Karla lived in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. She had just finished college and landed her first job. It paid so poorly that she could not survive without the support of her parents. Seeing her situation a family friend made her a deal: he would pay for a plane ticket and housing in Alaska if Karla agreed to work in his restaurant. He offered her a salary that might have been generous, or perhaps not. Karla could not tell because she did not know the cost of living in Alaska. But she thought that since her accommodations were guaranteed, she could save a good part of the money. That seemed like a good deal, so she agreed.
Days later, Karla received her plane ticket and flew to Anchorage. She carried in her purse the telephone number of a person she should contact and the address of a house where she could stay. Karla slept there two nights. She arrived on the Memorial Day weekend, so she did not find it strange that the house was unoccupied and that the only word from her employer was a driver who told her to prepare for a trip to Homer. There was the restaurant in which she would work through the summer.
The following months were complicated for Karla. She joined the restaurant staff and settled in at a shared house where the employer hosted his foreign employees. The place was a bit small, but she could live there while saving some money, or so she hoped.
A month passed by and Karla did not receive a penny of the wages she had been promised. When she asked her employer for her money, she was told she had to pay back the price of the ticket and cover the cost of her accommodations, so there was no money to give her. On the contrary, she still owed him a lot, since the ticket was not cheap. More months went by before Karla received the first payment. And meanwhile, in addition to working in the restaurant, she also had to clean houses to cover her expenses. By the end of the summer and after a few more unforeseen complications, Karla returned to her country with some money in her bag.
This is the story of Karla, although we have changed her name for security reasons. She was lucky to return home because many of the stories that begin this way led to labor trafficking, which the Trafficking Victim Protection Act of 2000 defines as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
The IOM (International Organization for Migration), a UN agency, explains that immigrants are particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking because of “language barriers, challenges of social integration, and unscrupulous employers, landlords, and service providers who take advantage of their limited knowledge of local conditions and reduced bargaining power. Many migrants are unable or unwilling to access social services and the justice system even if they are entitled to do so.”
Labor trafficking usually occurs when someone is “controlling a person’s livelihood, meaning their money and their shelter,” because traffickers use “these pressure points to manipulate them,” explained Jeremy Applegate, Wage and Hour Investigator for the State’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, during a forum at Covenant House on May 10.
“By and large, people that we see in our office who are being manipulated in those sorts of ways are persons whose primary language is not English,” Applegate said. And he added that this happens because immigrants “One, sometimes lack the ability to communicate with law enforcement or Two, may come from a culture in which law enforcement is not necessarily on their side, or law enforcement can be bought by the people who have money, and who is that, normally? Their boss.”
Social isolation is another factor that encourages this abuse. It is the reason why people who find themselves in this situation “are easily convinced that law enforcement is a danger to them.” Especially in the current political climate, victims of trafficking fear for their immigration status, and sometimes even if they have a safe immigration status, they question it.
Over time, people who live under exploitative conditions begin to see abuse as natural, Applegate warned: “When you’ve been exploited since the time you were a teen, you don’t even know you’re being exploited when you’re 30. It is a culture that we need to change.” The investigator was clear about what should be done. “The best thing that we can do with labor trafficking is to let people know what their rights are, what avenues they have to challenge those persons who are exploiting them, to let them know that they are being exploited.”
Labor trafficking has remained invisible, said Applegate, because generally people who practice it “are prosecuted for something else. There are any numbers of crimes that have been associated with labor trafficking such as money laundering.” In addition, it is difficult to trace because “Where is the line between bad business practices and the force, fraud, and coercion aspects of human trafficking? I do not know if I have a clear answer.”
Victims of labor trafficking may think that their problem has no solution. However, attorney Lara Nations of Nations Law Group says that there are alternatives for immigrants who are in such a situation. In an interview she explained that many of them “can apply for a T visa. When an immigrant cooperates with an investigation, the Police Department can certify that this person helped with the process. It does not have to be a trial. The trafficker does not have to end up in jail for the immigrant to receive this benefit.”
The T visa is valid for three years, and near the end of that period, the holder can apply for a permanent residence in the United States. When the victim of labor trafficking is a minor, they can ask for their parents to enter the T visa process. Adults can also include their spouse and children in their application.
Due to the life circumstances of trafficked immigrants, it may not be easy for them to apply for this type of visa without legal help. An immigration attorney can assist them with immigration and labor concerns without endangering their safety. Nations said, “Part of my job in these cases is to make sure the person is in a safe situation; that he is no longer living on any property of the employer.” The attorney also seeks to facilitate the recovery of the victim’s documents, in case the employer has retained them. And they help them to “use services in our community to get out of this situation.”
The visa process can take months. For this reason, lawyers may sometimes file a work permit known as Continued Presence through the FBI or another Federal Police Department. Nations believes that “this is key, because with this document the person can work in any company that wants to hire them. With this, they can pay for their things and rent an apartment. And they will not have to rely more on their former employer.”
“It is important that the affected persons are served justice, but also that they receive the money the employer owes them,” stated the attorney and she added that this process must be managed in the Department of Labor and it is carried out in a separate procedure to the immigration process.
The lawyer emphasizes, “One does not have to wait until the problem grows very large before asking for help.” At the first signs that something is not right, victims should call a lawyer. And she adds, “Consultation with a lawyer is confidential.” So what a victim of labor trafficking reveals in this context is safe, and will not come to the ears of their employers.