Hundreds of white-collar, middle-class Koreans, desperate to immigrate to the United States, are paying as much as $30,000 each to work in chicken plants on the Eastern Shore.
Immigration brokers advertise the poultry jobs in Korean newspapers as a shortcut to the United States. Koreans who respond pay $10,000 to $30,000 in fees and promise to work for a year in processing plants, according to interviews with about 50 current and former poultry workers.
When they are hired, they receive legal permanent U.S. residency for themselves and their families under a federal program designed to fill unskilled jobs. For some, the process shortens a possible 15-year wait to immigrate. For others, it is the only legal means of coming to America.
Under the program, U.S. companies can import foreign workers once they prove to the Labor Department that they have advertised and recruited extensively yet still have openings. About 10,000 people a year become permanent U.S. residents under the program, which is used by such industries as hotels, maid services and chicken processing companies.
The companies file for the work visas, but it is often middleman agencies and brokers who recruit the specific individuals who will fill the positions.
The Koreans come to work in slaughterhouses with one primary goal: bringing their children to the United States for what they believe are better educational and economic opportunities. Most are middle-aged bankers, lawyers and managers who spend their life savings to get the jobs and then find themselves handling work far more difficult than they imagined.
For Koreans coming to the Eastern Shore chicken industry, often there is another hurdle. Workers said in interviews that the Baltimore employment broker who controls most local deals requires a $5,000 deposit that he holds in escrow until the Koreans complete a year's work.
"It's like slavery," said Chan Hoo Choi, 37, who works at Perdue's Showell, Md., plant, cutting livers from chickens passing by on a conveyor line at 24 per minute. In Korea, Choi was a homemaker and her husband, Young Soo, a food company supervisor. "We were told American plants were automated and that we didn't have to do so much manual labor," she said, speaking in Korean. "They lied to us."
A Perdue official said this week that the company was not aware of the $5,000 deposit paid by the workers until questioned by a reporter. As a result, she said, the company has begun an internal investigation into the transactions.
"That was truly a shock to us," said Tita Cherrier, a Perdue spokeswoman. "That allegation about the $5,000, that was serious news to us. We are conducting an internal investigation, and depending on the results, we will definitely reassess how we are going to conduct the remaining portion of the program."
The little-known and lucrative traffic began more than two decades ago. It is dominated locally by the Baltimore broker, Tai Young Lee, a former professor and prominent Korean American businessman.
The workers arriving at Showell through Lee's connections come under an arrangement that predates Perdue's 1995 purchase of the plant, Cherrier said. Perdue does not use employment brokers or recruiters, she said, but as part of its purchase agreement said it would honor visa applications made by the previous owners.
The Koreans still arriving have been in the pipeline for years or took the place of someone else already on the waiting list, Cherrier said. It could take a few more years to clear the backlog, but Perdue "can't wait to get out of this," she added. There are about 70 Koreans currently at the plant.
"We don't want to be associated with it because we don't believe in going to other countries," Cherrier said. "We believe in hiring from the community."
Labor Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said they were unaware brokering existed. Only company names appear on official documents seeking the visas, "so we don't know they [brokers] are out there," said James Norris, chief of the Labor Department's labor certification division, which administers the program.
No law or regulation governs financial transactions between brokers and the would-be chicken workers, meaning brokers can charge whatever the traffic will bear. Competition for these spots is so fierce that there is a seven-year backlog of applications. U.S. law forbids requiring the worker to stay in the job for a fixed time as a condition for obtaining a green card--the certificate that says a noncitizen is entitled to live and work permanently in the United States. But immigration brokers have found a way to enforce the term without running afoul of the law by combining legitimate contracts with other practices that leave the impression that workers must complete a year's work.
"In reality, you can say it's one year of work in exchange for a green card," said Lee, the Baltimore broker. "Legally there is no term requirement. It's like a gentleman's agreement."
The Korean workers interviewed said the contracts they signed do not stipulate a term of work. They formed the impression that they must remain in the jobs for a year, however, in part through the notice they received when they were directed to wire a deposit to Lee's bank account. That notice, in Korean, states that "when the agreement is performed (1 year of work) , we will pay back the full amount." In addition, the workers said, an information sheet about the chicken jobs they received when they first applied at the agency in Korea stated, without explanation, "Term: One Year."
