Things have been going great for Jia Tolentino, the best-selling author of the essay collection "Trick Mirror". (You might also remember her as the former deputy editor of Jezebel and contributing writer at the now defunct Hairpin). She's a beloved cultural critic, translating millennial issues such as ecstasy use, athleisure, and vaping for the blue-blooded boomer subscribers of the New Yorker. Her fan following is more like that of a minor pop star than that of an author and the literary hype for her writing is the envy of every MFA graduate. She lives mostly in Brooklyn but owns a house in the Hudson Valley (must be nice for quarantining!), and she is having a baby with her longtime boyfriend (mazel tov!)
Yes, life has been good. But apparently Jia is not satisfied with such professional/social/personal success, so she's decided to shoot herself in the foot a la LDR and Alison Roman. Apparently, Jia has noticed that there have been some very old news articles floating around on leftist reddit concerning a criminal case that her family was involved in more than a decade ago, and instead of keeping quiet like any sensible person would, she decided to bring the entire world's attention to it by writing this blog post:
My parents recently pointed out to me that some misinformation about them had been spreading online; it's since taken on a life of its own and morphed into petty internet gossip. I wish I hadn’t had to write this, but I wanted to make some things clear https://t.co/aEUa9QbjxD— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) May 20, 2020
The "petty internet gossip" is about how in 2004, Jia's parents and grandmother were indicted by the U.S. Government (in U.S. v Omni Consortium, Inc) in a smuggling scheme to import teachers from the Philippines.
This is how Jia addressed it, essentially framing her parents as upstanding citizens who were unfairly targeted by the government:[TL;DR recap of the blog post and the Tolentino version of events]
The TL;DR recap of Jia's whitewashed version of events: Jia's family's company recruited teachers from the Philippines to teach in U.S. school districts. The whole process was legal and very good and helped a lot of Filipino teachers! But nearly 20 years ago, one of the school districts declined to take in a batch of teachers, forcing the Tolentinos to find new positions for the teachers who had already arrived in the United States, which they went above and beyond to do so. Despite the obvious good that the company was doing, some minor paperwork issues caused ICE to investigate the company and under the Patriot Act, the U.S. Attorney's office zealously pursued the case, eventually indicting the Tolentinos on counts of alien smuggling, conspiracy to defraud the government, and money laundering. The govt seized the Tolentinos' worldly possessions, leaving them financially ruined and forcing the dad to take a plea deal. Jia claims that the case "solidified [her] ethical commitments, clarified [her] understanding of power, of truth and complication" and hints at writing a long-form article about it for the New Yorker.
Once Jia published the post, NYC media twitter ~influencers~ and public intellectuals immediately rallied to her side, offering their sympathy and condemnations of U.S. immigration policy. IA, FUCK ICE, but it's a little weird to accept Jia's version of events so quickly and uncritically, right? After all, the daughter of the alleged traffickers is probably not the most objective source. Turns out that that many of the court documents are public and there were many news articles published about the case at the time, in both the U.S. (e.g. in the El Paso Times, other regional newspapers, and the Associated Press) and in the Philippines. Unsurprisingly, they paint a very different picture of what the Tolentinos were up to. In other words: A 5-second google search shows that Jia's blog post is full of shit and her parents were subjecting the teachers to abusive living conditions, predatory loans, and deportation threats.
[For reference here is a timeline of the case and events leading up to this pointlessly self destructive blog post]
The below timeline is based off her blog post, the court docket, and my knowledge about Jia's life, which since I've been following since her Hairpin days, I regrettably know too much about. I mean, it's unavoidable since she talks so much about herself lol
- circa 1988: Jia's grandmother founds a recruitment agency (the Omni Consortium, Inc) that places nurses and teachers from the Philippines in U.S. hospitals and schools. The company connects Texas school districts with Filipino teachers by helping the teachers secure H1B visas, coordinate meetings between the districts and teachers, etc.
- 1993: Jia's father joins the company.
- 2003: A school district declines to hire a batch of teachers recruited by Omni to whom they had previously extended job offers. Jia claims that the company and her dad were not informed of the change of plans until after the teachers had already traveled to the U.S. Jia claims her dad worked to get all but 4 of the teachers rehired in other districts. (Jia is about 14-15 years old at this time.)
- 2003-2004: ICE, a new established agency, investigates the displaced teachers.
