An immigrant teen and labor trafficking survivor finds a welcoming home with the help of Central Washington Justice for Our Neighbors
The Hard Place
Rene was 15 years old and scared. This wasn’t the welcome he was expecting.
He had fled his hometown and the gang members who constantly threatened and beat him because he wouldn’t join them. His mother said he would be safe in the United States. The uncle who lived in this part of rural Washington state had promised her that he would take good care of his nephew.
But there was no warm family welcome there. Instead, the children were sullen, his aunt was harsh, and his uncle was grimly telling him he needed to pay off his debt as soon as possible.
Within a week, Rene was working in the local agricultural industry 10 hours every day, except for Sundays. He was not allowed to attend school. He was not allowed to go out or have people over. He did many of the household chores. And almost all of his wages—except for a small sum used to pay for his own food—went to his uncle.
Rene never knew how much debt there was or what he had left to pay. His uncle seemed to keep the figures in his head. And he always seemed to be adding extra “living expenses” to the amount of debt owed.
Rene was worried about his mother and younger siblings. He desperately wanted to send some of his earnings home to help his family. “But if I told him I wanted to send money to my mom,” Rene says, “he got angry and said it wasn’t fair.”
The threat that came next was a cruel betrayal of their tenuous family connection, but one always used by traffickers to keep people without status vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
“Uncle said that if I didn’t behave or do what I was told to do,” says Rene in a quiet voice, “he would report me to Immigration.”
Finding the Welcoming Space
When the scary aunt and uncle eventually kicked Rene out of their house—although still insisting Rene give them money to discharge his “debt”—he found shelter and welcome with a co-worker. He began working part-time at a local restaurant and returned to school. That became his safe space, and the school staff members were his trustworthy and supportive helpers.
Rene had just turned 18 and was in removal proceedings when Max Olarsch, staff attorney for Central Washington Justice for Our Neighbors, first met him in an office provided by the school.
“My first impression was that this was someone who had a lot of [legal] options available to him (Special Immigrant Juvenile, asylum, and T Visa for Trafficking Victims),” recalls Max. “But he was very quiet and reserved. I recognized that Rene would need a lot of time and attention. I needed to make as few assumptions as possible, working slowly and carefully, and allow him to proceed at his own pace.”
Max lives in Seattle, and Rene is nearly four hours away. But Max realized that their meetings had to be held face-to-face. He began making the trek through the Cascade Mountains to see his new client regularly, once even getting stuck for hours in a snowstorm.
Max was able to get Rene’s removal proceedings dismissed; he then began working on a more permanent solution so Rene could stay in his new home. Meanwhile, Rene is receiving psychological evaluations and support from a local organization that helps survivors of labor trafficking. He is slowly learning to face the deep trauma of his adolescence so he can truly begin to build a new life for himself.
Max realized Rene was on his way to reaching that goal the first time he made a silly joke and was rewarded with a genuine smile from Rene. “We can speak less formally now,” says Max. “And not just be attorney and client.”
Obtaining a T Visa is a long process, so the relationship of trust and understanding that Max and Rene have built together is crucial to its success. Max hopes other immigrants who have been exploited and manipulated by labor traffickers will come forward to seek a T-Visa, a woefully underutilized benefit.
“Labor trafficking doesn’t receive the attention sex trafficking does, even though it entails similar kinds of exploitation and manipulation,” says Max.
“Additionally, the numbers of labor trafficking are likely at much higher rates than that of sex trafficking, but the lack of attention and difficulty males have with seeing themselves as ‘victims’ leaves the true number unknown and the whole process mainly in the shadow of sex trafficking.
“Many don’t realize they are being subject to labor trafficking,” he adds, “or are unwilling to report it.”
Congress created the T Visa program in October 2000 to offer protection to survivors and to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to detect, investigate and prosecute human trafficking. By courageously exposing labor trafficking in rural Washington State, Rene is making his new home a safer and better community.