Conversations about immigration typically center around undocumented immigration, family sponsorship, and refugees. Very little attention is paid to the link between immigration and human trafficking — and that's unfortunate, because it is an urgent problem across the United States.
While sex trafficking is the most familiar form of human trafficking, labor trafficking is another form of exploitation enabled by glaring defects in our immigration system. A 2004 report from the U.S. State Department estimated that upwards of 17,500 people are trafficked into the country every year, while a more recent report from Polaris, an anti-human-trafficking organization, identified six temporary visas most commonly associated with labor trafficking. These visas tie individuals to their employers or agency sponsors, making it nearly impossible for workers to break free from employers, even when working in conditions that are exploitative or abusive.
At Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA), we work with survivors of labor trafficking who are brought to the U.S. and forced to become modern-day slaves by fraudulent employers. As a member of the California United Fund, a coalition of eight immigrants rights organizations dedicated to improving the lives of immigrants in the state and beyond, we are working to help victims of labor trafficking live dignified, independent lives in the U.S.
Consider Skye's (a pseudonym) story. Before coming to the U.S., Skye dreamed of managing a hotel. In college, she enrolled in a hospitality management program and her academic counselor introduced her to an agency that provides opportunities to study hotel management in the U.S. on a J-1 visa. J-1 visas allow foreign students to study or train in a discipline in the U.S. but are not intended for full-time employment.
Through the agency, Skye interviewed with representatives of a five-star resort in the Midwest and subsequently received a letter offering her an "internship" in the resort's hospitality management program. Her parents used their savings as well as funds they were able to borrow to pay the agency's $3,000 recruitment fee.
Skye arrived in the U.S. and realized something was wrong when her training ended after only three days and she was ordered to work as a chambermaid, cleaning hotel rooms for forty hours a week. Her supervisors at the resort required her to clean thirty rooms a day and constantly yelled at her to work faster. One day when she was rushing to meet her quota, she tripped and a cleaning cart slammed into her foot.
Even though a doctor ordered her to rest, Skye could not get her supervisors to give her time off. Instead of informing her of her right to paid time off while healing from a work-related injury, her supervisor said, "If you don't work, you don't get paid." So she continued to work. As her injury worsened, she asked to be switched to desk duty, but her supervisor refused and gave her more intensive chores, including vacuuming several floors of the resort's main stairway. Skye's injury grew worse, until finally a doctor ordered her to take medical leave. But when she notified the resort and the recruiting agency, they threatened to deport her.
With the help of a relative who was living in the U.S., Skye fled to California. Through an anti-trafficking hotline, she got in touch with the Pilipino Workers' Center and Advancing Justice-LA, which reported the resort and agency for violating the terms of the J-1 visa program. We also helped Skye obtain a T visa, which is given to individuals who are lured to America and then tricked into forced labor arrangements.
Skye now has a legal work permit and works at a luxury vehicle dealership where the working conditions are good and she has a supervisor who respects her. Although her foot has mostly healed, she is still traumatized by her experience and no longer aspires to manage a hotel. But thanks to organizations like ours and the Pilipino Workers' Center, she now is free to choose her own path.
Unfortunately, Skye's story is not unique, and labor trafficking victims are found across many industries.
Advancing Justice-LA has been fighting human trafficking since 1995, when we, in partnership with the Thai Community Development Center and other community-based organizations, provided legal assistance to seventy-two Thai garment workers who were freed from virtual slavery after years of mistreatment and exploitation. This case led to the creation of the T visa, which allows trafficked survivors without immigration status to stay in the U.S., work legally, and gain a path to citizenship.
The problem of human trafficking has not gone away, and the demand for T visas is as great as ever. The latter is a sign that we need systematic reform to fix our broken immigration system. That is why Advancing Justice-LA and the seven other immigrant rights groups that have joined forces under the umbrella of the California United Fund will continue to fight for a path to legal livelihoods and citizenship for immigrants and trafficked individuals.
Yanin Senachai is a staff attorney working in the impact litigation unit at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles.