By Susan Pineda
Legal Resources Program Manager
Migrant Heritage Commission
Washington, DC — Bel’s (not her real name) American dream turned out to be a nightmare the moment she landed at the Dulles Airport in 2008. She was going to be a Special Education teacher in one of the prestigious schools 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 in the wee hours of the night, and the following day, she was taken to her employer who was surprised why she has made such a visit when there was no hiring being undertaken by the school.
The plot thickens for Bel when she was warned by the recruiter against telling her situation to anybody, or she will report to have her deported by authorities. Because there was actually no teaching job waiting for Bel, 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. Bel 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.
One morning, no longer able to bear her misery, Bel called the Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC) and told me her story over the phone, sobbing hysterically as she asked for help. 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, Bel often swings from entertaining thoughts of suicide to reporting to authorities about her condition.
She chose to ask for help. The MHC was the institution she had bravely gone to. Now, Bel and other teachers who were swindled by big time Filipino recruiters are up in arms for their battle for justice. They 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. They have also applied for T (Trafficking) visas.
Most people think that slavery has already been eliminated because it is often a hidden and invisible crime. But studies show that there are more people in slavery today than at any other time in human history. A conservative estimate is that there are 27 million people in slavery today. Slavery has existed since time immemorial, but changes in the world’s economy and societies over the past years have enabled its resurgence. As in the past, most slaves are forced to work in agriculture, mining, and prostitution. Their exploited labor flows into the global economy and into our lives. Within the United States alone, there is an estimated 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.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. This syndicated crime strips victims their freedom to determine their own future and violates their basic human rights.
I have internalized the sad stories of survivors of human trafficking, from my firsthand experience working with them for more than four years in my volunteer paralegal work as the Program Manager of the Legal Resources Program of the MHC, and as the Senior Paralegal of the Law Offices of Valera and Associates.
Most of the cases we handled were agricultural, domestic, hotel workers and professional teachers. Most of them are desperate to find means for survival, lured by a lucrative promise of a well-paying job and instead end up being abused and exploited by their human traffickers or employers. These victims spend thousands of dollars in recruitment and processing fees in good faith, but are led to debt bondage and involuntary servitude.
Human trafficking is a lucrative industry, coming 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 $32 billion, increasingly at the hands of organized crime due to the high profits and the fewer risks compared to arms or drug trafficking, thus making human trafficking the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world at this time.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that that the largest profits – more than US$ 15 billion – are made from people trafficked and forced to work in industrialized countries, with almost one-third coming from Asia. Globalization has created a widening gap in wealth between countries and has made many people “victims of the excesses of a global economic system that rewards wealth and exploits the poor.”
Traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of people who are aspiring for a better life, people who are poor, uneducated, neglected, unemployed, victims of sexual abuse, coming from unstable home lives, immigrants, or refugees. But educated people can be exploited as well.
Due to its international implications, to combat human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants, 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 United Nations in Palermo in 2000 and was entered into force on 25 December 2003. As of March 2013, it has been signed by 117 countries and ratified by 154 parties.
In compliance with the Trafficking 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 “3 Ps”: 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 — and even citizenship — in exchange for their help putting modern day slave runners behind bars.
Thus, every person granted a T visa is given huge relief, a reaffirmation of the rightness of our approach to their cases and the development of a certain level of expertise in one of the very diverse federal immigration law fields of the US. We take an active role in pushing for stronger federal and state laws, and humanize the way that individuals and communities respond to human trafficking cases in the US and globally. Fighting modern slavery is one of the greatest human rights battles of our era. (Reprinted from the Migrant Heritage Chronicle, June 18, 2013; photo by artist Ivabelle)