Rose Dominguez looks at the clear, starry night sky from the last town on Interstate 10 before the Arizona state line: Blythe, California.
A Denny’s sign glows over the parking lot. Dominguez looks at three friends around her, volunteers and staff from the Filipino Migrant Center (FMC) in Long Beach. They gas up and talk before crossing the state line. Three Filipinos they suspect to be labor trafficking survivors await them in Arizona.
Dominguez feels tension, as if her friend, Joy Prim, an FMC staff member, knows something she doesn’t. Before the trip, Prim calls Arizona attorney Mo Goldman to find out what the state’s so-called “show me your papers ” law, SB 1070, could mean for their rescue mission. They learn Arizona law enforcement will call federal immigration officials, who could detain them if they suspect anyone is undocumented. For now, the three Filipinos are undocumented.
FMC assists many labor trafficking survivors, but they’ve never rescued anyone from Arizona. FMC wants to help these Filipino workers apply for a special visa for trafficking victims. Prim knew the likelihood of a run-in with police was greater if the Filipinos took public transportation.
The team reiterates the plan. They’ll pick up two of the Filipinos tonight and the other in the morning. They’ll sleep in Chandler, Arizona, at a friend’s house. The cars will leave 10 minutes apart in the morning.
They remind each other: Drive the speed limit and wear seat belts. Don’t give the police any reason to stop you. If the police stop one car, the passengers will text the other. If police detain a worker, other passengers will text a lawyer. Males will ride in one car and females in the other. Avoid suspicion. Don’t act nervous. Rendezvous back at the Denny’s parking lot.
Nelia Sardido, Abian Riego and Banoy Santos wait in the suburbs of Phoenix. They ask for pseudonyms, because they have yet to receive immigration status and fear retribution from the employers they fled.
Many Filipinos migrate across the globe to find work. Remittances were 10 percent of the Philippine GDP in 2014, according to The World Bank. More than 2 million Filipinos worked overseas in 2014, the Philippine government estimates. A “significant number” of these workers are trafficked throughout the globe, according to the U.S. Department of State. FMC suspects they’ve uncovered one of these labor trafficking rings, headquartered in Gilbert, Arizona.
“They are selling us. It’s really like slave trading,” says Charito Ramos, who survived labor trafficking. In 2013, she received her T visa, the special visa for human trafficking victims, after fleeing the same Arizona employment agency owner that hired out the three Filipino workers. Human trafficking is categorized as labor or sex trafficking. Ramos advocates against labor trafficking and has given her testimony at FMC events to raise awareness. She now has a green card and has reunited with her family in Los Angeles.
Ramos remembers watching a 2012 episode about labor trafficking that featured FMC on a Filipino talk show called Kababayan LA. Labor trafficking survivors name the same Philippine recruitment agency that recruited her, Adman Human Resources Placement and Promotions Inc. She calls the hotline number on the screen. FMC introduces her to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), which provides her with legal services. She tells other Filipinos whom she worked with in Arizona. Word spreads and in early 2015, FMC plans a rescue mission.
This form of labor trafficking is a cross-Pacific operation. Employers in the U.S. petition the Department of Labor to fill specific jobs with guest workers. Philippine employment agencies recruit workers. They charge large fees, but promise gainful employment in the United States. Workers borrow money. The employment agencies send them to unauthorized jobs, striping them of immigration status. Employers threaten to call the police if they step out of line, driving them in the shadows and fearful of being deported back home empty-handed.
The Enticing Offer
Sardido’s journey starts in 2007, in a two-bedroom, apartment in Manila, Philippines. She and her husband talk about money. There isn’t enough. Their four children are young, but in a few years they’ll go to college, which is expensive.
Sardido earns 45 pesos a day, about a dollar, as an accountant for the local government. Her husband earns even less delivering food. She believes she can earn much more by working in the United States.
“Even though we are poor, we want our children to be in a better life,” Sardido says. “Only the education can uplift their life.”
In 2008, Sardido’s friend recommends StarGuide Manpower Services Inc., an agency that promises her a well-paying hotel housekeeping job in Missouri. Filipinos must apply through employment agencies licensed by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) to seek work abroad. There are hundreds of agencies in the Philippines that make up a large industry of employment placement offices. FMC staff say that corruption contributes to labor trafficking scams.