The workers said they received their green cards within one to six months of arriving at slaughterhouses. Few left for another job even then, they said, because they wrongly feared their green card could be revoked or their future citizenship put in jeopardy. They also said they wanted to be sure they would get a return of their deposit.
Lee acknowledged that he began requiring deposits to help ensure workers that stayed at the plants for a year, in an industry where as many as 20 percent of employees leave after three months. "It's something we had to do to maintain the credibility and the integrity of the program" with employers, he explained.
"I'm not doing anything wrong, morally or ethically," said Lee, who declined to say how much he earns in the transactions with Korean workers. The agency in Korea, not he, collects the application and processing fees, Lee said, although he said he receives a portion of the money. "I'm just trying to help people come to the United States in a way that's mutually beneficial to the poultry industry and the individuals," Lee said.
An official with the agency in Seoul said that once the agency receives money from a prospective worker, most of it goes back to Lee. The "bulk of the fee would be sent by Hyundai to the U.S. broker, in this case the Lees," said Kyu-Ho Kim, director of Hyundai Emmigration Development Corp.
Even after paying the application fees, Korean workers normally wait six or seven years before they receive permission to immigrate. But the process can be hastened if someone drops out and another worker's name is substituted.
About one-third of the workers interviewed said they were substitutes and had paid fees between $25,000 and $30,000 for the faster process.
The Labor Department, citing "the potential for abuse" and reports of a "reputed secondary market involving the sale of labor certification," tried in the early 1990s to outlaw substitutions, but a court blocked that attempt, saying not enough public notice of the policy change had been given.
Labor and immigration experts say the brokering is reminiscent of the Colonial-era practice of indentured labor, in which European immigrants worked for seven years as servants in exchange for passage to America. "The whole thing is quite abhorrent," said Elliott Lichtman, a longtime immigration lawyer in Washington, who expressed surprise that such a practice was still legally taking place. "This is truly outrageous."
During fiscal 1999, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul issued 360 visas for Koreans headed to work in poultry plants. Some brokers deliver workers to poultry companies in southern Virginia, North Carolina and Arkansas.
Every year, 150 to 200 Korean workers come to Delmarva, where five companies run a dozen slaughterhouses on the peninsula that includes parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia east of the Chesapeake Bay. Most live in Salisbury, headquarters of Perdue Farms Inc., and the largest single group works at Showell.
As soon as they complete a year of work, they move on, many to join the Korean American communities in Washington and Baltimore. Former chicken workers run liquor stores in the District, a doughnut shop in Gaithersburg and a dry cleaner in Manassas.
"It's very attractive to Koreans because they can get here quickly and bring their family," said the Rev. Kyung Mo Koo, whose former Korean congregation in Salisbury helped settle the workers. "But once they're done here, they move elsewhere as quickly as possible to start a new life."
One Family's Saga
At first, the advertisement in one of Korea's largest daily newspapers seemed too good to be true for the Chois. They had dreamed of immigrating to the United States, but without close relatives who could sponsor them, the possibility seemed remote.
Current immigration policy gives priority to spouses, parents and unmarried children of U.S. citizens. Others such as siblings or professionals with exceptional skills are placed in a waiting line.
"People who don't have skills, experience or family, this is the best way to legally immigrate to get the green card," read an advertisement in the Korea Times last August, adding that the "whole family can get it too."
On Aug. 27, 1990, the Chois walked into downtown Seoul's plush Koreana Hotel and the offices of Hyundai Emmigration Development Corp., an intermediary of Lee, the Baltimore-based broker, and signed a lengthy contract.
Documents from the Korean agency and Lee, wire transfer records and letters kept by the Chois and reviewed by The Washington Post detail the family's financial transactions as they pursued the visas.
The Chois were required to pay $3,250 into Lee's U.S. bank account. Another $3,250 would be due once the Labor Department approved their application. For acting as intermediary, Hyundai Emmigration was to be paid 450,000 won, or about $550. The fees have since doubled, according to workers who have arrived recently.
