By Marivir Montebon
New York City — The US may be known as the land of the free. But it is also the land of the trafficked persons, a reality which government officials and lawmakers must look into as they cook up an immigration reform law.
They could listen to Marilou, and to thousands of stories of trafficked persons. This is the silent side of immigration.
Tears welled in her eyes before she could speak. And she finally spoke about the family she left in the Philippines who was unaware that she was being tricked to have a job that does not exist, Marilou (not her real name) could not help but wail. Silence ensued in the conference room, packed with an audience of color, Filipinos, Indians, Mexicans, and Tibetans, lobbying for immigration reforms in Congress.
Marilou was quick to apologize for her anguish. And continued to share her testimony as a trafficked person by what seems to be a reliable recruitment agency in the Philippines (it was accredited by the government agency on international recruitment standards).
She had the creepy feeling that her American dream was false the moment she landed at the Dulles Airport in 2008, she said during the International Migrants Rights Day in early October in New York.
Marilou thought that she was going to be a Special Education teacher in Virginia, only to sense that there was something fishy going on when she arrived in the US. She was not picked up at the airport when she already paid $200 to her recruiter for her car service.
She had to frantically find her way to her recruiter’s place at dawn, who to her surprise was angry at her for making such a long late trip. The following day, the recruiter took her to her employer school, whose principal was surprised by her visit when there was no hiring being undertaken.
Things got clearer for Marilou when she was warned by the recruiter against telling her situation to anybody, or she will report to have her deported by authorities. The recruiter brought her to a preschool where she was to work as teacher/babysitter to survive in America.
She had no other recourse but to take the job in order to pay her debt of $25,000 in the Philippines that covered her recruitment fees, airfare, and house rental fees. Marilou is a victim of fraud. She worked as a babysitter, continuously paid her recruiter for her placement fees, and managed to send meager amounts of money to her family and debtors in the Philippines.
Her recruiter had threatened to have her deported unless she paid the balance of her recruitment fees. She could not continue to do so, after having been laid off from the preschool.
Distraught and in deep debt, regret, and shame, Marilou often swang from thoughts of suicide to reporting to authorities about her condition.
One day, no longer able to bear her misery, Marilou sought the help of a friend who referred her a key organizer of the what is now the women’s group Gabriela in Washington, DC.
Over the phone, she sobbed hysterically as she asked for help from paralegal expert and Gabriela organizer Susan Pineda.
The help from Gabriela emboldened her to file charges against her recruiter before the Philippine embassy. It was a long fought struggle and turned out that the decision wasn’t fair for the Philippine government merely charged the recruiter with $1000 in penalty for procedural lapses in recruitment.
Marilou certainly did not feel vindicated with that. But she, along with the other teacher recruits courageously testified before immigration authorities about their condition, despite the risks that their families in the Philippines may face due to retaliation by these affluent recruiters. Marilou was recently granted a T (Trafficking) visa.
“Unknown to many, there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history,” explained Ms. Pineda who noted that the number of cases she has helped push through for trafficked individuals have boosted her resolve to help these individuals. “It is a silent crime in the US and people are crying for help,” she said.
About 100,000 children in the sex trade while between 14,500 and 17,500 people – mostly women and children – are trafficked into the US annually, US statistics show.
Human trafficking comes in second to drug trafficking as the most profitable illegal industry in the world. Different sources estimate profits from human trafficking is as high as $32 billion, increasingly at the hands of organized crime due to the high profits and the fewer risks compared to arms or drug trafficking.
The United Nations underpinned the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (also referred to as the Trafficking Protocol or UN TIP Protocol) to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The Trafficking Protocol was adopted by the UN in Palermo in 2000 and was enforced December 25, 2003, with currently 117 countries and 154 parties ratifying.
In compliance with this Protocol, the US Congress passed into law The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, offering protection for persons in the country illegally who may be victims of human trafficking. The TVPA combats trafficking by promoting a policy of prosecution, protection, and prevention. It is through this law, that most of the victims of human trafficking, acquires legal status in the US.
Under the TVPA law, the US government grants T-visa to victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons. T visas offer the victims a path to freedom, including citizenship, in exchange for their help putting modern day slave runners behind bars.
The T visas are truly a big factor to usher in justice, said Pineda.
The other side of the equation however remains unchecked, sending countries like the Philippines and Mexico, need to rethink its immigration policy which wittingly and unwittingly allow human trafficking to take place, and is fashionably calling it a development tool. Until now, Marilou’s question, who will prosecute my trafficker remains unanswered.