Key issues in the resettlement of formerly trafficked persons in the United States.

Author:Brennan, Denise

INTRODUCTION I. METHODOLOGY AND DESCRIPTION OF T VISA RECIPIENTS II. FINDING TRAFFICKED PERSONS AMIDST EVERYDAY EXPLOITATION III. LIFE AFTER TRAFFICKING A. Trust and Social Networks of Coethnics B. Posttrafficking Experiences in the Labor Market C. Women in Forced Sexual Labor D. Friends, Romantic Partners, and Community-Based Organizations E. Assistance to and from Family Members CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

Carmen came to the United States with an Ecuadoran family for whom she had been working as a child-care provider and domestic. (1) Although they had treated her fairly in Ecuador, the wife, explains Carmen, "turned into the devil" once they got to the United States. They did not pay her, took her passport, forbade her from leaving the house, kept food from her, and forced her to sleep in the children's room. A neighbor suspected that Carmen was being held against her will and contacted the police. The police, aware that Carmen's case may qualify as "trafficking," called a large social service provider whose social workers oversaw her care and whose lawyers began to put together Carmen's application for a T visa. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) eventually determined that Carmen had been "trafficked." (2) After initially living in a domestic violence shelter, Carmen lived in a series of apartments that she shared with other migrants to the United States. Her daily concerns were like those of her migrant roommates working low-wage jobs: how to pay bills while also sending remittances to her parents; how to find time to attend ESL classes while she worked the night shift cleaning hotel rooms; and how to make new friends so far from home. As someone who was designated "trafficked," however, aspects of her life were different from those of her roommates. She enjoyed benefits they did not, such as eventual legal status through a T Visa, health care (for about a year), and the support of a case manager with whom she still stays in touch. (3) Yet, even with these benefits, Carmen and other T visa recipients still struggle. Like many migrants, they work in low-paying and insecure jobs. These positions are usually the only work that they can find with limited formal education, English-language skills, and social networks.

This Article, along with the larger book project of which it is a part, (4) examines how individuals who have been in forced labor in the United States rebuild their lives. (5) This research focuses on the struggles and successes with the everyday tasks of resettlement of persons whom the U.S. government has officially recognized as having been trafficked. It asks how these individuals, whose lives were controlled by violence or threats of violence, regain control of their lives and begin the process of resettlement in the United States. I explore ways in which they confront the same daily challenges in their resettlement as their fellow migrants as they build new lives in a new country. Yet, I also ask how the intrinsic violence of trafficking into forced labor--which subjects individuals to a profound loss of control over their lives, including where and when they eat, sleep, and work--shapes the course of their resettlement.

While many formerly trafficked persons who experienced human rights abuses warily engage new situations and friends, the individuals I have met are committed to making a life in the United States and to crafting ways to improve the conditions of their lives and those of their families back in their home countries, albeit to different degrees and in different ways. Their interest in finding jobs soon after their escape or rescue is particularly striking. Formerly trafficked persons seek to work right away and strive to build new networks of friends and colleagues, behaviors that challenge the simplistic media portrayals of "trafficking victims" as passive dupes that make easy prey for traffickers. (6) Work is the reason they came to the United States in the first place (7) and finding new jobs after forced labor allows them to carry out the plans their exploiters interrupted. This Article thus pays particular attention to ways formerly trafficked persons forge plans to get ahead economically as they settle into new communities.

Yet, even after they leave situations of forced labor, these individuals risk reexploitation. This Article emphasizes that labor exploitation structures not just the lives of individuals in forced labor, but also the lives of migrants working in low-wage sectors. The theoretical framework of this Article follows a central premise around which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an agricultural workers' membership-based advocacy organization in Immokalee, Florida, organizes both its farmworkers' rights and antislavery campaigns. (8) I situate trafficking along a continuum of exploitative labor practices that migrants experience in work sites throughout the United States. (9) Through this particular examination of extreme abuses that qualify as "trafficking," I hope to call attention to how exploitative practices are a regular feature in work sites where undocumented migrants labor. Low pay, no pay, unsafe working conditions, job insecurity, and a lack of clear channels through which employees can bring grievances to their employers are part of doing business on many work sites where migrants labor. (10) With minimal labor protections for low-wage workers in the informal economy and in jobs created through subcontracting, (11) forced labor exists today in part because a range of other exploitative labor conditions exist and are allowed to proliferate. When exploitation is the norm, forced labor cannot only flourish, but can blend into a background of abuse. Trafficked persons are typically restrained not with physical chains, but through mental or physical coercion. As a result, trafficked persons, whether they pick tomatoes or wash dishes or sew clothes alongside other migrant workers, may appear to be working under the same conditions as their coworkers. What distinguishes these "severely exploited" workers from those who have experienced less severe forms of exploitation is their belief that they or their families will be hurt if they leave their trafficker. These practices of intimidation work. All trafficked persons--regardless of their particular circumstances of exploitation--live in fear and silence.

This threatening environment influences not only the experiences of individuals in forced labor and less severely exploited low-wage workers, but also the prospects for effective resettlement of trafficked persons, their opportunities for long-term well-being, and possibly their chances at economic mobility. These socialized and normalized exploitative conditions among migrant workers spill over into the resettlement process. (12) The primary vehicle for posttrafficking resettlement in the United States is the T visa. Created by the TVPA, this category of legal status for formerly trafficked persons grants legal residence to persons identified as trafficked and makes them eligible for a range of social services funded by the federal government. To qualify, exploited workers must prove that they were victims of "force, fraud or coercion." (13) A T visa recipient may be eligible for permanent residence after three years if he or she "has complied with reasonable requests for assistance in the investigation and prosecution of acts of trafficking" during the three years. (14)

A critical question emerges: how much of a difference does a T visa make in an individual's posttrafficking resettlement strategy? After all, it certainly does not render one immune from the kind of exploitative labor conditions that many migrants in low-wage labor sectors face. (15) Since T visa recipients typically enter low-wage, insecure, and possibly exploitative work even after being trafficked, the challenges that they face in the short term threaten to preclude opportunities for economic security and mobility in the long term.


    My work draws primarily from in-depth interviews with T visa recipients and the social workers and attorneys who oversee their resettlement in the United States. I am indebted to these social workers and attorneys, who have introduced me to their clients in California, New York, Florida, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. (16) To date, there are no geographical communities of resettled trafficked persons in the United States. (17) Even those who were resettled after the largest human-trafficking case in the United States, the "American Samoa" case, are not living together in any one place. (18) When possible, I keep in touch with T visa recipients who live in communities near me--Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and New York. Over the past five years, we have met in informal settings, such as for meals, and I also accompany them to events at community-based organizations with which they are involved. In this way, I have followed how they have been settling into their new communities and jobs, as well as how they negotiate the issue of trust as they create and maintain new social networks of friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

    I cannot underscore enough how much my communication with social workers throughout the country has helped me to understand the resettlement of such a diverse population in such diverse contexts. These social workers have generously shared their insights, concerns, and successes as they, too, learn about the resettlement issues facing individuals with a new legal designation and accompanying benefits. I also have been in an ongoing dialogue with migrant-labor organizers and immigration attorneys as well as individuals who have experienced a range of workplace violations but whose exploitation does not qualify them as "trafficked." (19) I have met these exploited (but not "trafficked") workers through migrants' rights...

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