Erika Pineros, Program Coordinator for Catholic Charities Human Trafficking Victim’s Assistance Program speaks with a client.

Blessed beyond belief

Venice | Labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals, through force, fraud, or coercion, perform labor or services, according to a description on Human Trafficking
hotline.org. One Diocese of Venice family didn’t need to look it up, they lived it.

While they could be called the “Blessed Family,” because they really are special and believe God has blessed them abundantly despite much adversity, for security purposes their name for this story will be the Jones Family.

The family, speaking to the Florida Catholic from one of four safe houses provided by Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc., was reunited in 2015. This, after years of separation due to labor trafficking that began in 2008, when Mr. Jones agreed to go to work in Orlando.

The family of four — father, mother and their two daughters, who both achieved academic scholar status in the Philippines — had been living and working there when a recruiter approached the family claiming to have a job for a skilled welder in the United States. The highly educated couple, who met while working in the Philippine government, were excited at the possibility of going to work for a large reputable company in the United States. They were told a decision was needed very quickly to facilitate the necessary H2-B work visa.

“It all happened so fast, but from Friday through Sunday we talked about it and made the choice to go for the job before the deadline on Monday,” said Mrs. Jones, who speaks for the family now since an unexplained medical condition recently began affecting her husband’s mobility and speech.
The recruiter required them to pay travel expenses totaling 168,000 pesos, which is the equivalent of $3,163. Mr. Jones paid the money, said goodbye to his wife and children, and believed he was off to make a better life for his family. He couldn’t know it then, but it would be almost eight years before he would see them again.

Upon arrival to Orlando in 2008, Mr. Jones began a multiyear nightmare that would have him living with eight other men in one small room located within the factory. He slept on the floor and was not allowed to leave without supervision.

“Soon there was no money coming home because they said my husband owned them money,” said Mrs. Jones, referring to a tactic commonly used in labor trafficking cases to keep people enslaved.

She would soon realize they had been scammed, falling prey to human traffickers. Her husband worked for the Orlando company for only nine months, but would become embroiled in the aftermath for the next several years once local, state and federal authorities uncovered one of the largest cases of human trafficking Orlando had ever seen.

“I didn’t know what to do, really,” said Mrs. Jones. “It occurred to me that I needed a lawyer, but couldn’t afford one, so I went to the Catholic Law School in the Philippines to see if someone there could help me,” she said.

A young intern agreed to take the case, with oversight from a licensed attorney. “We were so happy,” she continued, thinking they caught a break.

The joy would be short-lived because by the end of the first semester it became evident that students graduate, leave school and move on, meaning multiple interns would eventually handle the case over the years.

“I had a packet of information prepared for each incoming intern, but in the end, God did not let me down,” she said.

With the guidance and support of a licensed Filipino attorney, she won the case against the recruiting company in the Philippines. This angered the perpetrators, who were well-known in the area.

“The people from the recruiting company came to my house and took our furniture claiming that my husband still owed them money,” she said, wiping a tear from her cheek, as she recalled the flood of intimidation she faced alone. “But I kept fighting.”

It would be this same faith, tenacity, and possibly a nudge from the Holy Spirit that encouraged Mrs. Jones to pick up the phone and call a priest in the Diocese of Orlando to ask for help once her husband, along with 36 other men, were turned out to the streets of Orlando without any proper documents.

The company claimed their visas were not being renewed, leaving the men stranded. Federal authorities would eventually bring labor trafficking charges against the international recruiting company, which caused a T-Visa to be issued for Mrs. Jones and their daughters, allowing the family to be reunited in 2015.

“I have not the right words for all who have helped us, but I am so thankful,” said Mrs. Jones.

Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. became involved with the family when a job in Naples caused them to relocate to Southwest Florida. Despite getting a job, there was no money and necessary credit authorizations due to their situation.

“Florida is third in the nation for human trafficking behind California and Texas, and at the time, we had no housing for human trafficking survivors; we were just opening this program,” said Erika Pineros, Program Coordinator for Catholic Charities Human Trafficking Victim’s Assistance Program in the Diocese of Venice. “The timing was God’s plan because Bishop (Frank J.) Dewane heard the need we had, and helped us find the necessary housing, right at the same time this family needed us.”

Pineros, who also helped find a pro bono attorney to assist the family in obtaining a green card, said the healing is the same for those trafficked for sex or labor.

“This is a family who missed eight Christmases together, a father who missed eight birthdays of his wife and daughters. Labor trafficking is human trafficking, and it can be as demoralizing and devastating as sex trafficking.”

To learn more or to support the Catholic Charities Diocese of Venice Inc. Human Trafficking Victim’s Assistance Program, visit www.catholiccharitiesdov.org.

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