Weekend Reads: Human trafficking in New York

Rina Hernandez was grateful to October superstorm Sandy. Somewhat.
 
If not for the widespread destruction and chaos the hurricane brought on Staten Island, this nanny would not be able to plan her escape from her allegedly abusive Egyptian employers.
 
“Nagpapasalamat po talaga ako sa Sandy,” Rina, 52, told reporters at a press conference arranged by the Filipino American Legal and Education Defense Fund (Faldef).
 
Rina, a school teacher in Qatar for six years, found herself working as a nanny for the family of an Egyptian businessman in New York. “Sino po ba ayaw mag-trabaho sa New York,” she explained to The FilAm why she left a decent teaching job in the Middle East working with school children.
 
In Staten Island, where the family settled, she looked after six children and worked long hours with very little sleep and food. Her passport was held by the Egyptian housewife, and she and two other Filipino maids lived reportedly in deplorable conditions.
 
At the hotel where the family stayed at the height of the hurricane’s devastation, she and two other Filipino maids attempted to pilfer hotel towels, blankets and tubes of toothpaste to take home with them. It was not to happen because a combined team of Staten Island police, consular officials and lawyers from Faldef swooped down on the hotel where the family was staying to rescue Rina, as the Egyptian housewife grudgingly handed Rina’s passport to the authorities. The two other servants opted to stay behind.
 
“I was crying, yakap yakap ko ‘yung pulis,” recounted Rina, wiping a tear during the press conference.
 
The rescue was planned. Rina’s daughter reached out to Faldef Communications Director Jen Furer, who passed on the information to the lawyers. A team of law enforcers, lawyers and consular officials were there to make sure Rina was safely removed from her employers.
 
Rina has only been a month with her employers but something about the way she and the two other Filipinas were being treated made her a classic victim of human trafficking. Her employers held on to their passports and the promised wage of $1,200 a month was not being honored.
 
“It’s all in the evidence,” said lawyer and Faldef founder J.T. Mallonga. “We have courts of law. If there is no evidence, there is no case. We believe she’s a victim of human trafficking.”
 
Rina is currently staying at the San Lorenzo Ruiz Women’s Shelter, reclaiming her life. In a photo snapshot, she is seen atop a ladder, decorating the SLR Christmas tree.
 
Mallonga said Faldef is preparing to file human trafficking charges against the Egyptian businessman based on how labor laws and immigration laws appear to have been violated.
 
“It’s a complicated case,” he said. “We want to do it right.”
 
Sometimes, said Consul General Mario de Leon Jr., victims of human trafficking “do not realize they are being trafficked.”
 
He said the Philippine government is being more “proactive” in its campaign against abusive employers, using education to inform Filipinos about their rights, especially those seeking employment abroad.
 
In the New York Tri-State, he said the Philippine Consulate is activating the “warden” first-response system by getting community organizations to check into reports of human trafficking in their areas. As there are not enough lawyers to promptly send to areas like Philadelphia, the consulate reaches out to organizations and their leaders to be the ‘first responders.’
 
“They will look into conditions,” he said, check out the victim and report back to the Consulate on what assistance the victim needs. “We are more proactive now.”
 
Founded in 2009 by Mallonga, Merit Salud and some Jewish lawyers, Faldef offers mostly pro bono immigration services. Salud disclosed that Faldef is setting up a Philippine office to handle cases “at the source.”
 
“We sincerely believe in the righteousness of what we’re doing,” he said.
 
One of Faldef’s most prominent clients is Pulitzer-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in 2011.
 
“Having J.T. Mallonga on my speed dial,” gives him a “safety net,” Vargas said in a documentary directed by Brooklyn filmmaker Diane Paragas. He stressed the importance of “supporting the work that Faldef does.” —The FilAm