From trafficking victim to militant migrant

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September 20, 2013 by Noel Pangilinan

By Cecil Delgado

(Speech to NJ youth and students, ex-Braceros at the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees 4 (IAMR4) information session at St. Peter’s University, Jersey City, NJ, on Sept. 14)

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Cecil Delgado. Photo courtesy of AnakBayan – NJ

Good afternoon everyone. Buenas tardes a todos los Braceros. Ako po si Cecil Delgado (I am Cecil Delgado), a mother of an 11-year-old boy, a migrant worker and part of Florida 15, a group of human trafficking survivors.

A month ago, I was asked by Yves Nibungco, secretary general of Filipino youth group Anakbayan-New Jersey, to share our story for the nth time. At first, I was hesitant to do this. I was scared I might say things that people wouldn’t understand. I was scared that I might fail to deliver the message.

Then I remembered that around 2007, in front of 10 corporate officers and almost 200 crew members of different nationalities, I put my employment at risk by standing up and asking questions on behalf of the crew members who did not have the courage to speak for themselves. I never thought raising questions to management could be a reason for them to send me home, a reason for them to end my career as a seafarer.

The company decided to send me home because they considered me a threat, that I am an activist. At first, I wasn’t sure about that [being an activist], but I was sure of one thing – that I stood up and fought for I what I knew was right.

That is the reason I am standing in front of you — because by telling my story, or our [Florida 15’s] story, I would be able to inspire and encourage 200 more victims to come out of the shadows, or maybe 200 more Braceros to seek justice.

I hope that by sharing our story, people will be inspired and encouraged, just as how Leticia Moratal’s and Jackie Aguirre’s [Filipino survivors of labor trafficking in New York] stories inspired us.

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Cecil Delgado, right, at a forum in Jersey City, NJ. Photo courtesy of AnakBayan – NJ

Aside from working in different hotels and restaurants in the Philippines, I was a seafarer before. I ventured into sea-based employment because aside from providing a good salary, I also got to visit different countries. Unfortunately, it ended only after four years of working for them.

I was helping my family run a business back in the Philippines when a friend of mine encouraged me to apply at an agency that sends workers abroad. Luckily, after a month of processing, I was hired to work as a waitress. March 2008 was when I first set my feet on Miami, Florida. 2008 was the year I migrated to the United States as a contract worker.

I personally decided to migrate simply because, like everybody else, I want a better future for my family. A future that my country cannot offer.

My initial intention was only to work, earn and save, but I ended up being a human trafficking victim or a victim of unfair labor practices. I couldn’t believe that I can be a victim of such thing, because when I was applying for the job, everything seemed legitimate, fair and legal. Complete trainings, paperwork, and documents from the United States were handed to me.

I also didn’t know that the term “labor trafficking” existed. Before, whenever I hear the word “trafficked victim”, sex trafficking came to mind, but I was wrong.

It was only after three years after having resigned as an executive assistant of Jose Villanueva, a Filipino employer who owned SanVilla Ship, the agency that took us from the Philippines and brought us here, that it hit me — human trafficking is really happening here in the United States.

I never worked as a full-time waitress, which my contract stated. Rather, I worked as a 24/7 executive assistant. In that role, I witnessed everything – payroll discrepancies, tax fraud, visa fraud, forced labor, unauthorized deductions, etc. I was also forced to multi-task and maximize my time to minimize my loads.

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Cecil Delgado (center, in black) with ex-Braceros from Mexico and students who attended the recent International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees 4 (IAMR4) information session at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, NJ.  Photo courtesy of AnakBayan – NJ.

I was working 60-70 hours a week, no overtime pay, paid less, managing almost 100 employees and attending to their concerns, meeting clients here and there, scouting, driving, managing time sheets – you name it! I did it all by myself.

My experience and knowledge of the situation made it easy for me to seek a legal advice through the endorsement of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON). Atty. Vinluan then confirmed that I was a human trafficking victim, along with 14 others from SanVilla Ship.

A family member once asked me if working abroad is easy or hard. The answer always depends on one’s current situation. Let’s just say it’s both easy and hard. Easy because you are earning more than what you can earn in your home country, because you can buy what you want whenever you want it, and easy because you can visit different places and meet new friends along the way.

On the other hand, it’s hard because, aside from being away from your family for an indefinite period of time, you are also putting your life in danger or putting your future at risk. Death of a family member, broken families, and separation of husband and wife are becoming part of the “unwritten contract” for migrant workers.

Being in another country is always a gamble. Almost like playing a card game; magkamali ka ng balasa, next thing you know ikaw na yung nasa box (if you shuffle the cards wrong, you end up being trapped in the box).

Minsan masarap din maging migrante dahil madalas we send balikbayan boxes to our families, pero minsan nakakatakot din, dahil minsan ang migrante na mismo ang laman ng box (Sometimes, it feels good being an immigrant worker because we can often send balikbayan boxes to our families; but sometimes it is scary because many migrants end up being sent home in coffins).

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Cecil Delgado together with other members of the Florida 15 during the Philippine Independence Day parade in New York in June. Photo courtesy of AnakBayan – NJ

What is most difficult from a mother’s/ migrant worker’s/ victim’s point of view, is when you fight your battle without seeing your government in the equation. Government officials always forget the fact that their purpose is to first, protect the migrant workers, ensure that we are safe, ensure that we are getting the assistance and help that we need, and most importantly, to ensure that we are able to come back home alive and safe.

Our case has been running for two years now and the Philippine government has only helped us once, with our persistence. Until now, we are still waiting for the rest of the legal assistance fund for our lawyer which they promised a year ago.

Being a migrant worker is not as easy as what our families, or society, think. The Florida 15 filed its case against our former employer in 2011. February of this year, we received our T-Visa and employment cards. If it wasn’t for these community organizations and our lawyer who have been helping us; if it wasn’t for our decision to coordinate with them; if it wasn’t for our resolve to be united, maybe we’d still be waiting for nothing to this day.

By acting together, we are now reaping the fruits of our collective efforts. In July, I finally signed and filed a petition for my son. A son who I haven’t seen in almost six years, a son that I haven’t seen play basketball or soccer, a son that I haven’t watched in his swimming competitions. A son who I begged to have but had to leave.

Our lawyer said he can join me here before this year ends. I don’t know if I should be excited to see him or scared because we may not have the same old connection as before, but I am sure that my son is one reason I have remained strong through these years.

They say a woman becomes stronger because of the pain she has faced and won. I believe this also goes to all the migrant workers. Everyday, we are facing unseen battles. Don’t step back, move forward and always think that in fighting a battle you either win or lose; but what matters is you chose to stand up and fight for your rights.

To all the migrant workers out there, times have molded us. We have had enough pain and suffering. This is the time that we need to put our actions together. It may not be an easy path, but things always get better if we are all in the fight together.

Muli, ako po si Cecil Delgado (Again, I am Cecil Delgado), a mother, a migrant worker, once a victim but now a survivor. And migranteng militante (militant migrant).

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Leaders of immigrant youth organizations perform at a recent protest action against immigration detention. Click photo to watch video.

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