Trafficked in the
Land of the Free

by Santiago J. Arnaiz

Eleonor Ramos couldn’t sleep at all that night.
The sound of sirens was keeping her up.
Somewhere outside, a police car was approaching.
Cold sweat dripping down her neck, she sat motionless.
They were coming for her. She knew it.

In another part of the room sat a pair of eviction letters. Her employers
were supposed to have paid the rent. They docked her wages $150 for
it every two weeks. The sirens grew louder. It had been three days
since the water and electricity had been cut, and all the food in the
refrigerator had spoiled.

Ramos shifted slowly, careful not to make a noise. Against the wall,
she could see the subtle rise and fall of her husband’s silhouette, lying
prone on the bed bug-ridden mattress they shared. She couldn’t see
his face, but she knew he was awake. Their two co-workers in the
room next door must have been awake, too. None of them slept. How
could they, with the constant fear of arrest and deportation hanging
over them. She held her breath, afraid to make a sound.

The sirens passed.

She waited for the silence to set in again before letting out a sob.
Ramos thought of her three children waiting for her back in the
Philippines, how she had promised to visit them every year. She
thought about the crippling debt that waited for her as well – how,
after more than six months working for her current employers, she
and her husband were barely making enough money to survive, much
less pay it back. They had sacrificed so much to get here, to this
dingy apartment they shared with two strangers.

“Sometimes, you can’t help but be pushed to tears thinking
about what you’ve experienced.”

The Ramoses were working for a group called HCMS, a
staffing company that had them cleaning a hotel in Bossier
City, Louisiana.

Their employers had hidden the fact that they failed to
renew their workers’ required work visas. But even after the
Ramoses found out, there was nothing they could do. In the
eyes of the law, they were illegally employed and shouldn’t
have been working in America.
But if they stopped working, their employers had threatened
to have them arrested and deported.
They were trapped.

In 2009, she came to America in the hopes of finding work as a seasonal laborer. Following her husband Ferdinand, who left for America in 2007, she had planned to stay in the United States for no more than three years, working wherever she could to make enough money to get her children back home through school.

She and her husband had applied through the H2B visa program, a program designed for temporary workers doing seasonal, non-agricultural jobs in the U.S. At the time, their only focus was getting to America and providing their family a better life.

They had no idea they had just sold themselves into the modern slave trade.

Eleonor Ramos is a full-time nanny, employed by a family in Brooklyn.

It’s a scenario that plays out every day around the world.
According to a report published in 2012 by the International
Labor Organization, there were a recorded 18.7 million victims
of human trafficking in the world who, like the Ramoses, were
trapped in jobs from which they could not leave.

According to Song Kim, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal
Defense Fund, migrant workers like the Ramoses are especially
vulnerable to abusive employers.

“As soon as they come to the U.S., now they’re isolated,” Kim said. “They
don’t have any social contacts. They don’t speak the language. They don’t
know anything about the laws. And so they are now primed to be exploited.”

“Sometimes we’d bump into
police and we’d be terrified,”
Ramos said.

“We were terrified that we’d be
approached by police and end
up in jail.”

Today, nearly a decade since their journey began,
Eleonor and Ferdinand Ramos have found a measure
of peace living in Woodside, a Queens neighborhood
home to a stretch of Filipino establishments called
Little Manila. After escaping their traffickers and flying
to New York City, the Ramoses began the arduous
process of securing legal status in the U.S.

On Oct 29, 2015, after a year of filing and
investigations, poring over receipts and
documents she had meticulously
organized over the years, Eleonor Ramos
was finally granted a T-Visa, awarding
her, her husband and their children
permission to live and work in America.

Trina and Troy, the couple’s two youngest children, live with
them in Woodside, studying at The International High School at
LaGuardia Community College. Their eldest, Trixia, just finished
her university studies in the Philippines earlier this month.

Ramos went home to attend the graduation, saying she had
already missed so many of her children’s milestones, trading
those memories with them for a chance of a better future for

On April 18, Trixia Ramos
flew with her mother back
to New York – their family
reunited and living
together for the first time
in almost ten years.

At home, the Ramos family was welcomed back by
friends from Damayan, a grassroots community
group of Filipino migrant workers. Like Eleonor and
Ferdinand, these women were all survivors of
labor trafficking.

Since 2011, Damayan has helped over three
dozen trafficking survivors escape their dire
situations, find legal and social services and
reunite with their families. As big an
accomplishment as that is, it’s still an ongoing
struggle. According to Rose Alovera, a board
member at Damayan, the association handles
anywhere from 30 to 40 trafficking cases at any
given time.

Despite all she’s suffered, Ramos said that had she
known the actual risks she was facing back in 2009,
she would have still chosen to find work in America.

“I needed to work,” she said. “I needed to provide for
my family.”

But, knowing what she knows now, she’d be more
careful and more vigilant.

“I wouldn’t make the same mistakes.”

“I’d be more bold in fighting for my rights,” she said.
“Now that I have more experience, I know the rules
involved in going to work abroad.”