By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
This year, the first trafficking victims will get green cards.
It costs $10,000 each to put a person through the CAST program. Most of the graduates become self-sufficient. They get jobs in retail, or as security guards, nursing assistants or social workers. Some, however, do “go underground” and are never heard from again.
The system has come a long way. Buck remembers making calls years ago, at the start of her career. She asked to be connected with the “trafficking” office, and the government operator put her through to the transportation department.
For the first time in 11 years, Buck had a waiting list for a spot in the shelter house. Referrals have increased by 200 percent for the first half of 2008. “We’ve never seen that before in our history. The global economy is having trouble and people vulnerable to traffickers are that much more vulnerable.” Finding victims is indeed difficult, which leads to a discrepancy between reported numbers and the experience on the ground. “When service providers are seeing the exact opposite [of the reported numbers],” says Buck, “I trust the service provider.”
At the CAST shelter house, people come and go as they please. If you’re there, you can’t tell anyone where the location is, not even family. Survivors undergo safety training if their case is active and they are about to testify. They are taught to mix up their bus routes, to lead pursuers away from the shelter if they suspect they are being followed. In some instances, traffickers have hired gang members to find victims. Traffickers often have high standing in their community. They learn which families in the village are struggling.
“Traffickers have the most to lose immediately after the rescue. The victims are the major witnesses. Traffickers have trailed caseworkers to find out where victims live. There are threats and harassment. They’ll burn the victim’s house in the country of origin,” Buck says with disgust. “Very rarely are these slam-dunk cases.”
Nevertheless, Buck is relentlessly optimistic. You can raise awareness, but that’s not going to change the Philippines’ maid culture, she says. She spent six years in Asia, has been to Manila, and has seen the culture firsthand. Poverty, the root cause, must be addressed from the consumer end. “Are you comfortable buying a shirt made by a slave girl?” Buck might ask you. What if that girl were your daughter?
It’s the retirement home’s six-year anniversary the next time I visit Mary. The old folks are gussied up in suits and evening gowns — then covered up universally in sweaters — and gathered in the lobby, attended by caregivers in pink and green hospital scrubs. The elders ensconced on sofas, or idling on walkers, look dazed and confused. Most of them are Jewish. Most of the caregivers are Filipino. “It’s like the intersection of Manila and Jerusalem here,” the son of one resident says.
Mary is happy. Her other daughter, Christine, is getting married. Like her younger sister, Christine meets a Marine while visiting from the Philippines, a white guy from Iowa. He buys her a $13,000 engagement ring and they plan the wedding over the Internet. Everything will be made in the Philippines, from the hand-painted invitations and the miniature bamboo pitcher giveaways to the embroidered-lace fans. The bride will wear a pure-white dress with green-and-gold accent leaves, embroidered with pearl beads. The bridesmaids will wear champagne gold.
Someone has sent over a photo album of the assembly process so Mary can stay up to date. “It doesn’t take any drug to keep these hands working day and night and another day!” reads the inscription beneath a photo of a group of smiling faces. Traditionally, the girl’s family pays, and for a spell, Mary’s earnings subsidize an entire cottage industry of wedding preparations. Where to have the ceremony is a hard choice. Have it in Negros City, and Mom can’t attend. Because she’s overstayed her tourist visa, if Mary leaves the States, there is no coming back. Have it in America, though, and dad — and the extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and friends — are left out. Mary’s husband has tried for a tourist visa of his own but has repeatedly been denied.
It’s also Christmastime, a double demand that strains Mary’s income. She has packed up a balikbayan, a “return to country” box to mail home to Negros City, brimming with cans of Spam and corned beef, chocolates, towels and designer T-shirts — $35 Lacoste, Ralph Lauren Polo — for her husband. When she goes to pick out his size, it occurs to her that she doesn’t know what it is anymore. She hasn’t seen him for years.
During lunch at the home, Mary sometimes accompanies Fred to the dining room, though technically, the caregivers are not allowed to be present while the clients eat. “Sit down,” says Fred. “Order anything you like. I will pay.” When management complains, he says, “She’s also a human being.”
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