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Community forum regarding human trafficking held in Richardson, TX

By Cassandra Swart |
May 5, 2019
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Nap Pempeña of Migrante talks about human trafficking.
Nap Pempeña of Migrante talks about human trafficking. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Richardson, TX - About 60 people came together at Faith United Methodist Church here, May 3, for a community forum on the trafficking of Filipino teachers in the nearby suburb of Garland. The forum was hosted by Migrante USA, Malaya Movement Texas, United Federation of Fil-Am Educators Texas, National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, North Texas Dream Team, Pilipino American Unity for Progress, and RAICES.

Three of the trafficked teachers, Adelaida Legaspi, Jamie Rivadelo and Josie Rivadelo, told their story. Starting in the early 2000s, about 60 or 70 teachers were recruited in the Philippines by unscrupulous recruiters to work in Garland, Texas schools. In a scheme headed by a man named Victor Leos, the teachers were charged about $15,000 for the services of recruiters and legal help to be brought over to the U.S. in a process they did not know amounted to visa fraud. Once in the U.S., they were forced to live in a home owned by Victor Leos’s stepson, paying inflated rates to share rooms in a small house. Some waited as much as a year for a job.

They said that Garland ISD was eventually audited by the Department of Labor and ordered to pay $224,000 in back wages to the teachers involved, but even then, they did not cut ties with Leos and his associates. Only in 2013 and 2014, when the district got a new superintendent, did it finally open an investigation.

At that time, the teachers said, the school district reported itself to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for visa fraud. The result was that some teachers lost their visas and are now at risk of deportation. Others were suddenly forced to seek jobs with other school districts, with risks of deportation if they did not succeed. Still other teachers, who have already paid thousands of dollars in fees and were waiting in the Philippines to come to the United States, had their processes canceled. It is unknown if the money they paid was refunded.

The teachers said that while many teachers so far have not faced any immigration consequences, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has sent a letter suggesting that they may, and that even people already approved for permanent residency may be at risk of losing their Green Cards.

In the meantime, the teachers said, they have put down roots in North Texas. Some now have grandchildren who live here, and being forced to return to the Philippines may mean permanent separation from the families they have raised.

According to the teachers, the school district had been warned repeatedly about the shady practices of the people it was working with. In addition to Victor Leos, there were lawyers involved. Yet the only person to face prosecution in the matter was Victor Leos himself, who is now serving a 24-month federal prison sentence and is expected to be released in a few months.

The teachers said they have had little or no help from Garland Independent School District and, while the district says it is standing by teachers, in fact it is doing nothing.

After the teachers spoke, Nap Pempeña of Migrante, gave a talk in which he explained the plight of the teachers in the overall context of labor trafficking. According to Pempeña, Filipinos are the second most trafficked nationality in the U.S. after Mexicans. And the trafficking of professionals, such as teachers and nurses, is quite common. Pempeña cited a number of cases from around the country in which dozens or even hundreds of professionals from the Philippines were trafficked. Another group Pempeña said faced trafficking was hospitality management interns. According to Pempeña, many Filipinos are brought to the U.S. on the promise of valuable management experience in hotels and vacation spots, and in fact are simply set to doing the day-to-day work of running hotels for badly reduced wages.

Pempeña also listed some of the problems faced in the fight against trafficking. These include the issue that many of the victims don't even see themselves as trafficked, and also that even in the legal field there are very few lawyers who fully understand the legal options of the people being trafficked, such as the T visa, a special visa for trafficking victims. In addition to all that, the legal environment for trafficked people has gotten worse under the Trump administration, with T visa applicants who have been denied now being referred directly to immigration court for deportation.

Other speakers included a former member of the Philippine House of Representatives, Raymond "Mong" Palatino. Palatino's talk focused on the context of trafficking within the Filipino economy, pointing out how the lack of development in the country pushed people to work abroad, often with painful results. Palatino also talked about the political problems in the Philippines which have maintained the country in a state of underdevelopment due to the subordination of its economy to the needs of foreign countries.