- September 2004: The school district superintendents are charged with conspiracy to commit interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. An indictment is filed against Omni and the Tolentinos. They are indicted on about 40 counts, including conspiracy to smuggle aliens, visa fraud, and money laundering. An arrest warrant is issued for her dad. In her blog, Jia states that the charges, if her parents are found guilty, would add up to 100+ years of prison for each of her parents. Earlier in the month, Jia auditions for a reality show. (source: court docket, AP article)
- October 2004: Jia's dad is arrested and detained in solitary confinement.
- November 2004: Jia's dad, from prison, calls her on her birthday.
- December 2004: Jia goes to Puerto Rico to film the reality show. She is 16 years old. (source: Elle, Trick Mirror)
- 2004-2007: The Tolentinos forefeit assets, including "a 1996 Mercedes Benz, a 1999 BMW, real estate properties in Houston and McAllen, and money [$80,000] from five bank accounts" (source: GMA network). (side note: Really strange that Jia claims in her post that the first year of her "sentient life" that she didn't have "worry about money on a near-daily basis was 2014", considering that there is a lot of evidence that she grew up quite wealthy, up until the point that the feds took their assets when she was in high school. For example, her dad owned this $1.75 million mcmansion at the time --don't think this is doxing since they don't live there and it's not clear whether the family ever lived there, but you can google around for the address, it's all in the public records). At this point in the timeline, Jia claims her parents borrowed money and went into debt to hire lawyers.
- Fall 2005: Jia starts college at UVA, on full scholarship, instead of at Yale, where she had gotten in early-admission. (Presumably she attends UVA because of money concerns-- YMMV this also indicates to me that the Tolentinos had been wealthy at the time of her application in the previous year, because I assume she did not qualify for financial aid at Yale or otherwise she would have gone there; ivy league schools have some of the most generous financial aid packages for people who are even comfortably middle class)
- January 2007: Trial begins, at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of TX. Nearly 200 witnesses are called against the company.
- March 2007: Prosecution rests its case and defense begins.
- March 19, 2007: Judge declares mistrial because two of the jurors had read about the case in the newspaper. (source: GMA Network, El Paso Times). It should be noted that the defense was the party that filed for the mistrial. Trial restarts.
- 2008: Jia's dad and grandmother take plea deals, pleading guilty on a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in return for dismissal of the other charges. (source: El Paso Times, archived here)
- August 2008: Dad and grandmother are sentenced to 3 months of probation. The charges against Jia's mom are dismissed, since she only works in nursing recruitment and not teacher recruitment.
- 2019-20: Some of the above articles are circulated by top notch internet detectives on the subreddit dedicated to the Red Scare podcast hosted by shitty human beings Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan. Probably all of five people saw that article, since that subreddit has only 11,700 members, which is still likely 50x the number of active ONTD users and we all know how irrelevant we are 💀Jia, who compulsively googles herself, somehow finds the articles on this small inconsequential subreddit.
- May 20, 2020: More than a decade after her father and grandmother received a slap on the wrist, Jia unnecessarily and foolishly publishes a blog post about it, thus bringing attention to an issue which almost nobody would have otherwise known about!!!! A bunch of sycophants, eager for a positive blurb from Jia for their next books, trip over themselves to express their sympathy and praise her writing.
[Some twitter lawyer’s take on the case…]
For the sake of fairness, read this thread by some dude who is not an immigration lawyer (he specializes in litigation over defective medications and medical devices) but felt the need to weigh in anyway. I'm being bitchy, but it is worth a read since he provides his take on the legal details and political context of the case:
No doubt that ICE is an evil institution and it sounds like the U.S. Attorney’s office overreached in this case. Immigration policy is fucked and OP cops to using a clickbaity headline for the post when the Tolentinos were indicted for smuggling and not trafficking. But two things can be true at the same time: Federal prosecutors can blatantly overcharge crimes and waste resources by aggressively pursuing small cases AND the Tolentinos can perpetuate an exploitative, corrupt system that takes advantage of vulnerable immigrants. Even from this lawyer's take, it seems like the most charitable reading of what the Tolentinos did is that even if their operation was legal, it was still shady and unethical.
