Organizer Saket Soni’s book ‘The Great Escape’ is an immigrant story with a happy ending


THE GREAT ESCAPE is a story of forced labor and immigrant dreams in America.

It began with a midnight phone call.

“When my parents called me the night of my 29th birthday, Nov. 26, 2006, I was lying in wait for a human smuggler.”

So begins Labor Organizer Saket Soni’s book, The Great Escape (Algonquin Books/$28), a story of how Soni managed to get 500 Indian immigrants out of wretched labor camps to freedom.

The phone call was not from Soni’s parents – it was from an Indian immigrant wanting Soni’s help.

“It turned out he was one of 500 workers who had been brought over from New Delhi, India, and put in these labor camps,” Soni said. “So, I went on a hunt and found the camps and the workers, started meeting with them clandestinely, and eventually helped them escape.

During this endeavor, Soni realized he was dealing with human trafficking, and co-founded the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Under his leadership, the organization won organizing and policy victories for U.S.-born and immigrant workers engaged in the reconstruction of New Orleans.

Soni led a combined organizing and legal strategy to combat human trafficking, resulting in a federal court awarding over $14 million in damages to migrant resilience workers rebuilding the Gulf Coast. In 2011, Soni founded the National Guestworker Alliance, an organization focused on defending the human rights and dignity of guest workers in America.

His Resilience Force is another component of his network of organizations that mobilizes left-leaning constituencies across various issue areas, supports his campaigns in post-disaster regions.

Grants from organizations like the Ford Foundation and Jobs With Justice, which has an arm in Missouri, fund his nonprofits.

Crystal Brigman Mahaney, communications director for Missouri JWJ and member of the United Media Guild, said her organization is very much aligned with Resilience Force.

“He is building a movement that is working for workers regardless of where we come from, our zip code, how we look, who we love, and being able to push forward together,” she said.

“We agree with what he says about the fundamentals of organizing and how that relates through all of our sectors and how we have a long history together working for each other and all of our issues,” she said.

JWJ Executive Director Caitlyn Adams said, “Saket is a global leader and activist for the rights of all workers, especially immigrant workers on the front lines of so many critical industries in this country. Saket has been an instrumental partner and ally in the JWJ network and his work and organization will continue to win victories for workers in their workplaces and communities.”

Soni told his story at the Staenberg Family Complex as part of the St. Louis County Library’s speaker series.


“I came here to study and was running a small theater company in Chicago when I missed an immigration deadline,” he said.

“A refugee services organization, where I was volunteering, wanted to hire me and couldn’t because I missed the deadline,” he said. “Then 9 /11 happened, and I lost my foothold in normal American life.”

He describes how attitudes toward immigrants shifted. On that fateful day, he was taking his everyday train journey to work. He saw people looking at him and felt their hostility. One person pointed to his book bag and asked him if that was a bomb.

“I got off the train because the comment so jarred me, and it turned out that day was 9/11,” he said. “I hadn’t seen the news yet about terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center.

“This was followed by many policies, practices, and shifts in attitude that wrongfully scapegoated immigrants,” he said.

He was also defending friends from an unfair immigration system targeting them. That propelled him into organizing, and with Chicago having a rich organizing tradition, many community organizers took Soni under their wing.

However, his real training in organizing began when he went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to volunteer. He arrived on Christmas Eve 2005, intending to stay 10 days, and ended up staying 16 years.

“And part of the reason I stayed there was this mysterious midnight phone call that I got that led me to these Indian workers,” he said.

Signal International LLC was the corporation behind getting these 500 Indian workers to the Gulf with promises of green cards, having their families join them in nine months, and money to send back to their relatives.

None of that was true. The men were in labor camps surrounded by barbed wire, staying in trailers, each housing 24 men, who ate frozen rice and moldy bread.

“They had arrived in late 2006, so I had been there a year, and the Gulf Coast was the world’s largest construction site,” he said. “The people who put up the tarps covering roofs were immigrants from South and Central America. I was running a small nonprofit to protect them. That’s what I was doing when I got the call.”

Soni got many calls from Black or Latin American workers who knew he ran a nonprofit and wanted his help in solving problems like not being paid or having an accident.

After getting the call from the Indian worker, he hunted and finally found the labor camps and workers. He started meeting with them clandestinely to eventually help them escape.

Wanting the audience to buy his book, Soni did not divulge how he freed the workers and the methods that brought Signal to justice.

He did, however, talk about the corrupt ICE agents within the Department of Justice that threw roadblocks in Soni’s way.

“The ICE agents were so powerful and good at their machinations that despite the support of unions and civil rights groups, Democrats backed away, and the government stalled,” he said. “It wasn’t until much later that the arc of justice, which was supposed to take 10 days to 10 weeks, wound up taking three years because of the involvement of ICE, and it wasn’t until the end that we found the smoking gun that changed everyone’s life and we won the campaign.

“It is an immigration story with a happy ending,” he said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top