Forced Labour in Open View and the Contradictions of Trump's Anti-Immigration

By: Alyssa Nedrow

When the term “human trafficking” is used many people automatically think about sex trafficking. However, Velma Veloria, a former Representative of Washington State, expresses that as she has found in her community it is often so much more than just sex; the issue also has a lot to do with labor.

Veloria’s passion for anti-trafficking work began in 1995 when three Filipina women were murdered in the King County Courthouse.  Suzanna Remerata Blackwell, her unborn child, and her two friends, Phoebe Dizon and Victoria Laureata, were waiting for Blackwell to plea for divorce. That is when Blackwell’s husband came into the courthouse and shot her in the stomach, killing Blackwell and their unborn child, and then turned and shot Blackwell’s two friends. Blackwell was brought into the United States from the Philippines as a mail-order bride.

At the time of the murders, Veloria was the first Asian American and first Filipina American elected into the Washington State legislature. She was representative of the 11th District, which has a large Filipino population, and was chair of the Community, Trade and Economic Development Committee. As the only Filipina American in the state legislature she struggled with how she can help ease the pain her own community was feeling as a result to those murders. At first, she wanted to create legislation that would require the mail-order bride industry be regulated and pay taxes in order to hold the industry more accountable. However, people were fearful that if the industry was to be regulated many of the victims, a majority if which are women, would be even more afraid to report acts of violence against them.

In 1999 another Filipina mail-order bride was found to have been brought into the states by her bigamist husband and forced to be a maid and domestic helper to his first wife. At the same time, the body of Anastasia King originally from Kyrgyzstan, was found near the home she shared with her husband. King was also brought into Washington state as a mail-order bride. A trend was beginning to emerge, and the community recognized the issue extended beyond the Filipino community; this was no longer just a problem of domestic violence.

“We looked at the issue regarding women migrating here to Washington State in order to marry someone. What was forcing people to leave their countries and what was pulling them to come to a country like the United States?”, said Veloria. 

After researching the mail-order bride industry Veloria found that this was another form of human trafficking, known as “bride trafficking.”

Veloria exclaims that, “In the process of trying to understand the push and pull factors of the issue we began to understand that it all fit into the definition of force, fraud and coercion. People are forced out of their county and are brought to the United States all because they are ‘promised’ to get a job here. So, many are coerced to come here in hopes to better their lives and for a lot of people once they arrive they have no support system and must rely on their traffickers, so they just do whatever they are told”.

Veloria began to put legislation together to criminalize human trafficking on the state level, but she also acknowledged that there was a lack of education on the topic and that she would need to raise public awareness. In 2003, the Washington State legislature unanimously passed H.B. 1175, making the recruitment, harbor, transportation or obtaining people for services using force, fraud or coercion a serious federal offence. The bill also offered new protections to mail-order brides. Although the federal government already had laws governing trafficking crimes, Washington State was the first in the nation to criminalize human trafficking on the state level.

Fast forward to 2006, the law has been in place for three years and yet no one has yet been tried under the law. However, out in plain sight, a woman is working under forced labor in Bellingham, WA, a small city roughly 90 miles north of Seattle. Bellingham was the first place Grace Castillo (name has been changed for security reasons) had been in the United States as she was brought there from the Philippines by her “employer’s” sister.

“All I thought was I was going to work for them being a nanny, but it was not, that is not what happened. I did everything for the family,” stated Castillo.

But being from the Philippines Castillo did not know that this was exploitation and not knowing anyone aside from the family she was forced to continue working for them.

Castillo worked for the family seven days a week, was not allowed to go anywhere by herself, and was always with the family. Castillo explained that while the parents were at work she would look after their kids but that the grandmother was also always around, and that she was extra horrible to her.

“They always cursing at me like I’m a bad person, that I’m stealing stuff from them and she shout at me every time because I’m always with her. And when I would send a package to the Philippines they always look at my stuff before I put it in the bag,” explained Castillo.

This abuse carried on for three years, all the while Castillo was only making a salary of $200/month, which seems like a lot of money for someone from the Philippines. As explained by Veloria, “People are enticed to come to the United States because of a good job that pays U.S. Dollars. I believe $1 USD is equal to 45 Pesos in the Philippines”. So, in Castillo’s case she felt like she was making quite a lot of money.

However, after three years Castillo simply could not take it anymore.

“I just wanted to go home. They didn’t know I was trying to leave, I just told them I was going to go out. But that time I just wanted to ask for help. But you know Bellingham is not like Seattle, I didn’t have friends. I just hoped, I just wanted to go home. So, that’s why I left and went to Seattle,” Castillo said as she started to choke up.

“Sorry I just, I don’t want to remember those things. It’s been six, seven years since I moved here but… every time I share this story, I don’t really want to talk about it, but I know it’s important to share. Even though it’s done it is still there.”

Castillo made it to Seattle and was able to get help. She was introduced to Veloria and other members of the Filipino community that are constantly working on anti-trafficking measures. Someone from the Filipino community advised her the best thing to do was to turn herself in and call an immigration officer. She was then detained for six weeks at the Tacoma Detention Center while paperwork was being filed and her case was beginning to be investigated. During the investigation it was found that she was a victim of human trafficking. When Castillo was told she was a victim of human trafficking she said she had no idea that was what was happening. That’s why she had stayed with the family for so long because she did not realize that what they were doing was illegal. However, even with these findings her case was difficult to prove. At the time there was no definition of forced labor in the legislation, so it took two years until it was all finally over, and she was able to apply for a green card.

Thinking back on her experiences Castillo gets extremely emotional,

“I’ve been here for ten years and I couldn’t see my family. Even now my case is done, and I’m still scared to go home. It’s really impacted me, you know? My life is going on but that’s not going to change what has happened to me here”.

