Immigrant Legal Center, our JFON site in Nebraska, helps reunite a survivor of human trafficking with her young son after four long years of separation.
On the day the police knocked on her employers’ door, Emelina, as usual, was told to go into her room and be quiet. She was not to make a sound and not to come out for any reason.
Emelina pressed her ear against the bedroom door and listened.
“How many people live in this house?” she heard the officer ask.
“Just myself, my husband and my children,” answered the wife smoothly.
The employers—a man and wife—spoke with confidence. They clearly expected the visit to end and for the policeman to now go away. But the officer continued to question them. Emelina couldn’t understand all the words, but the tone of his voice indicated he was suspicious.
The neighbor next door must have told the police that the couple employed a servant, Emelina realized. A servant who worked endless hours cooking, cleaning, and caring for five young children, who never had a holiday or a day off, who never even went outside except to collect aluminum cans in the early morning hours. Cans she would give to her employers who turned them in for money.
They weren’t her employers. They were more like her owners.
Emelina’s heart was pounding so hard in her chest she thought for sure the policemen would hear it. The wife had warned her repeatedly that she would be in big trouble with the police if they ever found out about her. She still owed the couple money for bringing her from Guatemala, they told her. They would tell immigration to deport her. And maybe even worse things would happen to her.
Emelina had left her young son with her mother in Guatemala a year ago, planning to send her promised wages back home to help provide for him. But Emelina had been duped. She hadn’t yet been paid a single penny.
“They didn’t give me the food they ate themselves, they didn’t allow me to bathe every day, they wouldn’t let me see the doctor when I was sick with flu, they wouldn’t even allow me to talk to my son on the telephone unless they were listening,” says Emelina.
“I was afraid of the police,” she admits, “but I decided it was better to let the police catch me than to spend another day in that prison.”
Emelina took a deep breath, opened the door and walked out.
Nancy Cardoza, supervising attorney for Immigrant Legal Center, our JFON site in Nebraska, met Emelina several months later. Her new client was living in a women’s shelter, Nancy remembers, and was very quiet and withdrawn. It was difficult to get her to speak at first.
Emelina remembers that meeting a different way. “I was glad because she wanted to help me, and I thought she would understand me because she is also a woman,” she says. “And Nancy was very nice and always very calm.”
Because Emelina had cooperated with law enforcement, Nancy was able to get certification that identified her client as a victim of labor trafficking and thus eligible for a T Visa. The certification from law enforcement is crucial in T Visa cases, says Nancy; without it, a T Visa is much less likely to be granted to a trafficking victim.
When Nancy filed Emelina’s T Visa claim, she also filed a derivative claim for David, Emelina’s son. Within a year, Emelina had her T Visa; David wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S. on his visa for another year.
By this time, Senior Managing Attorney Anna Deal had taken over Emelina’s case and the long and unwieldy consular process necessary to reunite mother and son.
“One weekend, she traveled two hours each way to a Guatemalan consul mobile unit in Schuyler, Nebraska,” remembers Anna. “And she had to go back the next day. Emelina also had to fly to Denver at one point in the process. There were just a lot of logistics involved.”
“It wasn’t too difficult because Anna helped me so much,” says Emelina. “I had fears and worries, but I just kept thinking about my son. And I was very thankful to have Anna and everyone on my side.”
“It was my son who gave me strength,” Emelina says of her many months of forced labor. “Without him, I don’t know what would have happened to me. He gave me the strength to continue, and God gave me the courage.”
The day had finally arrived. David, the beloved and longed-for son, was on a plane and heading toward Omaha. It had been nearly four years since Emelina had last seen him. He had been five years old when she had left Guatemala; now he was nine. And soon, very soon, they would be together.
Her friends from Immigrant Legal Center were there to witness the joyous reunion.
“She was really happy and relieved—just giddy with excitement,” Anna recalls. “She had set up a boy’s bedroom in the house, had enrolled him in school, and bought him winter clothes.”
Nebraska winters are very cold, and David had never been a robust boy.
When David came through the gate, he was clenching the hand of his official escort. His worried eyes scanned the crowd, passing right over his mother. Emelina felt her heart plummet.
He didn’t remember her face.
She called out to him, and he turned, recognizing her voice, at least. But he was still crying; not happy tears like hers, but sad ones.
“I had missed too much of his life,” Emelina realized. “My mother is the mother for him.”
One year later
“It was difficult at first, but my son is getting used to Nebraska and to his new life here,” says Emelina of their bittersweet reunion. “Thank God.”
Emelina works in a hotel laundry and is happy there. But if you ask her about her plans, her hopes, her dreams, she has none for herself. Everything is centered on David, who loves painting and wants to be an artist, and who must continue to study well so he can go to university one day.
“A house of our own is a beautiful dream,” she says wistfully. “And once I get my green card, I would like to bring my mother here.”
“Mothers are the most important people for the family.”
The shy woman in your favorite nail salon. The overworked maid who never seems to leave your neighbor’s house, a young girl forced into prostitution; immigrants are far too often victims of human trafficking and debt peonage.
The JFON network has helped hundreds of human trafficking survivors over the last 20 years. You may have heard that this is a crime hidden in plain sight; we can tell you that this is absolutely true.
Learn to recognize some of the signs with this guide from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Immigrants like Emelina are all too often victims of human trafficking in the Untied States. Worldwide, women and children suffer disproportionately from trafficking; the ACLU notes that immigrant women are also more likely to fall prey to modern-day slavers in this country.
January marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). As part of this law, Congress created the T non-immigrant status (T Visa) to offer protection to victims and strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute human trafficking.
Congress restricted the number of T visas to be issued each year to 5,000, but there has never been a year where more than one-third of that quota has been reached. Additionally, like other forms of immigration relief, qualifying for and obtaining a T Visa has become more difficult in recent years.
“It’s much harder lately,” notes Anna Deal, Emelina’s attorney in the story above. “It feels as if the T Visa is no longer being used to provide protection and security.”
Recent shifts within the Department of Labor (DOL) have added extra layers to the visa application process, while new USCIS guidelines—issued in November 2019—began to place applicants with denied petitions in removal proceedings.
“We must harness innovation and ingenuity to prevent trafficking, identify and empower those who have survived it, and send the strongest message possible to traffickers that we will not tolerate their despicable and criminal acts,” wrote U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in his 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Strong words should be met by equally strong actions. But discouraging victims and survivors from coming forward and exposing their captors will not help the administration realize its stated goal of “extinguishing human trafficking forever.”