NEW YORK -- Seven Mexican immigrants were arrested yesterday on charges of running a smuggling ring that sneaked scores of deaf Mexicans across the border, stashed them in safe houses in California, flew them to New York City and forced them, under threat of beatings, to work as trinket vendors in the subways.
An eighth suspect, Reinaldo Paoletti, who is considered the ringleader, is still at large, and authorities are searching for him in the United States and Mexico. Four of those arrested are also members of the Paoletti family, which kept a tyrannical reign over two apartments crowded with deaf Mexicans in Jackson Heights, Queens, officials said.
Yesterday morning, 57 of the Mexicans, including three pregnant women and 12 young children, ate waffles at the Westway Motor Inn in Elmhurst, Queens, as immigration authorities determined that almost all were illegal immigrants.
Although federal immigration officials had been set to bus them to a county jail Saturday night in Pennsylvania, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani insisted that they remain in New York City custody as crime victims and witnesses.
"At least some of the people here have been through a very terrible ordeal that should not happen to anyone," the mayor said, after leaving the motel yesterday. "The allegations are that these people were brought here under false pretense. They were told they would be able to make a living and to live decently here. One man told me that one of the bosses slapped his children. I spoke to one child who had some scars around his eyes from a beating."
Hundreds of other deaf Mexicans have moved north recently to sell trinkets in U.S. cities, driven away by intolerance and drawn north by a perception of greater opportunity, according to the director of the National School for the Deaf in Mexico City.
Jose Badilla Huerta said he had visited small communities of TTC deaf Mexicans in Los Angeles; Long Beach, Calif.; Chicago; and Rochester, N.Y. Although their lot is miserable, he said, he does not believe they are enduring the kind of forced-labor conditions that existed in New York City.
In their enforced New York routine, the undocumented immigrants would leave their apartments before dawn wearing backpacks filled with a hundred $1 key chains. All day they crisscrossed the city by train, timidly putting the trinkets next to subway riders with a card reading: "I am deaf."
They often worked until midnight because if they returned without $100 in earnings, they would be slapped or punched, police say. They had two days off a month.
They did not go completely unnoticed by city authorities. On at least one occasion before Saturday's raid, police officers and city emergency workers went to one of the two apartments to aid a woman who refused their offers of medical attention. On another occasion, a building inspector visited. Nothing came of either incursion into their world.
Federal authorities arrested and charged four Mexicans -- including Alfredo Rustrian Paoletti, 37, whom the immigrants called "the boss" -- in Queens with smuggling, transporting and harboring immigrants. New York police arrested three others accused of slapping and punching Mexicans who would not work, threatening them with injury and stealing their proceeds at day's end.
Some of those arrested understood and spoke Spanish. Others appeared to be as deaf and mute as their victims; they apparently served as "the crew chiefs, or enforcers, who were under the bosses and over the worker bees," said Daniel Molerio, an assistant district director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York. The enforcers appeared to be living with the undocumented immigrants; $30,000 in cash was found in one of the apartments.
The criminal charges came after four of the deaf Mexicans went to a police station and turned over a three-page letter in Spanish early Saturday.
Pub Date: 7/21/97