In return, the agency pledged to secure an employment agreement with a U.S. poultry firm and all necessary Labor Department and INS permits and approvals. It would take about four years, the agency told the Chois. Their money would be refunded only if the broker or the employer canceled the deal.
Back in the United States, the broker, Lee, submitted the couple's name to Mid-State Farms, a North Carolina firm that was later acquired by Perdue. A month later, the firm petitioned the Labor Department for a permanent labor certificate for the Chois. Lee submitted an application for the Chois to the INS for their permanent work visas, which were approved three years later.
But in 1995, Perdue bought Mid-State Farms, complicating and delaying the process for the Chois. Eventually Choi's application was transferred to Perdue's Showell plant.
Meanwhile, Young Soo Choi became a victim of South Korea's paternalistic employment system. Because workers in Korea traditionally are expected to stay a lifetime in their jobs, many employers refuse to hire people seeking to leave the country. Choi was laid off, unable to find a job as a manager, and found himself driving a taxicab to support his family.
As the waiting turned from months to years, the Chois said they became anxious and seriously began debating whether to immigrate. But a perplexing letter strengthened their resolve.
The March 1996 letter from the Korean intermediary accused them of not providing appropriate documents. It warned that the U.S. employer could withdraw the job offer.
The Chois now say that the letter was an effort to replace them with a substitute willing to pay more to get on the waiting list.
The Chois refused to drop out. They received another letter from the Korean intermediary, this time asking the couple to wire an additional $5,000 to Lee and providing the account number.
The money, according to the letter, was a deposit that Lee would hold in a NationsBank escrow account until they finished their one-year work commitment.
"Majority of chicken butchers finish their job as agreed but some workers don't keep their agreement and damage our reputation with the poultry firms," the letter in Korean said, noting that the Chois would be penalized if they did not meet their contractual obligation. Workers said that to get back their deposits, they had to give Lee a letter from the chicken company saying they'd completed their year's work.
The Chois said they paid, fearing they otherwise would jeopardize their application and lose the time and money they already had invested.
"We didn't have a choice," Young Soo Choi said.
The Chois paid, and in December 1998, they arrived in Salisbury.
The Baltimore Connection
Tai Young Lee's ties to the poultry industry date to the late 1970s when he quit his job at Salisbury State University to begin an international trading business that supplied poultry equipment from Korea to companies on the Eastern Shore.
The company that Lee manages, PTC International Inc., grew and now is a successful export-import business operating from a glass-walled office on the 22nd floor of the World Trade Center overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Lee sits on several state and local economic development panels and has accompanied former Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer (D) and Baltimore Mayor Kurt I. Schmoke (D) on economic development missions to foreign countries. Last year, he was named Baltimore's exporter of the year.
According to former brokers, Lee's brokering began around 1986. Lee said a "chief executive" of a poultry company--whom he declined to name--asked him to clean up the worker program, which was then being handled by some company employees.
Jin Kim, who supplied workers to poultry firms on the Eastern Shore for two years, started a brokering business in North Carolina in 1989 because he said he could not longer compete with Lee. "We couldn't get in there," Kim said. Companies "would say, 'We only deal with Mr. Lee.' " Kim estimates he has helped bring 1,300 Korean families to the United States in the last decade.
Jim Wallston, vice president of planning for Townsends Inc.'s plant in Millsboro, Del., said Lee's wife, Young Sun, approached them more than a decade ago about sponsoring Korean workers. Lee said he could not recall whether his wife approached the company.
Townsends hired about 200 Korean workers over a 10-year period, Wallston said. "They provided the list of who and how many. We didn't pay for anything. The only thing we guaranteed was a job," Wallston said.
Although Townsends continues to receive a small number of Korean workers who had applied years ago and are only now arriving, the company stopped sponsoring Lee's workers in 1996. Other poultry firms--Mountaire Farms Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and Allen Family Foods Inc.--also stopped sponsoring new workers although they continue to receive those that applied earlier.
