MIAMI: The story of the Miami 161—Alleged Filipino Victims of Human Trafficking

By Don Tagala for ABS-CBN North America Bureau on July 17, 2013—
“In 2008, nearly three dozen overseas Filipino workers were recruited by Phil Global Manpower and JES from the Philippines, to work as food packers for a gourmet company in Miami, Florida.

Bulacan-native Shiela Rojas said that after paying $10,000 in recruitment fees, she was promised a food-packing job that pays $7.25 an hour, for at least eight months, on a skilled worker’s visa that would be renewed every six months.

But Rojas said that didn’t happen.

“When we arrived, we didn’t have a job. We were worried. We were also scared to return to the Philippines, without paying our debt. We were told not to leave the house, not to talk to other people,” she shared.

Many of them had to make ends meet, and ended up working as housekeepers and caregivers.

Others like Rojas escaped and ended up working as a farmer in South Carolina.

“I got so depressed. I never experienced hardship like this in the Philippines,” she said, while sobbing.

Segundo Pacana said their housing was free but all 31 of them lived in a cramped three-bedroom apartment in Miami.

Without a job to pay his debt back home, Pacana’s original debt of Php250,000 ballooned to Php900,000 or more than $22,000 due to interests.

Pacana said he even thought of ending his life by swallowing a bottle of bleach.

“At that time, I felt cheated. I was ashamed because of what happened to me. So I thought of ending my life,” he shared.

The victims’ lawyer, Elaine Carr, said most of them overstayed their seasonal workers visas, even after paying an additional $500 to renew them, as they were allegedly not renewed by their U.S.-based agency, U.S Global Manpower, owned and operated by Alfonso Baldonado, Jr. and Sophia Manuel.

Baldonado and Manuel were under investigation at that time for a similar case filed by the Boca Raton victims of human and labor trafficking.

The two later pleaded guilty and were sentenced to jail for forced labor and other labor law violations.

Early this year, Carr helped the Miami 161 victims apply for a T-visa, a type of visa that allows certain victims of human trafficking and their immediate family members to remain and work temporarily in the U.S.

“T-visa is for humanitarian relief and it can be applied even if there’s no criminal prosecution, for as long as the victims report the crime committed to law enforcement,” said Carr.

Maritess Landicho not only received her approved T-visa, but she also received her work authorization card.

“I was so happy I cried. All my feelings of hopelessness disappeared. We’ve been through a lot,” expressed Landicho.”

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