“Even though it’s over it’s still fresh. I want to go home but I don’t feel like I’m safe if I go home. Especially because my trafficker, they still live in the Philippines. Someone one time approached the area of my town to tell them what I did to them, like I did something wrong with them because I charged them of trafficking. They said that I did this to them, that they didn’t bring me to the U.S. The people back there, they don’t know what’s going on even if I try to explain. That’s why it’s hard because when I think about going home I think, ‘never mind, I’m just going to stay here,’” she said.

Castillo believes that it is important for her to speak up and share her story because she recognizes that not many people know that this issue of labor trafficking is happening every day and everywhere. “I still want to speak up, even though it’s hard for me to hold my emotions. But I can tell my story and what’s happened to me so that people know this is wrong. People who may be in the same situation and did not even know it. When I got out of there I didn’t know where to go but I just had the urge. So when I did that I found out that there is a problem and that people can help you. Don’t be afraid, be smart, be strong and speak up,” she exclaimed.

In 2015-2016, Veloria worked with Senator Hasegawa to on legislation that would expand on how Washington State legally understands human trafficking in terms of enforcement. SB 5342 passed during the 2016 Legislative Session. In particular the bill expanded the definition of human trafficking and included the words “forced labor”, which has been found to account for the largest portion of human trafficking. This added definition will hopefully aid in preventing further cases of labor trafficking falling through the gaps.

Although, Castillo thankfully made it away from the family that was exploiting her and eventually got the help she needed, she was still being used by this family for three years in open view.

Unfortunately, Castillo's story is not one of a kind, rather she is one of many. Research shows that human trafficking is becoming the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.  According to a report released from the International Labor Organization (ILO) in September of 2017 an estimated 24.9 million people were victims of human trafficking worldwide. Out of this number, 16 million (64 percent) were exploited into forced labor and of those 16 million, 3.8 million (24 percent) were forced to work as domestic workers. Further, of the estimated 16 million victims of labor trafficking only 1,038 cases were prosecuted globally. These statistics are shocking, it seems absurd that 24 percent of victims of forced labor are coerced into domestic work. This is work that often takes place in direct, open view.  Why do so many people stay silent surrounding this issue?

In the case of Castillo, how is it that people in the community, did not recognize the family had someone, who was clearly not from there, working for them constantly and was only ever seen outside of the house with the family? How did this not raise a red flag to people who knew the family or interacted with them on a regular basis?

For some of these questions, there may be no logical answers. But to start, the human trafficking industry generates an extreme amount of money. According to a 2017 report by ILO, human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers. In terms of labor trafficking, forced labor saves people and corporations money. The ILO report states that $8 billion is saved annually by private households that employ domestic workers under conditions of forced labor. Castillo’s “employer” knew full well how she got to the United States and why her labor was so cheap.

There is a huge demand for the human trafficking industry because without the demand from the perpetrators, suppliers would not have the market. This issue can no longer be one that is framed as if people are just blissfully unaware. These crimes are taking place in open sight. However, people remain silent and further exploit people because the wealthy have the power and status to get what they want without having to be held accountable to pay the full price.

Further, what does this mean as we continue into era of globalization and under President Trump’s “America First” agenda?

On 9th of February 2017 President Trump issued the “Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking.” As a part of his “America First” agenda, which includes his aggressive immigration enforcement and the refugee ban, President Trump’s executive order on human trafficking states that, “transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations, including transnational drug cartels, have spread throughout the Nation, threatening the safety of the United States and its citizens”.  

It is important to acknowledge that there are obvious contradictions of Trump’s “America First” agenda, particularly in regard to his aggressive immigration stance. In a report released in 2017 by American Progress, it is found that “immigrants are less likely to commit crimes and be incarcerated than the U.S.-born population”.

Although the executive order seems like President Trump is taking a serious stance on human trafficking it must be analyzed in a critical manner. The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) explains that, “traffickers… use immigration status as a tool of coercion to exploit immigrant communities, both documented and undocumented.”

The executive order, therefore, facilitates rather than prevents human trafficking of vulnerable people in the U.S. and around the world.  In regard to his aggressive immigration enforcement, victims of human trafficking may feel even more afraid to report abuse. Under the Trump presidency, any suspected undocumented people encountered are fair game for deportation, including those that are victims of trafficking. A report released by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Institute for Policy Studies addresses that the greater the threat of deportation, the more control a trafficker has over their victims. The fear of coming forward could further hurt the efforts of anti-trafficking in that it has the opportunity to increase the number of people that could be trafficked.

President Trump and his supporters continue to shout the, “build a wall” narrative, immigrants are in “gangs, drug dealers, rapists and a threat to our society”. All the while, they are actively contributing to the exploitation of people for labor so that they can get what they want at a cheap price.

The U.S. economy is being fueled by the illegal activity that is bringing people in for cheap labor. A report by the Economic Policy Institute shows that, “unauthorized immigrants account for about 3.7 of the total U.S. population and about 5.2 percent of the labor force”. It is necessary to call out these contradictions when discussing the policies of anti-trafficking, immigration, trade, labor rights and human rights. If they continue to go unaddressed people will continue to be coerced into forced labor and exploited in open view. 

In an article about a human trafficking conference Dr. Sutupa Basu, Director of the University of Washington Women’s Center, addressed,

“Globalization has made international borders increasingly porous, and the scale of human trafficking has proliferated. Even though trafficking is now recognized as a human rights issue, other dimensions of the trade – such as public health, labor rights, immigration law and criminal justice – are still not given enough attention”.