Sardido’s StarGuide application wasn’t her first attempt to work overseas. In 2004 she tried going to Canada, then Australia and then Ireland. No luck. All three employment agencies were “fake” and took her money, she says.
Things are different this time. Sardido gets an interview for an H-2B visa, a temporary nonagricultural work visa, at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. “All the dreams of the Filipinos (are) to work here in the U.S.,” she says. “It’s the greener pasture.”
Sardido practiced possible interview questions for weeks. All she can do now is pray. “Oh, God, please help me,” she says.
An embassy official, who she supposes is in his late 50s, interviews her. He asks what job she is seeking. “Hotel worker,” she replies.
He asks if she’s qualified. She assures him that she is. StarGuide has required Sardido to pay for a three-month training course in housekeeping. Other than that question, she is surprised that he asks her mostly personal questions such as, “Are you prepared to leave your family?” she says.
She passes her interview and smiles and jumps in the air. “I am so very, very happy because it’s an answered prayer,” she says.
She celebrates with her family back at home, but her children ask her: “Oh, Mommy, are you going to work abroad and you’re leaving [us] here?”
All that’s left to do is to buy her plane ticket and pay additional StarGuide fees. She mortgages her father’s rice field for more than $6,600 U.S. dollars — several years salary — to do so. Then, a day before she leaves, StarGuide holds what Sardido calls a “briefing.”
Sardido receives instructions to fly to Los Angeles, go through U.S. Customs, but skip her connecting flight to Missouri.
There is no hotel housekeeping job in Missouri, StarGuide informs her. She won’t work the job approved on her H-2B visa. That means her immigration status is compromised. If she goes now, she will be undocumented.
She is frightened by the new instructions, but she has already paid the fees and bought her ticket. She thinks about her debt and doesn’t see a choice. “I’m supposed to be brave for the sake of my family,” she says. Her husband and eldest son take her to the airport the next day.
The Desert Reality
StarGuide instructs her to take a taxi to the Los Angeles Greyhound bus station and travel to Phoenix. Someone will meet her there.
When she lands in Los Angeles, she follows the instructions. A man introduces himself at the Phoenix bus station. He takes her to a residential brick house in Gilbert, Arizona. It is beautiful, Sardido thinks. The house is an assisted living facility called Caissa Assisted Living Home.
The next day she meets Lilibeth Barcenilla, the owner. You’re hired as a caregiver, Sardido recalls Barcenilla informing her. “I don’t have (a) choice but to work,” she says.
One patient of hers suffers from Parkinson’s. Another has dementia. Sardido cooks meals, administers medications, cleans the grounds and bathes patients. Her only training is her first three days on the job. She works for 12 hours a day, six days a week. The pay starts at $1,300 a month and increases up to $1,500. She’s allowed to work night shifts for extra cash. She does so every other night.
Barcenilla, she said, threatens to call immigration to deport her if she quits. And Barcenilla forbids her from using the phone, according to Sardido.
Sardido borrows other workers’ laptops to talk to her family. She Skypes them in a closet and cries the first time she sees them. Her children cry, too. She saves for six months to by her own computer. She saves for a year to buy a phone.
She sleeps in the same walk-in closet with other workers. When working night shifts, Sardido sleeps on the living room sofa.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Instead of whips and chains, Sardido attests to experiencing trickery and debt bondage. “Most people don’t stop long enough to realize it’s trafficking,” Prim says. If it’s not a dramatic scene like a sweatshop. They blame it on the worker because of their immigration status. That’s why trafficking in hotels and assisted living facilities goes undetected, she says.
Human trafficking is difficult to detect.
“If you’re not looking for (human trafficking), you won’t find it,” says Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Erik Breitzke. He worked as the chief of the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit in Washington, D.C., for years and is now a supervisory special agent in Sells on the Tohono O’odom Reservation.
