By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – Courage will claim its reward. A young Filipino trafficked to the US under the J-1 visa program was recently given humanitarian relief (T visa) by the USCIS after suffering from miserable working and living conditions for the past three years in Los Angeles.
Natalie Sevilla (real name withheld) received the happy news on June 20, 2020. The USCIS had approved her application for a T visa on April 22, 2020, seven months after she applied.
She said in an interview with OSM!: “I just realized that I should not be afraid to stand for what is right. I want to be an inspiration for other people who are afraid to stand up for themselves.”
Sevilla reported her condition and grievances to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
A Severe Case of Human Trafficking
Sevilla told government authorities that she had been a victim of severe form of human trafficking activities committed by a Philippine-based recruitment agency, its conduit recruitment agent in the US, and a large hotel conglomerate which was her internship host. Sevilla’s affidavit said that the education and cultural exchange program of the USA was “unethically used to recruit trainees where participants were harbored for labor purposes. The recruiters and employers involved in this labor-generating scheme though the US exchange program took advantage of the cheap labor of the trainees.”
The non-profit National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) based in Virginia and Susan Pineda, Department of Justice accredited legal representative, helped Sevilla obtain her immigration relief.
Sookyung Oh, the D.C. Area Director of NAKASEC, opened its doors to the J-1 youth workers for legal assistance in partnership with the Migrante Youth of DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland & Virginia) when it learned about their inhumane labor conditions.
This was the first time for NAKASEC to provide legal assistance to human trafficking victims. The organization provides services for citizenship and green card applications among the Korean and Asian communities.
Debt Bondage and Miserable Working Conditions
“Our recruiters lured us into participating in the program, collected money from us and subjected us to involuntary servitude and labor abuses. At the end of my initial contract in October 2017, our program sponsor and host did not extend my J-1 visa while it was promised to us during the application process that they will renew our contract for another six months.
“Because of my huge unpaid loan, I was forced to look for employment which subjected me again into labor exploitation. Being undocumented, I could not complain or negotiate for better benefits on my job as I am at the mercy of my employers. I have no choice but to endure this situation. I badly needed to survive and took whatever employment was available,” narrated Sevilla.
Sevilla assisted the Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) in the investigation, prosecution and resolution of her case and remained safe and protected in the US until she was finally meted justice in the spring of 2020.
DOJ-accredited legal representative Pineda, for her part, said that the Philippines and US governments must be held liable for the abuse and exploitation of guest workers in the US.
“The US employers abuse the J1 visa program for cheap labor. The Philippine government allows travel agencies to recruit new graduates for the US cultural exchange program and allows them to pay hefty recruitment fees that put the J1 workers in debt bondage even before coming to the US. The youth workers were deceived for better employment opportunities but in reality, their American dreams have turned into nightmares,” Pineda said.
Under the cultural exchange program, J-1 visa holders are to go back to their home countries after a one- or two-year program. Sevilla said it was impossible for her to go back home because she fell into a debt trap and inhumane working conditions that made her incapable of decent living and the capacity to pay for her airfare going back to her home country.
J-1 visa sponsors are required by the US government to monitor the progress and welfare of their participants and must ensure that the participants’ activities are consistent with the program category they are identified with.#
(Editor’s Note: *Trafficked persons face the risk of retaliation by their recruiters. Hence, while the USCIS is in the continuous process of prosecuting recruiters, the identity of those who bravely come forward to report their conditions are concealed for their own protection.)