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José Gutierrez
Janitor and citizen

Around midnight on Saturday, July 19, 1997, four Deaf Mexicans walked into the 115th Precinct police station in Queens, New York, with a 3-page letter written in Spanish. The Mexicans—three men and a woman—left the station without turning the letter over to the police. They came back and left again . . . and finally, around 4 a.m., gave the letter to the police. It told a shocking story: an organized gang of smugglers, many of whom were Deaf Mexicans themselves, had been bringing in other Deaf Mexicans to Queens and holding them in slavery. They were recruited from schools for the deaf in Mexico and promised good jobs and comfortable living conditions. Instead, they were forced to put in 12- to 18-hour days peddling trinkets—keychains with miniature baseballs, bats, and gloves, screwdriver kits, or currency, pens, and U.S. flag pins—on the streets and in the subway trains and airports, for $1 apiece. All of their earnings had to be turned over to their bosses every night. If they returned without having sold their entire day’s quota, they were punished. They lived in illegally crowded, unhealthy conditions in two apartment houses, never had enough to eat, and were beaten and abused. They were also terrified.

Their going to the police was an act of courage, since they faced deportation by immigration authorities, and had already been threatened with death if they told anyone.

That same day, police rescued some 57 adults and 12 children, brought in interpreters, and began trying to piece together the story. At first, communication was very difficult, as the victims used a variety of modes: Mexican Sign Language, ASL, home signs, pidgin, and/or combinations. Several bosses and enforcers were picked up for questioning, although no arrests were made at first. Major Giuliani refused to turn the Mexicans over to Immigration and Naturalization Service (they would have been taken to a detention center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and processed for deportation) and insisted that they stay in New York under his jurisdiction until their legal status was determined. (The INS cooperated with Giuliani and the police.) Several of the children had been born in Queens, so they were U.S. citizens. Most of the adults turned out to be illegal immigrants.

The Mexicans were bused to the Westway Motel  in East Elmhurst, Queens, near LaGuardia Airport, which had originally been built to house tourists to the 1964-65 World’s Fair and later used to house the homeless. They had comfortable and clean quarters, and plenty to eat. Arrangements were made with the Red Cross and Lexington Center so they could receive the services they needed. Interrogation proceeded daily, with interpreters, and gradually the Mexicans opened up, telling their stories. They were technically under house arrest as witnesses to a crime. For the time being, they were safe, but they had no money, no source of income, and their prospects for the future were uncertain.

Bondage/peddling rings in several other cities were broken up, and numerous arrests and indictments were made, the perpetrators were brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced. After the trials were over, the Mexicans were free. Those who wanted to return to Mexico were flown back. Those who wanted to stay in New York were given support, education, and training at Lexington. Most of them, narly 40 or the 57, chose to stay. They found jobs and places to live.

And then what? Those who stayed in New York, how did they turn out? What happened to them? How did they do?

José Gutierrez was 17 when he was rescued from the Queens bondage ring, the youngest of the peddlers. He met Christina Gonzalez at Lexington. She was also Deaf, but born in the U.S. Her family treated José like one of their own. Through Christina, he found Fedcap, which provides training and jobs for people with disabilities. In 2007, he began working as a janitor at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island under a contract administered by AbilityOne, a federal program. He told a New York Times reporter that he had learned about the Statue of Liberty while a young child in Mexico, and that he was "thrilled" to know that he'd be working there. Several other Deaf Mexicans, likewise rescued from the bondage ring, also found jobs through Fedcap. And they're hard workers, too.

José lives in Astoria, leaves home shortly after 5 a.m. each weekday morning, takes an early-morning ferry to Ellis Island, and puts in a full day's work. He cleans bathrooms, empties the trash, dusts a giant world globe that shows the journeys of immigrants to the U.S., and gets the center ready for its daily throng of visitors. He earns $20 per hour plus benefits, and has a green card.

On Tuesday, June 22, 2010, at the Fedcap graduation ceremonies, José Gutierrez received a special award for excellence. Overwhelmed and touched, he signed to the audience, “Thank you. Thank you.”

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