Health inspectors from Arizona Department of Health Services who check-in on assisted living facilities are not trained to look for labor trafficking signs. Additionally, even law enforcement has trouble detecting labor trafficking victims or scenarios because of the crime’s clandestine nature, Breitzke says. That’s why federal investigators who can dig beneath the surface are crucial, he says. In cases of trafficking guest-workers, such as H-2B workers, much responsibility rests on the Department of Labor to inspect working conditions. But the DOL admits that it will never have enough inspectors for all 135 million workers nationwide. Employers systematically abuse H-2B workers because the DOL fails to adequately enforce workplace regulations, says Meredith Stewart, a Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney.
Human trafficking can be elusive. It always looks like something else, Breitzke says. He tells his agents, “There is a big difference . . . between what you suspect, what you know and what you can prove.” But if you invest resources to investigate human trafficking “you tend to find more of it,” he says.
Since 2013, eight Filipino workers have fled to the Filipino Migrant Center in Long Beach, California, from assisted living facilities in the Phoenix suburbs, where Desert Employment had hired them out. Four Filipino workers have already received T visas. More remain in Arizona, Prim says.
Arizona Sonoran News Service interviewed five Filipino workers who say Desert Employment, owned in part by Lilibeth Barcenilla, either hired them at facilities owned by Barcenilla or distributed them to other facilities.
Barcenilla says she owns five assisted living facilities, a number that has slightly fluctuated over the years, with a current total of 39 beds. The reason she formed Arizona Desert Employment Agency LLC in 2007 was to hire H-2B workers to fill needed housekeeper positions, she says. All of the H-2B visas were legal, she maintains.
Department of Labor records confirm that Desert Employment legally petitioned H-2B workers. In 2008 the DOL certified the agency’s 21 H-2B petitions. In 2009, the agency petitioned three times for a total of 170 workers. The DOL certified 127. In 2010 the agency was denied 50 petitions, and was denied 50 more in 2011.
Barcenilla said she heard “rumors” that recruitment agencies in the Philippines were misusing her H-2B petitions so she thought she “better shut it down” to protect her name. She terminated it in June 2011. Barcenilla says the reason her previous workers have received or are applying for T visas is because they are abusing the program.
The discrepancy, however, between Barcenilla and the Filipino worker’s versions isn’t that her agency legally petitioned H-2B workers. It’s that the jobs certified on their H-2B visas didn’t exist, and that Desert Employment put them to work elsewhere under abusive working conditions and threat of deportation. None of the workers reported being housekeepers. All were direct caregivers to patients, according to FMC.
According to FMC, Desert Employment wasn’t Sardido’s H-2B visa sponsor. FMC found that in 2011 John Voisine, the owner of the Missouri hotel on Sardido’s H-2B visa, pled guilty in federal court to a visa fraud scheme, Prim says. The U.S embassy in Manila flagged him for requesting an unusually high amount of H-2B visas, according to a press release by the U.S. attorney’s office. The Western District of Missouri U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on possible connections between Voisine and Arizona Desert Employment.
From the start, Sardido wants to run from Caissa Assisted Living Home, but she is scared of being deported back to the Philippines, not having provided for her family and unable to pay off her debts.
After a year and a half, the job becomes too much to handle. Her patient with dementia begins escaping the facility, igniting the gas-stove burners at night and hitting caregivers, she says. Finally, she decides to leave the facility.
Afterward, Sardido works without immigration status at various assisted living facilities in Arizona for several years. In January 2015 after hearing about FMC from other Filipino workers, she calls. Prim answers.
Prim and Sardido meet face-to-face on Valentine’s Day in 2015. They hug and share candy on the way to Long Beach. Everyone takes a deep breath when they cross the state border. The Filipino workers had been avoiding Arizona police since they saw SB 1070 become law on the news.
Sardido faces a long road to get her T visa. But it is a potential pathway to reuniting with her family in the U.S.
Eventually Sardido and the two other Filipino workers will turn in their T visa applications, but that doesn’t guarantee an investigation by law enforcement into the labor practices they endured.
Ideally T visas could refer ICE to investigate and build a case against human traffickers, Breitzke says. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can grant a T visa without law enforcement “even being aware that the application was filed,” Special Agent Breitzke says.
“Labor trafficking is today’s world’s slavery,” Prim says. “We need…to end it.”