NEW YORK — Hope springs eternal. And for Filipino victims of human trafficking, they could learn from the experience of Jacqueline Aguirre whose pleas for justice have been been heard and bore fruit.
According to the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON), Aguirre was one of the trafficked workers who came out into the open in 2009, has been granted her T-visa (T-Non-immigrant classification) by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Department of Homeland Security. It is a type of visa allowing certain victims of human trafficking and immediate family members to remain and work temporarily in the United States.
The T-visa Aguirre has been given is valid up to four years, beginning September 21, 2012 to September 20, 2016. She is now authorized to work in the US within the validity period. In relation to this, Aguirre’s removal proceedings had also been terminated by the immigration judge on October 11, 2012.
“I am so happy. This is a proof that victories can be achieved if we fight for it. I spoke up against the injustice done to me, so other people heard and helped me through this ordeal. I know I did not do anything wrong and that gave me the strength and confidence to speak out and fight for my rights,” Aguirre said.
NAFCON, with its member organizations in the North East, has helped in introducing Aguirre’s case to the community as part of its Stop Trafficking Our People (STOP) Campaign in December 2010, along with the case of Leticia Moratal, who has also been granted the T-visa early this year.
Michelle Saulon, NAFCON North East Coordinator said Aguirre’s case and how she fought for her rights serves as an inspiration to many Filipinos in the US who were also victims of human trafficking.
“We admire the courage of trafficked survivors, such as Aguirre’s. Her labor inspires many Filipinos who were trafficked to the United States and serves as an eye-opener for the community that these kinds of abuses also happen even in the land of milk and honey,” she said.
According to the report included in the lawsuit pending in the Eastern District Court of New York, Aguirre worked as a staff accountant in Best Care Agency owned by Dorothy de Castro and Perlita Jordan in Floral Park, New York starting in 2001. The agency promised to sponsor her as an H-1B worker and to pay her initially the rate of $19 per hour for a regular 40-hour work week.
After her H-1B petition was approved, Aguirre was not paid the prevailing wage rate or the offered wage. Her compensation was cut in half. The agency told her once she received her green card, which, they also promised to initiate. She was told that if she did not agree to receive less pay, they would discontinue their H-1B sponsorship and she would become an illegal resident and could be deported.
Not wanting to be deported, Aguirre begrudgingly accepted the agency’s conditions, and hoped that her green card sponsorship would be immediately approved as her employers kept on reminding her they had the financial capability to sponsor her immigrant petition.
Even while her green card application was pending, Aguirre demanded that she be paid the prevailing wage rate. Her employers told her to wait for her green card approval. In April 2009, the USCIS denied Best Care Agency’s immigrant petition in Aguirre’s behalf as Best Care failed to submit sufficient evidence to convince the USCIS it had the financial capability to pay Aguirre the offered wage.
Best Care had fraudulently represented to Aguirre it had the financial capability so that it could continue to have her work for less pay. As a result of Best Care’s financial incapability, Aguirre’s adjustment or green card application was likewise denied, and she was put under removal proceedings.
Civil rights and immigration lawyer Felix Vinluan said that besides applying for a T-visa for Aguirre, his Foundation for Immigration and Employment Rights Advocacy, which handled Aguirre’s case, also filed a complaint against Aguirre’s former employers for violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), forced labor, involuntary servitude, fraudulent inducement and negligent misrepresentation.
“We are seeking compensatory damages by way of overdue wage adjustments worth at least $300,000 plus moral damages related to the abuse of Aguirre by her employers, as well as the suffering she had to undergo for having been put in removal proceedings,” Vinluan said.
Vinluan has also taken on other cases in court against human and labor trafficking of Filipinos in the U.S. East Coast.
Saulon said the fight is not yet over and Aguirre still needs all the support that she can get.
“There are also many more like Aguirre’s out there who need to be empowered to speak against these kinds of injustices and let them know that they have rights as immigrants, documented or undocumented alike,” she said.
Meanwhile, Jonna Baldres, NAFCON deputy secretary-general said that acquiring the T-visa is only one of the many victories of the community that the group wants to achieve in its campaign against labor and human-trafficking.
“We have a lot more victories to look forward to. We will continuously fight and hold actions — be it in the streets or through cultural activities and educational discusison -against the Philippine government’s continuous implementation of the Labor Export Policy (LEP), ” Baldrez said.
NAFCON believes that the LEP, a policy which sends kababayans away from the homeland to work abroad, makes the Filipino migrants prone to abuses by employers. The migrant sector has also been a powerful force for decades and has become a main source of the country’s wealth through remittances. NAFCON believes, however, that keeping the migrants under the system of forced migration is still not the solution to the country’s economic problems.
“We must continue to demand for the Philippine government to create jobs in the motherland and address the basic needs and issues of the people — such as national industrialization and genuine agrarian reform — for the people to not leave and seek work abroad. Our kababayans do not deserve to undergo these abuses under the unjust system of forced migration,” Baldres continued.
Aguirre, along with other trafficked survivors, have joined actions, spoke in forums, and tirelessly called for a STOP to Human and Labor Trafficking, making the issue more widely known to the Filipino community not only in the United States but also in the Philippines, and also generating more consciousness and awareness on how to fight against it.