St. James’ Elmhurst assists human trafficking victims

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Nov 18, 2015

[Episcopal News Service] Daisy Benin, a 37-year-old mother, hasn’t seen her three children in more than seven-and-a-half years, since she left them in the care of her husband in the Philippines so that she could come to work cleaning hotel rooms in New York.

Through the assistance of a Manila-based employment firm, Benin secured a visa, housing and a full-time job with a major hotel chain. Or so she thought.

Benin shared her story during a panel on human trafficking sponsored by Anglican Women’s Empowerment held earlier this fall at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

The Rev. Adrian Dannhauser, chair of the Episcopal Diocese of New York’s Task Force Against Human Trafficking, moderated the panel of lawyers, migration specialists and human rights advocates, including Bernadette Ellorin, director of Asiamerica Mission to End Modern Slavery, based at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Elmhurst, Queens.

Following the panel, in a telephone interview with Episcopal News Service, Ellorin explained how employment agencies coordinate the recruitment of migrant laborers. Instead of dealing with what appears to be a legitimate employment recruitment system, people become victims of human trafficking.

When Benin arrived in the United States, the contract guarantees never materialized.

She was not alone.

“There were a bunch of them recruited; it’s a common story people go into debt to pay the necessary fees,” said Ellorin, adding that people borrow from lending agencies affiliated with the employment agencies to pay recruitment fees and fall into debt bondage. “It’s a racket.”

Benin and the others came to New York with the promise their work visas would be processed, which didn’t happen; their passports were confiscated and held by the employer “processing” the work visas, essentially leaving the workers undocumented and vulnerable, binding them to the employer, she added.

Eventually, Benin was able to find work as a domestic.

“She has her T-visa but she had to go through the whole process and still hasn’t paid off her debt,” said Ellorin.

U.S. immigration law allows victims of human trafficking to obtain non-immigrant T-visas and remain in the country while trafficking violators are investigated and prosecuted.

Worldwide, 21 million people, including 11.4 million women and girls, are victims of trafficking. The United States is a major destination country for men, women and children trafficked for the purposes of labor and sexual exploitation.

“Immigration and labor are the same issue – and until we begin talking about them together, we’ll be in this state of inertia,” said Ellorin.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000. The act, which emphasizes protections for women and children, seeks to prevent human trafficking, protect its victims and prosecute traffickers; it was reauthorized in 2013.

Episcopalians nationwide have begun to form networks and to create awareness of the existence of human trafficking and to look for ways to assist in eradicating it; moreover Episcopalians and Anglicans are working worldwide to build awareness and educate people about human trafficking. The panel earlier this year, organized by Christina Hing, chair of Anglican Woman’s Empowerment, was part of that continuing effort. In addition to building awareness, it is looking for ways individuals and churches can respond to victims’ needs, the kind of work the Asiamerica Mission to End Modern Slavery is engaged in.

“The vision of Asiamerica Mission to End Modern Slavery came about following the first Summit Against Human Trafficking held at St. James Episcopal Church in Elmhurst last May 10, 2014,” said the Rev. Winfred Vergara, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for Asiamerica Ministries.

Vergara, who also serves as priest-in-charge of St. James’ Episcopal Church, led the effort along with several grassroots organizations including the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and the New York chapter of GABRIELA USA to form the Asiamerica Mission to End Slavery with the support of St. James’ Church.

The mission aims to develop a comprehensive resource center – for education and awareness to address human trafficking, and programs to support and empower victims, including legal and immigration assistance, referrals to women’s shelters and advocacy efforts focused on the plight of migrants, said Vergara.

Queens, where Elmhurst is located, is the third most racially diverse county in the United States, with 22.8 percent of its population identifying as Asian-American and 27.5 percent as Latin. The borough sits at the western tip of Long Island and is the port of entry for both air and sea traffic into New York City.

The borough is also “the epicenter of human trafficking in the United States, especially labor trafficking, (with) the victims mostly coming from Asia,” said Vergara.

Located in the western Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is a lower middle-income nation that is home to 96.7 million people, 25 percent of them living in poverty; the export of labor is government policy and workers ranging from low-skilled to professionals are expected to migrate. Moreover, Benin’s story is common in a global labor market that increasingly favors female workers over male workers in healthcare, childcare and eldercare, and hospitality.

“Over half of the migrants leaving the Philippines are women and they are the bread winners. The family took out a big loan in order to send her [Benin]; it destroys many families. The families get broken apart, and in more extreme cases, parents become commoditized by the children, they become accustomed to the gifts and … they don’t want to lose the support and are unfamiliar with their own parents,” said Ellorin, adding that the parent suffers racism, abuse and discrimination in the country where they work. “In many ways we are raising generations of parentless children and it’s being normalized.”

Benin plans to visit her family in the Philippines in March.

– Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.