals involved in the ring. Some of the people under investigation have reportedly denied that the Indonesians were held against their will.

It is not ununusual, explains Mr. Sewell, for the INS to run into cases involving the smuggling of individual illegal immigrants into the US for work as household servants or factory workers. What sets the current case apart from the norm, he says, is the ''size and scope'' of the operation, and the fact that individuals were flown in from thousands of miles away, not simply smuggled a short distance over a US border.

''It's a commercial operation,'' he claims. He adds, however, that the INS is not aware of any other such operations in LA, and that the federal crackdown, which involved a sweep of several homes and businesses on Jan. 26, has ''definitely stopped this ring.''

Some of the employers subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating the case have told reporters that they have paid salaries to the Indonesians, in addition to providing room and board. But in some cases, employers allegedly took passports and papers away from the Indonesians. Federal authorities say the Indonesians likely were lured to this country with the promise of a salary much greater than what they could have hoped to earn at home.

Daniel Lev, a professor at the University of Washington and an expert on Indonesia, explains that the economic incentive to leave that country is great. The country, he says, has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Southeast Asia.

''It's easy to find lots of poor people,'' he says. ''These individuals were probably right out of the villages, with inadequate land, and incomes of much, much less than $100 a year. . . . Undoubtedly an Indonesian recruiter approached them, and made them an offer, what seemed like a way to get out of their economic difficulties.''

It is not surprising that Indonesians would accept such an offer, says Mr. Lev, who explains that in Indonesia it is not unusual for individuals to go abroad and work as a servant, earn substantially more money than they could in their own country, and then return home after a few years.

Nor is the question of enslavement of Indonesians a new problem. In fact, says Mr. Lev, it dates back to the turn of the century, when the Dutch lured residents of the Indonesian island of Java to plantations in Sumatra with the promise of paying jobs. Once the Indonesians arrived in Sumatra, he explains, they became indentured servants - and descendants of these individuals still live in Sumatra today. Although Los Angeles attracts thousands of illegal immigrants from Mexico, it also has been a natural magnet for immigrants, both legal and illegal, from Asia.

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