Freedom within their Grasp

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A Matter of Trust

It wasn’t that Elena was all that small; it was that she seemed to want to be small…small enough to not be noticed, small enough to disappear. It was in her soft voice and guarded looks. It was the way she hunched her shoulders and crossed her arms tightly against her torso as if she would gladly shrink into herself if it were possible.

The first time Elena met Astrid Munn, attorney for Immigrant Legal Center + Refugee Empowerment Center—our ILJ affiliate in Nebraska—she was trembling so much that a caseworker had to hold her hand while Astrid gently asked her questions.

“She was just so spooked from everything she had experienced,” explains Astrid. “That’s very common for clients who have been trafficked. You have to earn their trust. You have to build it by consistently showing up time after time and proving you’ve got something to offer them.”

Elena’s trafficker had destroyed all her paperwork. She didn’t have her passport. She didn’t know her alien number. She didn’t know when her next court date was. The worst was over; she had escaped her trafficker. But she didn’t know what would happen to her next, and it seemed unlikely it would be something good.  

Astrid filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and produced Elena’s entire alien file for her.

“It was such a simple thing, but she just beamed,” remembers Astrid. “Well, people are always looking for a reason to hope, aren’t they? For me, it was just a file, but for her…it was a glimmer of something positive in the future.”  

 

Cruel Deceptions

Elena is from Nicaragua and is part of a larger trend Astrid has noticed among ILC’s newest trafficking cases. It’s not just the country of origin they have in common, but the way they placed their trust in a friend, a neighbor, or even a family member. And the terrible way that trust was betrayed.

Astrid briefly shares the stories of Hilda and Meli, two of her other Nicaraguan clients. Two women with vastly different backgrounds and life experiences in their home country. Yet here in the U.S., their experiences were tragically similar. Both women became ensnared in a trafficker’s deception.

Hilda came to the United States to find work that would pay more than the coffee fields back in rural Nicaragua. She wanted to be able to provide more support for her family. A neighborhood friend lent her the money to make the trip and found her a job at a factory.

Once she was in Nebraska, however, he forced her to give him all her wages to pay off her debt. He began controlling her finances, her living quarters, and every moment of her life. He never let her out of his sight. And soon, he was threatening her with deportation if she didn’t consent to have sexual relations with him.  

Meli comes from a family of political dissidents in the capital city of Managua. Unjustly jailed and then summarily released, she and her family were anxious to get out of the country. A former neighbor, a kind woman who had moved to Nebraska, offered to help them.

Once Meli arrived, however, her “kindly” neighbor trafficked her to a man in the sex trade. She and other female members of her family were put in a trailer with boarded-up windows, a door locked on the outside, and no escape. From there, the women were forced to perform obscene sex acts.  

 

Aftermath

Once trafficking victims escape—either on their own or as part of a criminal investigation—Astrid works with them to secure T Visas. This status allows them to stay in the U.S. for up to four years, with the possibility of obtaining a green card in the future.

But stories of trafficking survivors seldom end on a completely triumphant note. Astrid recalls her client Rafaela, who survived a kidnapping and subsequent horrifying reign of terror—slavery, rape, and physical abuse so severe she was at one point left for dead.  Rafaela received her T Visa certification from local law enforcement for her help in prosecuting the trafficker.

“Rafaela has had some health issues, and we all knew she wasn’t going to be able to have a Christmas for her family,” says Astrid. “So all of us in the office pitched in and filled my car with gifts for her.”

Rafaela was living in a trailer home by a water treatment plant. The acrid stench of sewage hit Astrid like a volley of rotten eggs as she got out of her car, her arms laden down with coats, clothing, and other practical items.  

Rafaela greeted her with grateful tears in her eyes.

“I am so thankful,” she said. “No one has ever done anything this nice for me before.” Her voice shook with suppressed emotion.  “But, Astrid, I am still so angry. I’m so angry at what he did to me.”  

Astrid at her desk preparing to file a case in immigration court—note the amount of paper!
Astrid at her desk preparing to file a case in immigration court—note the amount of paper!

“This is the worst part,” reflects Astrid, “knowing that the story—the pain—doesn’t end there. I can help get them legal status, food stamps, and Medicaid. I can do the paperwork, but they have to do the inner work.”

She sighs with frustration and shakes her head.  

“That’s the part I can’t do for them.”

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s note: ILC + REC takes a comprehensive approach to care that extends beyond providing immigration legal services. A team of social workers is on hand to address both the practical and therapeutic needs of immigrant survivors of crime, domestic/sexual assault, and human trafficking. 

By combining social work services with legal services, ILC + REC clients feel less fear about reporting violence and crime. This collaboration leads to better cooperation with law enforcement agencies and provides immigrant survivors with long-term security. 

 

*Names and other details have been changed to protect the privacy and security of the client. 

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