I saw enough today about Jia Tolentino's parents and "human trafficking" to pull up the docket.— Max Kennerly (@MaxKennerly) May 21, 2020
TLDR: the "trafficking" aspect was so weak the judge blew it up mid-trial, but GW Bush's buddy wanted big numbers, so he kept going to extract a plea on a single catch-all charge. /1
EDIT: jieqiong has this response to the lawyer's thread:
"He claims that "the flabbergasted judge stops everything to demand briefing on the actual violation" when like......this literally never happened.....if you read the actual screenshot, it says that the TOLENTINOS claimed that the teachers *weren't* in the states illegally but the TOLENTINOS didn't provide any legal arguments/evidence to support this, so the judge asked the TOLENTINOS (lmfao), not the prosecution, for briefing."
Other ONTD Lawyers™ , please weigh in!
[U.S. Attorney Arguments, Allegations of Abuse and Predatory Lending]
So that's Jia's and her supporters' side...How about the prosecution's case? See below for the Assistant U.S. Attorney's arguments about the conditions that the teachers were living in after coming to the U.S. and the predatory lending they were subjected to: (source: AP)
- The teachers had to pay around $10,000 each in recruitment fees for Omni's services.
- The money was arranged to be loaned to the teachers at a 60% annual interest rate, resulting in the teachers having to pay monthly payments that were half their monthly salaries (in the U.S). and equivalent to what would be half a similar annual salary in the Philippines. If a teacher missed a monthly payment, an extra 10% was added to the loan payment plus an additional 5% interest.
- Teachers were required to have a co-signer (usually a relative) who the Tolentinos could file charges against if the teachers missed 2+ payments without permission. The terms of the loans were enforced by the Tolentinos' associates, with the full knowledge and consent of the Tolentinos.
- Omni had taken money from 273 Filipino teachers since 2002, but fewer than 100 ever received positions with school districts.
- The immigrant teachers were housed in groups of 10 to 15 in unfurnished properties, and most had to sleep on the floor or on mattresses.
- The Tolentinos told teachers they would be deported if they complained about not having jobs or tried to seek employment on their own.
Even if you're disinclined to believe the feds (understandable), what's notably missing from Jia's blog post and her supporters' comments is the perspective of the most important individuals involved: The teachers themselves. In the blog post, Jia even talks about how nearly 200 witnesses were called to testify against the company. What she neglects to mention is what they had claimed the Tolentinos did to them...
[Victim Testimonies and Allegations of Trafficking]
Since all the reporters supporting Jia failed to do their jobs, twitter users took it upon themselves to post the teachers' testimonies:
(source at Visayan Daily Star, archived here)
I'm a Southeast Asian. If you don't believe in ICE, how about a harrowing testimony from the Filipinos themselves?— scheißernetik (@karamelkarbs) May 21, 2020
Plus: predatory lending and extortion. pic.twitter.com/QDK8gQGDv5
EDIT: Another excellent thread to refer to:
This is why the country has gone to hell. Look at all the so-called "journalists" in the response who took her story at face value without a simple google search.— Esha 🌹 (@eshaLegal) May 21, 2020
A google search reveals a much more cynical and less sympathetic story for her parents. https://t.co/SWHHoFyvcr
So at least some of the teachers actually went to the US INS first to seek help in getting away from the Tolentinos.
Also, while it should be noted that the Tolentino's were never charged with trafficking in federal court, outside of the criminal proceedings some of the smuggled teachers who were seeking T nonimmigrant status (available for victims of trafficking who cooperate with law enforcement investigations) did make allegations that the Tolentinos engaged in trafficking, and not only smuggling. (sources: , ).
For example, it was determined that one of the teachers "established that she has been the victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons" and the USCIS Administrative Appeals Office determined that the conditions under which she worked constituted as involuntary servitude.
Some of the specific allegations that the applicant made:
- Upon arriving to the U.S. via the Omni group, the applicant's movements were restricted due to certain transportation arrangements
- Applicant was repeatedly told she would be deported if she did not stay with the transportation organization. She was forced to work for this organization without compensation, doing tasks such as coordinating the transportation needs of teachers.
- The applicant also performed labor for (REDACTED -- assuming this is Jia's grandmother or one of the Tolentinos) including providing childcare for approximately five hours per day, assisting with errands such as carrying the bags at the grocery store, washing dishes, cleaning, and cooking, without compensation.
As mentioned above, blue checkmark New York Media closed ranks, hard. Weird that a bunch of journalists with established careers at prestigious news agencies turned off any sense of skepticism and couldn't be bothered to do a quick google search, even when presented with receipts by people who DID do their homework, but hey, research is hard and ass-kissing is easy!
[A non-exhaustive list of semi-famous people and not so-famous people who defended her, including the Kid Mero, showing that once you secure that Showtime $$$, integrity is meaningless. Also a buuuunch of other people OP had previously respected including many PoC/AAPI writers]
A non-exhaustive list of the dum-dums who expressed solidarity with Jia and her disgusting family -links below are to their tweets of support (please add anyone I might have forgotten in the comments):
- The Kid Mero, of Desus&Mero fame, with a really bad take in a sea of already bad take. He's already taken the coward's route of deleting (lmao) so I hope someone will post screencaps. Luckily, it's still in my cache so I can still tell you exactly what he said! "FUCK ALL OF EM SIDEWAYS. AND FUCK THAT BOZO THAT KEEPS POSTING THE BULLSHIT DEEP FRIED SCREENCAP IN THE THREAD." (referring to the people posting receipts of the court documents and victim testimonies-- yikes!)
- Fatima Bhutto, novelist and journalist and member of the Bhutto political dynasty
- Wesley Lowery, 60 Minutes Correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
- Jill Filipovic, feminist author
- Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker television critic and Pulitzer Prize winner
- Jenna Wortham, NYT Staff Writer (covering culture and tech)
- Jamelle Bouie, NYT Columnist
- Clint Smith, Poet and Pod Save the People contributor
- Rachel Syme, New Yorker writer and Jia's coworker
- Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker staff writer and Jia's coworker (I think he deleted because I can't find his tweet anymore, but I know he did tweet in support of her because I felt disappointed but was also not surprised!)
- Ira Madison III, Culture Critic and podcast host
- Emily Bazelon, NYT Magazine staff writer
- E. Jean Caroll, ELLE advice columnist
- Kara Brown, Podcast host
- Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, author and activist
- David Sims, Atlantic staff writer covering culture
- Erin Ryan, writer for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
- Tom Ley, Deadspin editor
- Philip Sherburne, Pitchfork writer and DJ
- Ellie Hall, investigative reporter at Buzzfeed, with a union avatar (too ironic)
- Jose Del Real, Washington Post investigative reporter
- Lynda Obst, Producer (Interstellar, Sleepless in Seattle)
- Samantha Irby, Blogger and Writer (this one stung even though it should have been obvious she sux because she hosts a podcast with Jia)
- Cathy Park Hong, novelist whose book I will no longer be reading. also hilarious that she doesn't have a blue checkmark yet
- Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation
- Jess Morales Rocketto, the Political Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, of all things (we're being punk'd, right?)
- Porochista Khakpour, writer and activist
- Dara Lind, Pro-Publica immigration reporter who senses a networking opportunity here and legit offers up her services to help Jia #respectthehustle!!
- Lizzie O'Leary, former weekend Marketplace host on NPR
- Leila Claire, some nobody but she went hard for Jia so she's included on this list
- Lyn Lenz, some writer or journalist I've never heard of
- Kat Brown, who looks like a nobody, but somehow still has a blue checkmark
- Garth Greenwell, novelist and critic, who wrote this hilarious tweet of support and has since deleted. Fortunately for us, the internet doesn't forget.
- Min Jin Lee, novelist, also tweeted something which nooooo but she might have deleted as well because it's nowhere to be seen. smh the clownery!!!!!
- Ashley Reese, Jezebel writer and former ontd_political contributor. I like ha but come on, this is a stupid-ass take.
EDIT: LOL the deletions have begun. they could have owned up to their shit and kept the original tweets up and admitted they fucked up but nah, that would require the tiniest bit of integrity that they don't have.
[Even ONTD fave Caroline Calloway weighs in!]
Even ONTD nepotism fave Caroline Calloway weighs in! She's long been obsessed with Jia Tolentino, since it seems that she finds it hard to accept that a woman of color is way more talented, successful, and hotter than she is. But you have to hand it to Calloway, this tweet is hilarious. 2020 is weird, you guys.
Never mind https://t.co/bLFOgLfkfb— ◥◤Caroline Calloway (@carolinecaloway) May 21, 2020
Ultimately, Jia isn't responsible for her parents' crimes. But she IS responsible for how she reports on it, if she chooses to do so at all. Her writer friends, of all people, should know how important it is to tell a story right. Framing the story as "petty internet gossip" and characterizing her parents as the REAL victims is gaslighting, plain and simple, as she does with these quotes:
- "[Omni's] open, earnest, lawful work helping fellow Filipinos move to America for good jobs in teaching had been swiftly reframed as hideous criminal activity."
