Emily* was struggling in her home country. She and her husband were both employed, but they could barely support the family and didn’t come close to having enough money to educate their four children, then ages 8-14.
A TV ad seemed to offer a solution. Housekeepers were needed in the United States, the ad said. Wages were good and work visas did not expire for three years.
Emily discussed it with her husband and they agreed that this was their best chance to get enough money to improve their financial situation and provide schooling for their children. Three years was a long time but it looked to be worth it.
The family came up with a substantial “training” fee and Emily signed up in 2008. After a course in American housekeeping, Emily and eight other women from her country flew into Los Angeles, expecting to get on another flight to Florida where they were to take jobs as housekeepers.
What they got was not Florida and not housekeeping. Instead, they rode a Greyhound to Arizona and were forced into caregiving jobs at group homes. “We were given away like dogs,” Emily said. “Actually, we were sold - $300 each to a group home.”
It was at that point in Phoenix that Emily began to understand that she was in trouble. “I was given to a man. I was so afraid then because it’s in the middle of the night and we were driving in a dark place.” She was absolutely without control of her situation.
She was taken to a group home and told to help the clients there. She had no training and had little idea of how to do the work. “With dementia people, some of them are combative. Some do not sleep, so you can’t sleep either,” she said.
It would be eight years – 2016 – before Emily saw her husband and children again.
She and the other women were victims of human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery. The federal Trafficking and Victim Protection Act of 2000 defines human trafficking 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 purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery.” In 2016, 148 human trafficking cases were reported in the state of Arizona, with federal law enforcement agencies identifying Arizona as having one of highest numbers of victims in the country. Human trafficking takes many forms, including labor and sex trafficking. Men, women, children, and adults can be victims.
The visa that allowed Emily into the United States expired in eight months. After that, she had no legal status.
Emily was forced to work in jobs not of her choice for less than minimum wage. Some victims get no compensation at all. Some, including children, are forced into sex trade.
Emily’s trafficker controlled her by threatening to expose her to authorities because her papers were not proper. “I was threatened that they would call the police and deport me,” she said.
She wanted to stay in the United States because she was making some money, which she needed to help her family and pay debts in her homeland.
She said that she did not want to be in the U.S. illegally. “We are good citizens so we don’t want to commit any crime. We want to be law-abiding citizens.”
Eventually, Emily became aware of the possibilities and the rights that victims of trafficking have in the U.S.
She contacted the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix and got help. The IRC’s Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking (ALERT) program meets the needs of victims of trafficking. ALERT specializes in serving foreign-born victims of both labor and sex trafficking, serving over 55 victims of trafficking in fiscal year 2018. ALERT provides comprehensive case management, including legal assistance, safety programs, employment, and physical and mental health care services.
“They are really awesome,” Emily said of the IRC workers. “They have open arms to help.”
With the help of her lawyer, Emily obtained a visa in 2016 that identified her as a trafficking victim. With that visa came the opportunity to reunite her family in the United States.
Thanks to the IRC’s financial support, the family now has their own home and a business that the family operates together. They have legal status and are on a path toward citizenship.
Emily’s husband said, “We are really grateful to the IRC because we are able to have this new life.”
Emily added, “They are so wonderful. Anytime we need them, they are here for us. Any time.”
Having been forced to be away from her family for eight years, does Emily consider that time wasted? “I would not say it was wasted. I would say it was a sacrifice, a big one,” she said.
“We managed to survive and then managed to become legal again. Thanks to the government of America.”
*Emily is a pseudonym, as the client asked that her name not be made public for this story. No photos or other identifying information were used for privacy.
Story by Dennis Godfrey. Photos provided by the IRC in Phoenix.