WOODSIDE, NY – Cecil Delgado couldn’t believe it was happening upon hearing of her newfound freedom. She and nine other Florida 15 guest workers that had complained about human trafficking violations committed by their employers have been granted a T-visa by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service (USCIS) Jan. 30.
“All of us are so grateful to have received our status back which our previous employer deprived us of. We are now excited to get our individual IDs, travel around using public transportation and are not anymore afraid to see police officers around,” said a jubilant Delgado.
“It’s nice to know that people around us don’t have any reason now to look down on us just because we were TNT’s,” added Delgado. “They can’t judge us that we are liars and scumbags. Now we are more confident to face our oppressors and those people who turned us down.”
The T-visa beneficiaries used to work as housekeepers, cooks, waiters and waitresses in Florida, South Carolina and New York hotels and country clubs. They had filed human trafficking, forced labor, involuntary servitude, RICO and fraudulent misrepresentation causes of action against the Florida-based San Villa Management Company, its owners and officers, Jose Villanueva, Lorna Melgarejo and Jucilyn Villanueva, and two other shell companies in the Southern District Court of New York.
Back in February 2012, the Filipino guest workers that are now known as the “F-15” heard about the case of another trafficking victim, Leticia Moratal, and were inspired by her story of coming out to seek redress of her grievances against her employers. They contacted the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), which referred them to civil rights lawyer, Felix Vinluan, also Moratal’s lawyer.
Vinluan filed a federal complaint against Villanueva and his San Villa Enterprise in April 2012. The complaint alleged that the Filipino guest workers were sponsored as H-2B nonimmigrant workers by Villanueva’s companies, and were brought into the United States under false promises of fair pay and humane treatment.
They were not provided the promised full-time employment and were paid less than the minimum wage. The Complaint likewise alleged that Villanueva, to ensure that the workers continued to stay and make themselves available to work for him and his enterprise, threatened them with arrest, imprisonment, deportation, and cancellation of their visas, loss of work, lawsuits, and blacklisting.
Villanueva allegedly did not give the workers their respective Form I-94 cards, which would evidence the validity period of their status in the country. As a result of the campaign of fraud and coercion exerted by Villanueva and his enterprise, the Filipino guest workers remained in constant fear of the Defendants and believed they had no choice but to obey their orders and continue working for them.
The federal complaint likewise alleged that Vilanueva brought his workers to New Jersey sometime in the middle of 2011. They were supposed to work in Manhattan-based hotels. But only a few were given job assignments, and only for a couple of weeks. Without employment and without financial support from Villanueva, the workers were left to fend for themselves. Villanueva failed to pay their housing rentals, and the workers were threatened with eviction. So they decided to come out, like Moratal, and fight for their rights. By that time, all of them have become unlawfully present as Villanueva had failed to renew their H-2B status.
Additionally, Vinluan filed Form I-914 “T” visa applications on behalf of the F-15 victims with the USCIS. Last December, they were fingerprinted, and more than a month later, ten of the applications were approved.
“Although we have now our status, I know that we still need to push through the civil case to complete the justice due for us. We need to give them a lesson that we, as victims, deserve to have justice and they need to pay for it regardless if they have to do it behind bars, “ said Delgado, the lead complainant in the civil case.
When queried why only ten were approved, Vinluan, who heads the Foundation for Immigration and Employment Rights Advocacy (FIERA), said that two of the guest workers are in removal proceedings, and that fact could be delaying the adjudication of their applications. He said that two other victims, who are based in Maryland, had just their applications submitted, and the 15th victim is based in California, and still has to submit his application.
“I am quite confident that the rest of the F-15 victims will eventually receive their T-visas, and they can thereafter bring their families to join them here in the United States. Those whose applications were recently approved received new Form I-94 cards valid for four years, as well as work permit cards. They can file their green card applications in three years’ time”, said an exuberant Vinluan.
“We are so grateful to Atty. Vinluan who brought us to a new level. We know that this is just the beginning of a braver and bolder F15,” Delgado said.
A GRATEFUL FLORIDA-15: (L-R) Hansel Yuson, Jerome Almilla, Anthony Antonio, Cecil Delgado, Givenchy Alberto, Patricia Ballesteros, Lester Campos, Mars Avesco, rejoicing after they had their biometrics with Homeland Security last December. Not in picture: Ronald Espiritu, Moises Que, John Sarmiento, Annabel Sibayan, Josel Nipales, Dante Bautista and Ariel Gadicho.