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Home of the freed

Former Thai slave laborers, liberated from an El Monte sweatshop in 1995, become U.S. citizens.

August 14, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Maliwan Clinton recalls her first taste of America with a shudder. In this fabled land of the free, she was enslaved behind razor wire and around-the-clock guards in an El Monte sweatshop, where she and more than 70 other Thai laborers were forced to work 18-hour days for what amounted to less than a dollar an hour.

When she was freed, a shocked public learned of slavery in its midst and flooded the Thai laborers with American generosity: Churchgoers offered shelter, community advocates proffered English lessons and job tips, lawyers fought for work permits and legal status for the group.

Exactly 13 years to the day the Thai laborers won their freedom, Clinton's American journey came full circle Wednesday as she acquired U.S. citizenship by taking the oath of allegiance to her new nation.

"I'm an American and this is my home now!" said Clinton, 39, as she waved a miniature American flag at the Montebello ceremony, where more than 3,600 citizens were scheduled to be sworn in by day's end.

Another former slave laborer, Sukanya Chuai Ngan, was also granted citizenship Wednesday. The two women are among dozens of the El Monte workers who have acquired citizenship this year or expect to do so soon.

More than 40 of them had gathered Sunday to celebrate with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which successfully fought for a $4-million settlement from manufacturers and retailers for their exploitation and won an uphill battle to gain legal status for the workers.

"Because of their courage, they were able to take what was a horrific experience and emerge from it as victors," said the legal center's Julie Su, their lead attorney for 13 years. "I'm really proud of them, but I'm also proud of America because this nation opened its arms to them and showed its best ideals of freedom and human rights."

The El Monte case drew international attention, blazed new paths in immigration and labor law, led to legislation offering visas for victims of human trafficking and became the subject of an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.

The case marked the first time in federal court that garment workers successfully held manufacturers and retailers responsible for the actions of their labor contractor.

It was the shocking nature of modern-day slavery in such a nondescript American neighborhood that so riveted the nation, Su said.

Ultimately, law enforcement officers arrested eight operators of a Chinese Thai garment sweatshop in an early morning raid in August 1995 and freed 72 Thai immigrants, some of whom had been held captive for at least four years.

As they celebrated their journeys to citizenship Sunday with American flags and certificates as "American heroes" from the Asian legal center, the former captives reminisced, often tearfully, over their trials.

Most of them said they came from impoverished farming families and had headed to the metropolis of Bangkok to find sewing jobs. There, they met labor contractors who promised them good jobs in America and monthly pay of $1,000 -- nearly 10 times what some were earning in Thailand.

They were told they would work 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with weekends off to see the glamorous sights of Los Angeles.

But the reality was vastly different.

Buppha Chaemchoi, 37, said she was shocked to arrive in El Monte and realize that she would sleep crammed in one bedroom on the floor with nine others. The windows had been boarded up, she said, allowing virtually no sunlight. Her captors told her that if she tried to escape, brutal U.S. police would shave her head and stamp her scalp with marks of disgrace, she said.

"It made me worry and want to stay inside and just wait for my three-year contract to end," Chaemchoi said.

Chuai Ngan, 47, who came to the U.S. in 1993, said she also was intimidated with threats that her family would be harmed and their home in Thailand burned down if she attempted to leave.

Not all captives were willing to accept their fate, however.

Win Chuai Ngan, the 51-year-old husband of Sukanya, was the first to escape from El Monte. As one of the few male laborers, he said, he was allowed to go outside to take out the trash and help move sewing machines and other heavy supplies into the complex.

One day, he said, he saw a Thai newspaper in the trash, surreptitiously tore out the phone number for a Thai temple and kept it hidden in his pocket. In November 1992, he made his move -- jumping over the fence in the middle of the night. He ran to a taxi stand and asked to be taken to the temple.

"I was so scared the owner would see me and kill me," Win Chuai Ngan said.

He said he told his story to Thai authorities and newspapers in Los Angeles, and gave them an address label for the El Monte complex that he had torn from the newspaper.

But he said he did not report it to U.S. law enforcement officials because he was scared they would deport him.

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