By Monica Rhor
The Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — Like dozens of other workers from Vietnam and China, Tiep Ngo had been lured to the Daewoosa clothing factory in American Samoa by promises of good pay. She left behind her child, her husband and her parents and paid $5,000 for her job contract only to be starved, beaten and cheated of wages.
For nearly two years, Ngo labored in overcrowded factory, subsisting on meager portions of rice and cabbage. In 2001, through the efforts of Good Samaritans, federal agents and churches, Ngo and 300 other workers were rescued and brought to the U.S. mainland, some of the first immigrants to receive special T-visas allowing human trafficking victims to remain in this country and eventually become permanent residents.
Shortly after their rescue, the Daewoosa trafficking victims were given a choice. They could return to their homelands, or they could stay in the United States and serve as witnesses in the criminal case against their former employer.
About 260 mostly Vietnamese workers chose to stay. Their testimony helped convict the factory owner, who was charged with holding workers in involuntary servitude, sentenced to 40 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution.
Starting in 2002, the workers began to receive T-visas, which were authorized under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The visas — of which more than 1,300 have been issued — allow holders to apply for permanent residency after three years or when the criminal case against their abuser is closed.
The T-visas also allowed the former Daewoosa workers to bring their children and spouses to this country.
But the visas were valid for just three years, and immigration officials didn’t issue the regulations needed to adjust the immigration status of T-visa holders to permanent residents until December 2008. By then, visas issued to the Daewoosa workers had long since expired and their green card requests had been stalled for years.
“It took time to get it right. There are so many agencies involved in the discussions, and many complicated, intricate issues,” said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
As a result of the delay, the former workers and their families have been treated by some like illegal immigrants. They have been denied public assistance and college financial aid, even though they are authorized to work and entitled to refugee benefits.
One Daewoosa survivor, a 41-year-old woman who lives in the Houston area and works in a nail salon, is like many of the former garment factory workers. Her son was 7 when she left Vietnam for American Samoa. When federal officials shuttered the factory and she received her T-visa, her husband refused to let the boy leave Vietnam.
Over the years, she settled for monthly telephone conversations with her son, telling him to study hard and be good. She never stopped trying to persuade her husband and his family to change their minds.
\Last March, they relented. But her T-visa had expired and she could no longer sponsor her son’s entry to the U.S.
At the time, all she could do was hope that the government would finally issue the needed regulations and her long-awaited green card request would eventually be granted. As a legal resident, she would be able to bring her son into the country.
“There was nothing I could do,” said the woman. “At times I was frustrated, but I am more sad than anything else.” She asked that her name not be used out of fear that it could hurt her pending immigration request.
Tiep Ngo was one of the lucky ones. In 2004, she reunited with her husband and son after nearly five years.
The boy, Minh Leu, had just turned 13 when Ngo left for American Samoa, hoping to earn enough money to pull her family out of poverty. Leu was a tall 17-year-old when they saw each other again.
Leu had spent months learning English in preparation for his journey to the United States. But the sight of his mother after so many years left him without words.
“I was speechless. I was thinking: Is that really my mother?” said Leu, who is now a pre-pharmacy student at the University of Houston. “We didn’t speak a lot at first. After you’ve been separated a long time, there is too much to say so you can’t speak a bit of it.”
His mother divulged little about her experiences in the Daewoosa factory, saying the memories were too awful for her son to hear. Instead, the family focused on building a new life in Houston.
Here, Ngo worked in an electronics factory, then sewing curtains and drapes until a car accident left her unable to work. Her husband earns a modest living making windows and frames.
After years of saving every penny and working long hours, the couple was finally able to buy a house in northeast Houston.
But this family has also run into roadblocks. With an expired T-visa, Ngo has been unable to visit her elderly mother in Vietnam, whom she has not seen in 10 years.
Her son thought he would have to put his studies on hold because of visa-related fin-ancial strain — a problem that has confronted other children of Daewoosa workers, according to Thang Nguyen, executive director of Boat People SOS, which helps the students obtain documents they need.
The University of Houston at first denied financial aid to Minh Leu because of the expired T-visa. It took him more than a year to convince school officials that he was here legally and entitled to the assistance. In March, he was finally awarded $4,300 in aid — about half of his yearly tuition costs.
“I am trying to accomplish something here,” said Leu. “The United States has been good to us, so now I want to be a good citizen.” (end)