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Enslaved in Suburbia: Inside the World of Trafficked Indentured Servants and the Visa Violators Who Care for Our Old 

Two women, two fractured American dreams

Wednesday, Feb 18 2009
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Page 7 of 9

In 2004, the coalition opened the country’s first shelter for trafficking victims. Like a doppelganger to traffickers’ own modus operandi, the CAST shelter is a building in an undisclosed suburban location. It houses 10 people at a time, one or two people per room. It’s deliberately intimate and homey. “Our shelter has less policy and procedure than other shelters because we don’t want to remind them that they are slaves,” says Buck. “People have privacy that they didn’t have before.” They do arts and crafts and storytelling. They garden in the Healing Garden, and cook with native produce they grow themselves. Most victims stay for 18 months.

In time, they work on urban “life skills” and so-called “soft skills”: How to use public transport. How to put forth a resumé. How to get a cell phone without being ripped off. How to save money and budget. “A lot of the skills clients have are related to the trafficking. Maybe they came to the country to be a nanny. We show them how to do it in an empowered way. They’re so ... what’s the opposite of built up?” she says, tucking a wisp of blond hair behind her ear. “Slammed down.”

Last year, CAST won a major victory with respect to the laws that let trafficking victims stay in the country. The T-visa is only good for two years. Yet the actual adjustment regulations — the final bureaucratic bridge from visa to green card — had not been written. People whose T-visas had expired were in limbo.

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“They weren’t legal, but they weren’t illegal either,” says Buck. “These people were model citizens. They cooperated with law enforcement, which is part of what they have to do to receive the T-visa. It unintentionally revictimized victims of crime in this country.”

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.

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