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The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally, with hundreds of thousands in the United States.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against their will. For more information, see Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, Office on Trafficking in Persons, and National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Maria lived in Venezuela with her two young children. She wanted to be able to provide a good life for them, but there weren’t many opportunities. Her uncle put her in touch with someone he knew who had connections in the United States. The recruiter offered Maria a temporary job at a nice hotel with good pay in the United States. Maria decided to accept the offer and signed a contract. Her children could stay with her mother, and she would send money back to them. She also hoped that eventually she could bring them to the United States to live with her.
The recruiter helped Maria get a foreign worker visa and plane ticket to the United States. When she arrived, her new employer explained that she needed to work off the cost of the visa and the plane ticket. He told her that he would hold onto her passport and visa. He brought her to a house where he said all of the foreign employees lived together. She noticed that the windows were boarded up and that there were security cameras both inside and outside the house.
The employer had Maria working as a housekeeper in a hotel. She was instructed to clean rooms and not interact with hotel guests. She worked 16 hours a day and did not get any breaks. She rarely got a day off and even when she did, she was not allowed to leave the house. The employer told Maria that he was always watching and that he would hurt her if she went anywhere besides the hotel or the house without permission.
Maria missed her family, but she didn’t have access to a phone. And she had been warned not to try to contact them. She also didn’t want her family to know how bad her working and living conditions were. She knew they were probably already worried since she had not sent them any money yet. Her employer kept all of her wages to pay off the cost of her visa and plane ticket. The only money she had was the occasional tips from hotel guests.
The working and living conditions were wearing on Maria. She wanted to escape and to see her children again, but she didn’t think she had many options. She thought about trying to go back home to Venezuela, but she didn’t have her passport or enough money to buy a plane ticket. She started thinking about people that she could ask for help.
Maria had a co-worker at the hotel who was American, but spoke Spanish. When they were waiting for the bus after their shifts one night, Maria worked up the courage to ask her for help. The co-worker didn’t know what trafficking resources were available, so she took Maria to a domestic violence shelter.
The shelter allowed Maria to stay and gave her a few clothing and personal items since she could not go back to the house for her belongings. Shelter staff helped Maria contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline, an organization that helps victims of human trafficking. The organization set Maria up with a legal aid lawyer who started an application for a T visa for Maria and derivative T visas for her children. To meet the requirement for this type of visa, they had to report the labor trafficking crimes against Maria to law enforcement. The lawyer also put Maria in touch with a local social service agency that could help her meet basic needs while she remained undocumented.
Maria got a caseworker through the local social service agency. The caseworker helped secure temporary housing, food, clothing, and other needs. Maria was interviewed by law enforcement officials. They told her they would follow up if they needed to, but that these types of cases rarely go to court.
Maria’s lawyer filed her T visa application as well as her children’s derivative visa applications. Maria had not been able to work legally because she was still undocumented; however, her day-to-day needs and living expenses were being met through the social service agencies. She was able to communicate with her family again, and she was excited at the possibility of reuniting with them.
Maria received her T visa, and her children received their derivative visas a couple of months after. Her lawyer helped to arrange for her children to come to the U.S. where they were finally reunited with Maria. She was able to qualify for public benefits and apply for jobs.