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How the Pandemic Has Affected Survivors of Human Trafficking

The economic exploitation of human trafficking destroys an individual’s ability to secure even their most basic needs despite working for years, even decades, and the pandemic has only compounded that turmoil.

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When the man who had trafficked her across the country, beat her to near death, and threatened the lives of her three children was released on bail two days after his arrest, Maria Trujillo realized that, for just $1,000, her freedom had been bought by the very person who had first taken it.

More than a decade earlier in her native Mexico, she had been introduced to him as a friend — someone who could help her get from the country’s Pacific Coast to the United States. She was hesitant to leave her hometown, her family, her friends. But Trujillo’s now-estranged husband was already in the United States, and she felt she needed to follow. Of course, accepting help from the man would cost her, and Trujillo promised him that she would pay back every last cent. It was fine, he reassured her — everything would be okay. But after four days and four nights of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, walking through the desert heat with bruised and blistered feet, and on the verge of madness from hunger and exhaustion, Trujillo saw her situation unravel.

“It wasn’t my country, I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t understand how things worked,” said Trujillo, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “He told me that I was here in the U.S. now, and I had no option other than accepting what he told me to do.”

In that moment, when Trujillo was told that she was no longer in control of her movement, her earnings, her life — she became a trafficked person. Sometimes referred to as modern slavery, human trafficking occurs when an individual is exploited for labor, services, or commercial sex through a system of force, fraud, and coercion. Globally, it’s estimated that around 25 million people are trafficked into forced labor, including in the United States. As a profit-driven abuse, traffickers — enabled by systemic inequalities including poverty, racism, discrimination, and oppression — seek out those who have already been rendered vulnerable, especially through economic marginalization. As a result, Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous peoples, the LGBTQ+ community, and those experiencing homelessness are overrepresented among survivors. Labor trafficking, in particular, often intersects with immigration from Latin America and involves both those who are undocumented and those who are in the U.S. through various guest-worker programs.

“The thread connecting all forms of trafficking is vulnerability,” said Deborah J. Richardson, the former executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute, an advocacy and education nonprofit organization based in Georgia. “Whoever is most disenfranchised in the community is the one who is most vulnerable to being trafficked.”

Over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated economic vulnerabilities across the United States, data suggests that trafficked persons have been reaching out for help in greater numbers. In April 2020, when parts of the country were under shelter-in-place orders, the number of crisis calls made to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline — operated by the anti-trafficking organization Polarisincreased by more than 40 percent when compared to the month prior. Similarly, by September 2020, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST-LA) — a Los Angeles-based organization that works nationally on anti-trafficking issues — had responded to 185 percent more human trafficking cases than the previous year. Although these figures aren’t proof that COVID-19 has caused an increase in human trafficking cases, they do show how the pandemic has magnified existing disparities and introduced new challenges for survivors.

When a survivor exits a trafficking situation they often do so with debt, a poor credit history, and sometimes even a criminal record due to their victimization. Yet rarely, if at all, do they retain any of the money they have earned, said Karen Romero, the training institute director at Freedom Network USA, the nation’s largest anti-trafficking coalition. It is complicated for a survivor to rebuild their life in a normal economy, but with the current high rate of unemployment and heightened risk of eviction, the situation has become more precarious. While many across the U.S. are grappling with similar issues borne from the pandemic, the economic exploitation of human trafficking destroys an individual’s ability to secure even their most basic needs despite working for years, even decades.

“Human trafficking at its core is a financial crime, and survivors are coming out of that situation,” Romero said. “There are all these barriers that, through no fault of their own, are already set up.”

Nearly 15 years ago, when Trujillo first began working in the United States, she passed long days in the agricultural fields and orchards of the West, harvesting garlic and lettuce, and picking apples and cherries. As an undocumented farmworker, the little she earned went straight to the man who was now her trafficker. She had a debt to repay, he reminded her. When the farm work dried up, Trujillo was moved to a Southeastern state where she began working as a hotel maid. For once, she felt a shred of stability in her life, even if she earned an unlivable wage she did not keep, even if he continued to control her. It would not last long.

Across the United States, trafficked people work across many of the industries we would now deem “essential.” They might be an in-home caregiver for the elderly, work in the kitchen of a restaurant, or like Trujillo, pick the fruits and vegetables that line supermarket shelves. It’s no coincidence that these issues overlap. So-called “unskilled” industries are built upon a kind of exploitation that underpays and undervalues the labor of those working within the supply chain of goods and services. Prior to the pandemic, those workers — whether trafficked or not — were rendered invisible because both the public, and the corporations who hired them, made them so.

“People think that labor trafficking is something that only happens in the developing world,” said Marie Martinez Israelite, the Director of Victim Services at The Human Trafficking Institute. “There’s a degree of discomfort that Americans have to face in looking at how much we rely upon exploitation in what we eat, what we wear, in our services, in construction, and in our elder care facilities.”

While the past year has revealed some of the problems within industries such as meat processing and agriculture, it’s also raised new human trafficking concerns. About a year ago, in response to the pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security relaxed aspects of the H-2A agricultural guest-worker program in an effort to limit labor shortages and disruptions to the food supply chain. Given that most consulates have been operating with limited capacity, these changes included the ability to waive the formally required applicant interview. This part of the process helped screen for fraud, including whether someone might be at risk for trafficking, and provided applicants with information about their rights in the United States including the phone number for the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. According to Polaris, this information has helped hundreds of H-2A agricultural workers report labor trafficking conditions each year. Now, these limited protections appear to be optional.

“If you don’t know your rights in a place that is not your country, it is more difficult to know if someone is abusing you,” said Rafael Flores, a spokesperson for Polaris. “Especially in an industry that is well known for that.”

