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Freedom From Fear: Immigration Activists Honored at Netroots Nation Conference

The first annual Freedom From Fear Awards honored undocumented DREAM activists and others who work on behalf of immigrants.

On an otherwise uneventful Sunday at a small country church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, lay minister Mark Massey was greeted with an unusual sight.

Two unfamiliar Indian faces peered inside the church’s Pentecostal service apprehensively. Quietly, but resolutely, they made their way to the back of the church, settled in, and stayed until the end of the service. Massey approached the timid duo.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

The pair, heavy lidded and uneasy, didn’t trust Massey’s forthcoming demeanor. Sensing they were ill at ease, Massey urged them to attend one of his group’s Sunday dinners.

At dinner, their story began to unfold. The two men, skilled workers from India, were brought to the US to work at a factory across the street from the church called the Pickle Steel Company. One of them mentioned that he had a college degree in electrical engineering, to which Massey replied “To bring you here from India, you must be making good money.”

“Two dollars an hour,” the man responded.

At the time, Massey didn’t press the issue. He was convinced he had misunderstood them; the pair’s English was so poor that entire conversations were often lost in translation.

Reflecting on their exchange, Massey began to question his initial interpretation of their conversation. Perhaps the pair had spoken correctly. Still, he couldn’t believe they could be underpaid so dramatically and overtly below minimum wage. Concerned, he commissioned a man in Tulsa who was from the same state in India, and spoke the same language. The real story then emerged.

Their employer was John Nash Pickle, the owner of the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Pickle Steel Company. In October 2001, Pickle traveled to India, and brought 52 skilled workers with him back to Oklahoma to open his factory. The workers were hired under the false promise that they would be given medical insurance and eventually the resources to obtain green cards and bring their families to the United States.  But they were not greeted with health insurance or generous wages. Pickle’s wife met them at the factory, took their passports, and refused to return them.

Denied food, and packed into rooms like sardines, many workers began to realize that conditions at the Pickle factory were not what they were promised. Many of them had taken out loans to pursue this supposed “incredible” American opportunity.

Pickle himself had traveled to India to select his workers before bringing them to the States. He had seen crushing poverty firsthand: starvation, unbearable factory conditions and children bathing in putrid cesspools. He believed he was doing the Indians a favor. “You should be happy to have this food, because in India you were dying of hunger,” Pickle said. Those who spoke out were quickly deported to India. 

That Sunday night, deeply affected by their dinner conversation, Mark Massey offered his house to the two men and their fellow workers. Shortly after, fearing deportation, the men took him up on his offer. Massey drove his 8-passenger van to the factory to load up the workers and helped five of them escape.

Massey recalls: “One guy said to me: ‘I’m Hindu, will you still help me?’ I told him that’s what Christianity is about, helping each other.”

The next day, Massey showed up at the Pickle factory, where he implored John Pickle to give the workers back their passports. Pickle refused, so Massey sought legal help. During the time it took to get to court, Massey moved the 52 workers into his house, and transferred his family to a small rental property. Eventually, over 200 Indian workers testified in court. The judge found Pickle guilty of a long list of violations, including labor law violations, fraud and violation of minimum wage laws.