- "It’s been interesting, in observing the gossip about this, to see the way many white people implicitly see criminality as a status that is only achieved through egregious, malicious actions; many black and brown people understand that this is not at all the case."
[Jia you should have just sat there and ate your food.]
Jia should have just sat there and ate her food. If she really felt like she had to address the articles, she could have consulted ONTD Publicists™ and said something to the tune of "This is a complex issue that I can't objectively comment on as it involves my family, I'm still processing it, etc etc". Whatever, you guys will come up with something better. As it stands, she now comes off as trying to exonerate her parents' participation in an exploitative enterprise that took advantage of vulnerable people.Also just want to address some of the dumbassery from the professional tweeters, who have made weird arguments that those criticizing Jia are doing so in bad faith and don't actually care about human trafficking and are only care about calling out this self-aggrandizing, narcissistic writer, which is totally ignoring the fact that people can care about two things at the same time. Some of these pundits are also making a "YOU'RE THE RACISTS" argument, complaining that her critics are taking great glee in this because she is a woman of color who has enjoyed enormous success, and that if Jia were white, she wouldn't get this level of hate. Which might be true, but can we please not let women of color off the hook if they've fucked up-- and this is definitely a fuck up? As an AAPI woman, we deserve better than this. (Also, it's AAPI month! Couldn't she have waited like, two more weeks before posting this and unnecessarily destroying her reputation? This is why we can't have nice things.)
To end on a more positive/productive note: Some twitter users have pointed out organizations that support migrant workers and the victims of human trafficking, so please consider donating to them, signing their petitions, etc. Also, ONTD, If anyone of yall work in this field, please share any relevant organizations, resources, and materials!!
It’s dope that you’re mad about Jia Tolentino’s article, but don’t stop there. A new generation of Filipino migrant workers are facing similar conditions under the J1 visa program, abandoned by their recruiting companies after mass COVID layoffs https://t.co/3qmueo8F1r— smooth poser (@smoothposer) May 21, 2020
Anyway, consider donating to one of my favorite organizations doing anti-trafficking work. @BlueDragonVN helps extremely disadvantaged children in Vietnam and never gives up on a single one. They also bring victims of trafficking home, and their traffickers to justice in court.— Trinh Quyen (@trinhqvyen) May 22, 2020
EDIT: lawofcosines put together a list of their recommendations for Philippines-based and Fil-AM works here.
If there are any inaccuracies in this write-up (and there probably are many, esp when it comes to the legal aspects to the federal prosecutors' case) or if any ONTD Lawyers™ have any insight into this issue, please point them out. This was banged out for a gossip forum on an irrelevant blogging platform (after 15 years as a member of this illustrious community this is actually my first post yay!), none of us get paid here to post or copy/paste other outlets' posts (lol) and we do this out of love or at least spite, and despite all this, I still think we're doing better than the clownery displayed above.
EDIT: The response to this post has been very positive, I'm so appreciative that you guys liked it. I'm not going to tag it as an ONTD Original* (there have been a lot of good originals though, if you somehow stumbled upon this post and typically don't read ONTD, please check them out here! #PROMO). This summary relied heavily on the hard work and research and sleuthing of twitter users and there are a lot of details, esp the legal aspects of the case, that I'm not familiar with nor am I in any way qualified to confirm. This shouldn't be considered as journalism, just a corrective response to bullshit that had been touted as fact. This post was made mostly with the intention to discuss these issues with you fine people and not on a platform where there might be QAnon commenters, and call out the writers and public figures with actual platforms and actual influence for shamelessly accepting their friend/colleague's version of events. If actual journalists (well...maybe not the aforementioned ones hah) were to dig into this case to try to get the truest story, it would require a lot of calls to the USAO, the journalists at the regional TX papers covering the case at the time, etc, the Tolentino family, and of course, the Filipino teachers who most likely had all been sent back to the Philippines. Doubtful that such a story would be worth anybody's time since it likely wouldn't result in any kind of justice or restitution to the teachers.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
ONTD, have you ever made excuses for your parents' crimes of extortion and indentured servitude?