"We stopped doing it because we couldn't retain many. They stayed the year and left," Wallston said. He added that the company often had to ask Lee to act as an intermediary to workers who couldn't speak English. "You had to go through a lawyer and the broker, and that was a nightmare for the employees," he said.
Lee, in several interviews by telephone and at his Baltimore office, said he had a minimal role in finding workers and acts as an advisor helping process paperwork. He denied charging fees, but in a later separate interview, he acknowledged receiving a "small portion" of the processing fee for providing "consulting work."
The worker pipeline extending 7,000 miles from Korea to the Eastern Shore was created by the bride of a Korean War veteran who began working at the Showell poultry plant. Chong S. Sines and her retired Army husband had relocated to Salisbury from Seoul.
In the summer of 1975, a plant manager asked her if she knew anyone else in Korea who would be interested in poultry and told her about the Labor Department's program.
She approached relatives and soon found herself so swamped by eager applicants from strangers in rural Korean towns, she said, that she quit the chicken plant and become an employment broker for several Delmarva plants, bringing in 150 Koreans in some years. Her brokering business started to shrink in 1986 when Showell began to deal with Lee and it ended in 1991 after the Internal Revenue Service began to investigate a tip that she had not properly reported her earnings. The tax case ended with a settlement that required Sines to sell all her assets.
During her time as a broker, Sines said, the fee she charged applicants grew to $1,100, with $700 for the attorney, $200 for processing paperwork and $200 for herself to cover the cost of helping families find apartments, fill out government papers and enroll children in school.
Sines insisted that during this time, she required the workers neither to sign a one-year contract nor to make a deposit she held, a fact former workers confirm. "All I asked them to do was to work as long as possible," Sines said.
Several former workers who tried to leave their jobs early and tried to get back their deposits from Lee said they complained to Perdue officials in 1996 when the could not get their money. Perdue said it has no record of any complaints.
Eventually, Lee said, he agreed to return the workers' money if they kept the matter quiet so others would not try to have their deposits returned.
Several other workers, who worked a full year, said they were unable to recover their money after meeting what they saw as their obligation because they could not produce receipts of their original wire transfers to Lee. Lee has also refused to allow workers to borrow against the deposit to pay medical or other emergency bills, workers say.
Hyong Taek Shin, who fell while working in the Showell plant in January, said he racked up $1,700 in medical bills after Perdue refused to pay for treatment for his back injuries because he did not immediately report the incident as required under company policy.
Shin, a former accountant, sought his own doctor and has paid about $1,100 of the bill. But Shin, 49, says he has used his savings and needs to dip into the deposit he gave Lee to pay the balance. When he approached a plant manager at Perdue for help in getting access to his deposit, Shin said, the manager referred Shin to Lee.
Shin says Lee has not responded to repeated telephone calls from him. "I asked if perhaps they could lend me the money, but I haven't heard from them," Shin said. "The only time they called me was to tell me to go back to work."
A Perdue official said that Shin should have been told he could file an application for an independent investigation of the incident, which could have led the company to reimburse Shin for medical costs. "It was wrong, and it's not the way we do business," the official said. "It's noted and corrected."
Lee said he was not aware of the Shin case but that the decision to return any of the deposit would have to be made by the Korean agency. He also said that deposits have been returned when the "appropriate requests" were made after workers complete their term.
Staff writer Joohee Cho in Seoul and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Bok Chul Kim gets instructions on how to use the deadbolt to his new apartment in Salisbury from Huisik Kim. Moo Eun Kim, left, and Jung Hyun Choi help carry luggage.
CAPTION: Korean chicken worker Young Soo Choi, left, shops for a computer at Sam's Club in Salisbury with his wife, Chan Hoo, his daughter, Jung Won, and son, Jung Hyun. They want to read Korean newspapers on the Internet.
CAPTION: Young Soo Choi shows documentation that he says proves he paid a $5,000 deposit for a chicken job. Every year, 150 to 200 Korean workers come to Delmarva to work in one of the five slaughterhouses there. The largest group of them works at Showell.
CAPTION: Young Hak Yoo, foreground, enjoys an outing with his parents and friends from the Korean community at a picnic.