American dream on hold for Indians Couple arrested in
base raid last week
(Last updated Thursday, Jan 27, 2000)
By Sig Christenson Express-News Staff Writer
Venugopal Sabbani and his wife, Rajshree Row, now five
months pregnant, came to the United States to work and, perchance, to dream.
But their tranquil, relatively obscure lives as computer
programmers at Randolph AFB abruptly ended last week when they and 38 other
Indian nationals were arrested by U.S. immigration agents.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service raid at the
Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph turned their American dream into a living
nightmare, one in which the fear of deportation is punctuated by haunting
memories of being handcuffed as co-workers looked on.
"I have done nothing wrong here," Sabbani, 31,
said, repeating it at times like a mantra. "I have nothing against the
country. "I like the country."
The INS has not accused Sabbani, his wife or the other
workers jailed in the Randolph raid of knowingly being involved in a type of
visa fraud dubbed "body shopping."
The agency alleges that two Houston-based firms
subcontracting for AFPC’s prime contractor on two computer projects may have
broken the law by claiming they’d place the workers in Houston, then later
shifting them to San Antonio. The companies,
Frontier Consulting Inc. and Softech Consulting Inc., deny violating any laws,
Alamo City attorney Joe De Mott said. He said the
dispute centers over whether the firms, which helped the Indians obtain visas
allowing them to work in the United States, were their employers, and whether
the firms skirted federal rules requiring Labor Department approval to move the
Indians to San Antonio.
It was the Indians, however, who were taken to an INS
detention center, where 27 later were freed on $5,000 bond. Another 13 were
released on their own recognizance pending further investigation. They
are likely to face court hearings next week that could lead to their
deportation. It’s a tough turn for the programmers,
who were brought to the United States on behalf of high-tech firms desperately
in search of talented, degreed professionals.
"We felt so humiliated when they handcuffed us in
front of our fellow colleagues and paraded us down through the hallways looking
for their van," a group of the Indians stated in an e-mail message sent to
the San Antonio Express-News. The group members
declined to identify themselves or submit to an interview, but their outrage was
echoed Thursday by Indian Ambassador Naresh Chandra. "In
India, we are not used to handcuffing decent people," he said by phone,
explaining that such restraints are only used if a person is a flight risk.
"These are not pickpockets, thieves or infiltrators. They are people who
are doing their work."
Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl
Inderfurth this week told Chandra he regretted the incident and expects a report
from the INS, State Department spokesman Len Scensny said. Thomas
Homan, the INS assistant district director of criminal investigations, defended
handcuffing the workers, saying it’s required by policy. He also noted that
eight INS agents, all wearing business suits with their sidearms hidden, were on
hand to arrest the programmers.
As AFPC began the week with its own investigation, 13 of
the Indians returned to work. Several, though, called in sick Thursday, reducing
the number of Indian programmers there from a high of 76 to 25, said Lee Allen,
a spokesman for ACS Government Services Group. ACS
is the prime contractor. "I think they’re
scared," Allen said.
"They want to fight," De Mott said.
"They’re a little angry, a little apprehensive." Sabbani
and his wife just would like to go to work. The rent on their one-bedroom
apartment in Universal City, $505, is due Tuesday. Then there’s the $400 monthly
payment on his 1999 Toyota Corolla due Feb. 18. He and his wife went grocery
shopping Thursday and have enough food to last a week or so. They
are digging into their savings, but will be broke in a month or two without
help. ACS’ Lee said he "could imagine" the subcontractors were
arranging to help the families but conceded, "I haven’t any clue."
Sabbani, in turn, is just as clueless about how things
soured so fast. "We have been having a normal
life," he said. "We’re expecting a baby and were happy, and suddenly
this happens." Sabbani’s sojourn to America
began with a phone call from Frontier in May 1997. Holding master’s degrees in
computer applications and business administration, he won a job offer after
fielding questions from his house in Hyderabad, a city in southern India.
Once in America, he began working at Randolph as a software
trouble-shooter. Rajshree Row, who has three master’s degrees, has worked at
AFPC for three months. Drawn to America because
"this is the Number One country," a place of opportunity and myriad
personal freedoms, Sabbani is fascinated by its history and heroes. He has read
of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and said he had dreamed of staying
here after his six-year visa expired. But now
Sabbani and his wife spend their days at their apartment where he reads
"The Winning Attitude," a motivational book.
Both wait. And hope. "We
don’t like to sit at home," he said. "That’s the worst part."
Source: San Antonio Express News