Freedom to Grow Again

A Human Trafficking Survivor’s Story

Jonathan Deleon and his family in downtown Chicago

“Before I left for the U.S., my wife and I were in love like Romeo and Juliet. I was so scared that we wouldn’t have that anymore. And my son is at the age where he is becoming a man, so I wasn’t sure if he would want me to hug or kiss him.”

Ten years is a long time for anything. It’s an especially long time to be away from your own family. For Jonathan Deleon, it was an eternity.

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness month. We must recognize that human trafficking is more than a practice upheld by exploitative businesses and individuals, and is the result of flawed institutional structures that exacerbate inequity and poverty. A majority of trafficking survivors enter the country legally on temporary work visas. These individuals are ambitious, hardworking people striving to achieve something greater. Most individuals who end up becoming trafficked were simply looking to work for a better life. For people like Jonathan Deleon, a hospitality worker from the Philippines, it’s a means to care for his family.

“I wanted to build a life in the United States. I wanted to do that with my family. I had to get them here, but I had to find my way first.”

In 2009, Jonathan found himself in Louisiana working at a hotel, where the threat of losing his VISA forced him to work long hours for very little pay. He was subjected to cleaning rooms for a minimum of 12 hours a day without permitted breaks, and under temperatures too hot to be considered safe.

The company he worked for would collect exorbitant fees directly from his already small paycheck and when he tried to cash them, they would often bounce or be delayed. The same agency also was in control of his housing situation, charging unmanageable rents in relation to his income and responding to late payments punitively. Jonathan was often locked out of his room or living in the dark after having his electricity cut off. He found himself in a continual loop that only seemed to put him in more debt to his employers.

Jonathon then tried organizing with a group of his fellow workers, pooling together all of their money to purchase a lawyer – only to have that lawyer disappear with their money. Exploited once more, Jonathan’s hopes to reunite with his family grew dim. This situation lasted for nine years.

“For the longest time, I didn’t know if there would be anyone willing to hear our story. I was so anxious, so sad. I’ve been away from my family for so long. I felt so alone.”

Finally, with the help of a legal aid agency, he was able to escape his traffickers and was ultimately introduced to Heartland Alliance’s Freedom From Trafficking program. The program was developed to respond to these types of issues, and has developed a region-wide network that responds to the loopholes allowing trafficking to thrive. Through a human rights based approach focused on trauma-informed care, the team has developed a strong infrastructure and community across private, public, and nonprofit sectors that work together to end trafficking.

“When I met Claire at Freedom From Trafficking, she was so warm. We met at a coffee shop and the first thing she said to me was ‘Don’t worry, I’m here to help.’”

Claire and Jonathan developed a plan to get him back on his feet – with the ultimate goal of reuniting him with his family. Claire knew that Jonathan’s experience in the hotel industry would serve him well in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country. There are countless hotels in Chicago – hotels with ethical hiring and employment practices – that often offer a wage of about $15 an hour and could put his goal of reunification on the fast track.

Claire helped Jonathan get into Heartland Alliance’s hospitality workforce program – a six week training program that would provide him with certification and a high-likelihood of employment. Upon completion, Jonathan quickly found work with a luxury hotel. Shortly after last summer, he found out that his family’s visas were accepted and they could be coming here in just a matter of weeks. What once was a dream was quickly becoming a reality.

“It was all coming together so quickly. All of a sudden, I have a real salary, I have benefits, I have health insurance. My family was coming to me. I was actually quite nervous.”

Claire joined Jonathan at the airport to welcome his wife and son. His embrace with his wife was the culmination of ten years of waiting, hoping, and dreaming of their unification. This was the reason for his leaving the Philippines ten years ago – this embrace in the heart of O’Hare Airport. This was the goal all along.

His son was a bit hesitant. Jonathan remembers seeing his son’s standoffish nature and mirroring his movements. He slowly walked up to him with a squint and a nod, and saying in a goofy tone, “So, who are you?” It was enough to break the ice, and the two laughed and hugged.

The last few weeks have been an adventure for the family. Jonathan has been helping his wife and son get used to public transportation, the cold weather, and the hustle and bustle of urban life. They’ve gone to the zoo, and have spent hours exploring downtown. His son is a huge sports fan and a member of the varsity basketball team back in the Philippines. Jonathan, a basketball fan as well, bought his son gym shoes that they’ve been testing on basketball courts across town.

Jonathan’s hard work and dedication to his family have finally brought them these moments. This is only the beginning for them, and you can feel the excitement for what lies ahead.

“Heartland Alliance has given me the room to grow again, to shine. My family and I couldn’t be more grateful.”