More than four years ago, Trujillo lost the stability she had gained when she called the police on her trafficker. He had threatened one of her children, Trujilo recalls, telling her he would cut up their body and send it to her in pieces. She knew he had a weapon and without thinking twice — even about the consequences should he be released — she made the call. But after two days and $1,000, she recalls, he was out of jail and found her once more. Without telling her where they were going, he moved Trujillo and her children back to the West Coast. She had agreed to get in the car on the condition that he would not harm her or her children. He promised not to touch the kids, but he never agreed on the latter. Once in her new home state, the trafficker threatened Trujillo’s life and beat her so badly that she thought she might die. It was then that she decided to seek help.

“All that I wanted was for my children to be okay, to be safe,” she said. “For them to not have to go through what I was going through.”

That day marked the beginning of Trujillo’s application to legally remain in the United States on a T visa. Established some 20 years ago as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the visa allows survivors of trafficking to remain in the United States for four years as well as potentially apply for permanent residency. While the act has had bipartisan support under most governments, Trujillo’s application coincided with the election of former President Donald Trump and the administration’s assault on immigration. One of the biggest T visa policy changes under the Trump administration — and one that has likely contributed to a decline in trafficking prosecutions — is the initiation of deportation proceedings as soon as an individual’s application is denied, irrespective of the reason they were denied. The reasons a visa application may be rejected have also become increasingly arbitrary such as leaving nonapplicable fields, like a middle name or apartment number, blank.

The pandemic has only added to these existing barriers — including longer wait times — with the need for limited in-person services, changes to court schedules, and, when the courts are open, insufficient safety protocols to protect the health of survivors and their representatives. For survivors such as Trujillo, who only recently received her visa, the delay means they are ineligible for pandemic-specific relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and are unable to legally work or access unemployment benefits.

“There are times when I don’t have enough money for the things my children need, or the things I need,” Trujillo said. “But really, what I need isn’t so important — what matters is that my children are okay.”

For survivors able to work in the United States, increasingly high unemployment paired with waves of business restrictions has affected their ability to find or retain work. Without a documented work history, survivors are often presented with entry-level opportunities in industries such as food services or retail. Not only can these jobs be exploitative, especially as many deny workers a living wage, but without the option of working remotely, they, too, have been impacted by COVID-19.

“In an economy where there’s a massive number of people looking for jobs, it’s very likely that those with the least number of barriers are going to be successful,” said Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, the program manager of economic justice and workforce initiatives at the social justice nonprofit, Futures Without Violence. “For survivors who have additional obstacles, accessing employment is just that much more challenging.

After Trujillo sought help at a local church, two pastors helped her and her children get a hotel room before the family moved into a shelter. There, Trujillo was asked what she wanted to do next. Her first thought was of her sister. The pair hadn’t spoken much as Trujillo was fearful the trafficker would harm her family, but she knew she lived on the West Coast and might be able to help. Otherwise, she told her mom the family might return to Mexico. Shortly after, Trujillo and her sister were reunited. While money has been tight and the family is largely reliant upon school programs, food banks, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Trujillo is grateful to have safe and stable housing without the threat of being evicted.

“My sister has always said, ‘even if we don’t have enough to eat, we’ll always have a roof over our heads,’” Trujillo said. “Being able to pay the rent has always been my priority so that my children have a place to live.”

One of the most significant challenges for survivors both before and during the pandemic is housing. Yet so much, from employment to education, hinges upon a safe and secure home. For those who have recently exited a trafficking situation, shelters often provide a safe space to begin to rebuild a life. But amid the pandemic, given the need for social distancing, some shelters are not accepting new clients or have radically reduced their capacity. In an ability to curb the spread of the virus, other housing programs have limited access to communal spaces or even an individual’s ability to leave the property. For survivors of human trafficking, this can be especially triggering as restricted movement is often used as a form of control. More so, said Kay Buck of CAST-LA, the current economic climate means that survivors will likely need to stay in shelters longer than the average year-and-a-half residency time, meaning that fewer places will be open as the pandemic continues into its second year.

Last year, in an effort to provide additional housing for survivors, the Trump administration announced a $35 million funding program. While this wasn’t a surprise as human trafficking is a largely bipartisan issue, the funding came nearly a year after the administration delayed a similar program when it became apparent that non-citizens were eligible recipients. More so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of March, potentially increasing the risk of eviction and possible homelessness for around 40 million Americans, including survivors who live independently. Homelessness is a big risk factor for human trafficking and advocates are concerned that evictions could not only increase new cases, but also increase instances of re-victimization.

“We all need housing and not having it creates a lot of instability,” said Karen Romeo at Freedom Network USA. “Eviction moratoriums create a safety net and add a layer of protection for people who might be vulnerable to human trafficking.”

At the beginning of last year, Trujillo told her mom, sister, and friends that 2020 was her year. She felt good, as if she were finally secure in herself as an independent woman and single mom, as if the horrors of the past were finally fading. The pandemic has, of course, complicated her situation, and without the safety nets that are barely supporting those who can access them, day-to-day necessities can be beyond her means. But knowing what it is to be controlled, to be invisible, to fear for your life and the lives of those you love, Trujillo has embraced some of the pandemic’s quieter offerings.

With her children at home, she has watched her daughters thrive in school, even while they are learning remotely. She has attended her son’s speech therapy classes, studying and learning alongside her youngest who has struggled to speak. She has been able to better understand her children, put herself in their shoes, allow them to see her as she is now and not as the woman she was once forced to become.

“After being manipulated and humiliated, you feel like you have no future, nothing,” Trujillo said. “I’ve gotten a lot better since then. I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt — it hurts. Just not as much as it did before.”

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Economic Security Project.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the toll-free National Human Trafficking Hotline, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocate.


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