Leon Krakover was deaf, but his disability was not a handicap to his entrepreneurial ambitions. In the 1940s, the Chicago businessman built a million-dollar enterprise on backs of a small army of street peddlers who like him, were deaf and who exploited public sympathy for their disability to sell their wares and make their boss a fortune. Krakover's luck changed when the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf became outraged at his antics and expelled him from its ranks, leading to an expensive legal battle. But his ghost has hung around and, like that of Banquo, has returned to spoil the dinner party thrown by Krakover's spiritual descendants, a Mexican immigrant family called the Paolettis. For a couple of years, New York subway riders have grown used to deaf Mexicans disturbing them in their commuters' reverie by handing them cards explaining that they are handicapped and need to earn money by selling trinkets or key rings for US$1 (HK$7.74) apiece. Although the practice is eyed suspiciously as little better than begging, the deaf peddlers have usually been given a warmer reception by passengers, if only because they seem far too shy to accost the riders as aggressively as the common-or-garden kind of panhandler. But although they have earned a good income from their subway trade, none of the scores of peddlers were ever given what they needed most of all: somewhere to run and hide. Police raids last week finally awakened the city to the truth behind the sad lives of the deaf regiment. Over 50 of them were rescued from impossibly cramped conditions in two houses in Queens, where they told tales of mental and physical abuse, sexual harassment, and virtual slavery. Subsequent raids uncovered similar operations in North Carolina and Los Angeles. New York's - and the nation's - shock at the awful treatment of the immigrants stems not only from the fact that they were deaf. Indeed, the alleged perpetrators of the peddling syndicate - Jose Paoletti, his wife, three children and other close relatives - were also deaf. What the case has reopened is a wound which never seems to heal over - the spectre of slavery and forced labour, a spectre which America was supposed to have exorcised with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War, but which returns occasionally to remind the country that human dignity is not always respected on its own soil. Whenever the issue crops up at a national issue, it now shines the spotlight not on people shipped here in chains, but on those who flocked here of their own accord - often illegally. Illegal immigration is a hot political potato for so many reasons, but one of the least acknowledged is the vulnerability of such migrants to exploitation and abuse. The latest case has brought reminders of one of the worst sweatshops uncovered in the United States two years ago, when a group of Thai women were freed from near-slavery in a California house converted into a garment factory. Then there were countless cases of Chinese migrants smuggled by snakeheads from Fujian province during 1993 and 1994, most of the victims - if they ever got to shore - ending up working overtime in appalling conditions in Chinese restaurants to pay off extortionate fees to the smugglers. Indeed, one immigration official, when surveying the chaotic scene at one of the Paoletti doss-houses last week, cited perhaps the most famous of all the Chinese alien smuggling cases, when he remarked: 'It was excruciatingly difficult to deal with these people's disability. This thing to me was worth two Golden Ventures in difficulty.' As the largest magnet for so many illegal immigrants, the deaf peddlers case once again shone an unwanted and embarrassing spotlight on New York authorities. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had to acknowledge that fire and safety inspectors had been called to the house where the Mexicans were kept twice during the year, only to give the site a clean bill of health without raising any alarm bells about the conditions in which the inhabitants lived. Questions are also being asked why so many illegal immigrants could sell their wares on the streets and subways of the city without raising suspicions amongst officials. One of the charges levelled against members of the Paoletti family is that of illegally transporting immigrants into the US. Investigators have revealed how the Paolettis would return on frequent trips to Mexico, searching out young deaf people, enticing them to come to the US with false promises of respectable jobs and fine living. Neither did the Mexican consulate appear to have done its part in preventing the problem. It received complaints from at least one relative in Mexico that members of the peddling ring were believed to have kidnapped, but failed to act. It was only when four disgruntled peddlers walked nervously into a local police station that their plight was uncovered. The Queens operation was clearly profitable. Even at $1 a piece, the useless goods peddled by the unfortunate workers brought the Paolettis an estimated several hundred thousand dollars - $30,000 of which were found in a box in one of the houses. It might seem remarkable that given the long hours they trudged the streets and the sad conditions they were kept under, none of the immigrants thought to complain earlier. Of course, the status of illegal immigrants - and the inherent prospect of being returned to Mexico - probably played a part. But then there is the lure of the American Dream. So strong is its lustre that some of the peddlers that have passed through the Paoletti nightmare have marvelled that it paid better and afforded a better life than could have found back home. Recent revelations about America's covert sweatshop industry recently prompted the White House and clothing manufacturers to launch an initiative to root it out. That was a valuable move, but limited only to one small section of a very vulnerable part of America's population. Slave labour is a flourishing cottage industry, and there appears to be no end to the flood of job applicants.