On June 12, 2012, Dr. Jefferson Calimlim Sr, and his MD wife, Elnora, were deported from the US under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) escort and returned to their native Philippines, along with their son. They were both former medical doctors in Milwaukee who had been convicted of keeping a Filipina woman as a virtual slave in their home for nearly 2 decades. Six years earlier, a federal jury heard the story of how the couple had recruited the 19-year-old woman from the Philippines to be their domestic servant. The jury found that the psychological abuses carried out by the couple were so extreme that the case became a benchmark as the nation’s first conviction of forced labor that did not involve the use of violence.
In 1985, Elnora Calimlim’s mother arrived from the Philippines to visit her daughter and son-in-law in the US, and found that the couple was having trouble managing the responsibilities of their medical practices and the raising of 3 young children in their newly adopted country. She suggested importing one of their Filipina maids to help out the struggling family. Erma Martinez was brought illegally from the Philippines to the US by Elnora Calimlim’s father, who posed as her doctor. Erma had agreed to work for the Calimlims initially for 5 years. Soon after arriving, she mastered her household responsibilities, adapted to the chilly Midwest climate, and discovered that she was to be kept a secret from the outside world.
When the Calimlims had guests over, Erma was forced to stay in her basement bedroom with the door closed. At church, she sat in a pew far away from her employers. She was only allowed to answer the phone after 10 rings (a code indicating that a Calimlim was calling). There was to be no socializing or communication with the outside world, except for letters to and from her family back home in the Philippines. She was threatened with deportation and imprisonment if she disobeyed any of these rules. For the first 10 years, Erma earned $150 a month, which was sent back to her family and provided for the education of her siblings, her family’s health care, and a water buffalo to plow the farm. It was never enough, and her mother always asked her for more. Erma’s pay was eventually raised to $400 per month, although it is unclear how much of that money actually reached Erma’s family.
For 19 years, Erma worked 7 days a week from 6 am to 11 pm. During this time, Erma missed her siblings’ weddings, the births of 3 brothers, and the deaths of her grandfathers and her youngest brother, a boy she never met. Meanwhile, she continued to carry out her duties in the Calimlim’s 6-bedroom, $1.2 million home. In addition to her cooking and cleaning responsibilities, Erma was tasked with waxing the car and changing the oil, painting the house, and cleaning medical equipment at Dr. Calimlim’s ENT practice. When her hair needed to be trimmed, she cut it herself. When she developed a toothache, she was forbidden to visit a dentist. When she experienced extreme pain from menstrual problems, Elnora Calimlim simply informed her that it meant Erma would never be a mom.
As the Calimlim children grew up, they followed the house rules regarding Erma. They helped to keep her hidden, and referred to her as their visiting aunt whenever a non–family member happened to see her. This strategy worked until the Calimlim’s youngest son became engaged. His fiancée, Sherry, was confused by the fact that this aunt was always visiting, and yet would never sit with the family during dinner. Sherry was eventually told the truth about Erma. She reached out to the maid, and was disheartened by her story. Erma had a boyfriend in the Philippines, but hadn’t seen him since her arrival in the US. Erma feared that any chance of having children of her own had already slipped away.
When planning the guest list for her wedding, Sherry was informed that Erma was not to be invited. After Sherry persistently objected, the Calimlims relented, and Erma was allowed to attend, as long as she was seated on the opposite side of the reception hall from them. The marriage between the Calimlim son and Sherry lasted only 7 months. After the couple filed for divorce, almost 3 years after meeting Erma, Sherry contacted the US Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services. The Calimlim home was raided by federal agents in September 2004, and they found Erma hiding downstairs in her bedroom closet.
In 2006, the Calimlims were convicted of using threats of serious harm and physical restraint against Erma for almost 20 years, in violation of federal law. Defense attorneys had argued that although the family had kept Erma’s presence a virtual secret, they did it to protect her, and that Erma had accepted the conditions of her employment in order to escape living in the Philippines. Following the 8-day trial, and after 7 hours of deliberation, the jury disagreed with the defense’s argument, and found the Calimlims guilty. They were eventually sentenced to 6 years in federal prison on charges of human trafficking, and ordered to pay Erma over $900,000 in restitution. Later, the US District Court for Eastern Wisconsin awarded Erma an additional $1 million in punitive damages. In 2010, the Calimlims were ordered by a federal immigration court to be removed to the Philippines after they completed their sentences. In 2012, the Calimlims were turned over to ICE for deportation.
Unfortunately, Erma’s story is not unique. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners work as domestic servants in the US, and almost none are familiar with federal laws that have been enacted to protect their rights. Often, cultural differences can contribute to their acceptance of abuse, especially when workers come from countries with extreme income disparities, high unemployment, and an established “maid culture.” In the Philippines, for example, the hiring of household servants for as little as $3 per day is common. During the run-up to the Calimlims’ trial, over a dozen Filipino Americans gathered to offer support to the Calimlims’ attorneys, explaining that Filipino culture accepted this sort of servitude, and prior to sentencing, over 100 Wisconsin Filipinos signed a petition begging the judge for leniency.
In fact, Erma herself also appeared to accept her grim situation. In her many letters home, she repeated a line over and over: “If you’re wondering about me, I’m fine. Even if I’m lonely.” After gaining her freedom, Erma was granted eligibility to eventually apply for a green card, and she got a new job in Chicago at a cosmetics store. In the end, Erma said that she still loved the Calimlims, and was sorry about their prison terms and deportation, but that she had wanted more than what they had given her, saying, “I was waiting for that freedom.”
- Lariosa JG. Human trafficking, slavery Filipina victim awarded $1M. March 2, 2011. Balita.com. http://www.balita.ca/2011/03/human-trafficking-slavery-filipina-victim-awarded-1m/.
- Ortiz V. Maid lived 20 years in quiet struggle. Milwaukee, Wisconsin Journal Sentinel Web site. January 14, 2007. http://www.jsonline.com/news/waukesha/29322709.html.
- Sink L. Brookfield couple deported to Manila in maid slavery case. Patch.com. June 6, 2012. http://brookfield-wi.patch.com/groups/police-and-fire/p/brookfield-couple-deported-to-manila-in-maid-slavery-case.
- Wisconsin couple re-sentenced in trafficking case. The Human Trafficking Project Web site. June 10, 2009. http://www.traffickingproject.org/2009/06/wisconsin-couple-re-sentenced-in.html.
- Wisconsin couple sentenced for forcing a woman to work as their domestic servant for 19 years. US Department of Justice Web site. June 9, 2009. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2009/June/09-crt-568.html.
- Wisconsin couple who kept modern-day slave for 19 years deported to the Philippines. ICE Web site. June 15, 2012. http://www.ice.gov/news/releases/1206/120615milwaukee.htm.