Former nightclub bouncer Martin Opat is a tough guy by trade, but nothing steeled him for the ordeal that he endured as an illegal worker in the United States.
"Everything they told me was a lie," he said of the shady middlemen who promised him tax-free cash to sweep supermarket floors, only to lead him on a pocket-emptying odyssey through three states and a close call with federal agents.
Thousands of poor Eastern Europeans are being exploited by unscrupulous contractors who lure them to the United States for illegal menial jobs, only to skim their paychecks and subject them to arrest and deportation, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Recent raids at 58 Wal-Mart stores across the United States and the subsequent arrests of 245 allegedly illegal workers -- including 35 Czechs and others from the former Soviet bloc -- underscore a troubling trend that has widened since the collapse of communism a dozen years ago.
"Every second person who buys a plane ticket to the United States at my agency goes there to make money," said Tomas Rambousek, a Czech travel agent who admits to arranging illegal work at hotels and supermarkets for his countrymen and says U.S. companies have approached him for help.
"I would say that the U.S. authorities turn a blind eye," he said, refusing to identify the companies involved.
There's a dark side.
Former illegal workers described working long hours for little pay and no benefits at menial cleaning jobs, and recounted humiliating experiences with their handlers that prompted some to return home feeling disillusioned and deceived.
Most, like Opat, 29, traveled on tourist visas that forbade seeking work. They found jobs through subcontracting companies run by a network of Eastern European immigrants who took a sizable cut of their earnings.
After shelling out $1,300 on a visa, plane tickets and health insurance, Opat arrived in Dallas in 2000 to be told by a Czech contact that the job he was assured would earn him up to $1,900 a month sweeping a supermarket in Tulsa, Okla., didn't exist.
He was driven to tiny Poteau, Ark., for another supermarket job, where he was warned that the FBI and immigration officers had just raided apartments for foreigners in a nearby town.
"I felt helpless," he said. "It was terrible. But what could I do?"
Even worse, Opat said, was learning that his contact, known to him only as Mr. Vavra, wouldn't pay him for three months -- and that a $500 commission, a $500 security deposit and $170 in rent would be deducted from his first check.
"I wanted to knock him out," Opat said with his bouncer's bravado. Instead, he headed north to Chicago -- home to an estimated 10,000 illegal Czech immigrants -- and landed an under-the-table job as a roofer.
Despite numerous such stories, there's no shortage of Czechs willing to take their chances rather than eke out a living in a country with 10% joblessness and an average monthly wage of just $585.
As many as 200,000 Czechs are believed to be living illegally in the United States, a ranking Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Hundreds more arrive daily, even though U.S. consular authorities interview all applicants for tourist visas -- which allow multiple 3-month stays for 10 years -- and turn down many requests, the official said.
"The law presumes the person applying for a visa has immigrant intent," the official said.
Czech authorities are doing little to crack down, saying it's essentially an American problem. It is not against the law to recruit locals for work in the United States, the Czech attorney general's office said.
Conservative estimates put the number of people who have left Eastern Europe in recent years at 2 million. Officials say the real number easily could be twice that.
In Bulgaria, still struggling to establish a market economy after shaking off communism in 1989, an astonishing 700,000 young people have left for the United States and Western Europe, according to government estimates.
A recent U.N. survey in Bosnia, where the official unemployment rate is 40%, points up the sense of desperation: Six in 10 young people said they'd leave if they could.
Among those trying to cash in on that sentiment is Suno Tours, a Sarajevo travel agency working with a Turkish firm, Pro Visa Group-Istanbul. The companies claim to be able to obtain U.S. immigration visas in Turkey -- even though only the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo can issue visas to Bosnians.
An AP reporter, visiting Suno Tours' office recently, was told that there was no need to go to the embassy for a visa. "They have nothing to do with it," said a female employee who refused to give her name.
Although Mexicans accounted for most of the recent Wal-Mart arrests, others came from 18 different nations, including 22 from Mongolia and 20 from Brazil.
The workers were paid between $6 and $8 an hour to mop floors and clean toilets. It's work that few Americans are willing to do, but which the poor from developing countries happily accept.
Across Eastern Europe, newspapers run ads with eye-catching headlines like "USA!!" and enticing photos of Las Vegas or the Florida Keys, where work is said to await.
Recruiters also heavily use the Internet. A typical Web pitch posted in Hungary shows how workers are on their own when it comes to legal documentation.
"We give you a minimum of eight hours of work a day, plus the option of overtime or a second job," the ad reads. "Unfortunately, it can happen that the immigration agency stops people and questions them, and in the worst case turns back tourists."
It's a chance many take, only to regret it later when recruiters extract fees that can range from $500 to $2,500 and pocket a percentage of their pay. More than 160 messages by people who said they'd been burned were on a Hungarian-language Web forum last week.
But illegal migrants are undeterred, drawn to the United States by the promise of earning sums unimaginable in nations with economies wrecked by decades of war or communist-era neglect.
Working a typical 60-hour week, even those paid just $6 an hour earn $18,000 a year, tax-free because the income isn't declared. After two years, many save enough to start a small business back home, said Radek Adamec, a Czech journalist tracking the phenomenon.
"They're not criminals," he said. "American companies don't care who's cleaning at night. Nobody really cares, and why should they? Only the INS cares."
Not true, the Western official says, dismissing the notion that illegal foreigners are doing work spurned by most Americans.
"It's not harmless," he said. "They're taking jobs from Americans. These are not just cleaning jobs. There are textile jobs, ski industry jobs at Vail. I've seen it all."
The story of Opat the ex-bouncer, meanwhile, has a happy ending -- if not a legal one.
He made $150 a day on his illegal roofing job in Chicago, and "in two months, I earned more money than I'd have gotten from Mr. Vavra in a year." He and his wife now have a daughter, and he said he's considering returning to the United States.
But Opat remains haunted by his ordeal:
"I recently saw an ad in the newspaper -- the same one I answered. So ... be careful."
Associated Press reporters Karel Janicek in Prague, Karl Peter Kirk in Budapest, Alexandar S. Dragicevic in Sarajevo and Veselin Toshkov in Sofia contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Poverty in Eastern Europe
Some facts about Eastern European countries:
* Albania: Unemployment officially 15%, unofficially at least 30%. Average monthly income $185. No official statistics on number of emigrants, but thousands have left since communism ended in 1990.
* Bosnia: Unemployment officially 40%, unofficially 60%. Average monthly income $240. No statistics on emigration, but estimates run to tens of thousands over recent years.
* Bulgaria: Unemployment officially 13%, unofficially 20%. Average monthly income $170. Estimated 700,000 have left in recent years.
* Croatia: Unemployment about 20%. Average monthly income $700. No statistics on emigration, but thousands believed to have left since 1991.
* Czech Republic: Unemployment 10%, pockets of 20% or more in rural areas. Average monthly income $585. No statistics on emigrants; officials estimate 100,000 to 200,000 live illegally in United States alone.
* Hungary: Unemployment 5.7%, substantially higher in rural areas. Average monthly income $590. No statistics on emigration.
* Moldova: Unemployment officially 8%, unofficially 10%. Average monthly income $60. Estimated 600,000 have left in recent years.
* Romania: Unemployment officially 6.6%, unofficially substantially higher. Average monthly income $140. More than 400,000 emigrants in recent years.
* Serbia-Montenegro: Unemployment officially 25%, unofficially at least 35%. Average monthly income $180. About 300,000 have left in recent years.
Los Angeles Times