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Enslaved in Palo Alto 

A domestic worker from Kenya has accused her employer -- a prominent African journalist -- of human trafficking

Wednesday, Feb 18 2004

Page 5 of 6

"I didn't understand why there is freedom and I am not free. I am like a prisoner in the land of the free people."

The product of nearly two years of nuanced political wrangling, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 passed easily in Congress. The legislation -- the first to tackle the issue in the United States -- makes it easier to prosecute traffickers while also offering protection to victims under a newly created "T visa."

Conservatives saw the bill as a way to strengthen law enforcement and curb worldwide prostitution; liberals viewed it as an opportunity to provide relief to victims of human rights violations and address labor exploitation. A compromise was struck: While temporary immigration status, social services, and work authorization were made available to victims through the T visa, a large component of securing the visa would involve cooperating with law enforcement during its investigations and prosecutions.

Before the act was passed, abused, exploited, and trafficked domestic workers -- whose immigration status is linked to their employers' -- had nowhere to run. Even if they had an opportunity to escape, they might face deportation. But because of the T visa, they can now seek government protection. To apply, victims need to show evidence that they have been trafficked, that they are willing to cooperate with law enforcement, and that they would be harmed if they returned to their home country.

Congress placed a 5,000 annual cap on T visas, but the government has authorized only several hundred per year -- because, officials say, not many victims come forward. In 2003, for example, 750 people applied for T visas and 283 of them were approved.

Victim advocates, however, say that the law enforcement component prevents more people from presenting themselves. "Reporting trafficking is not like reporting a stolen car," says the International Human Rights Law Group's Ann Jordan, who worked with legislative staffers on the 2000 act. "Most of them don't have documents to be here. They could be in shock and not able to react immediately. Many of them are afraid about what will happen to them -- will they be deported, will there be protection?" Alice has expressed just such a fear, though she did eventually agree to report the alleged crime and cooperate with law enforcement.

The Bush administration has been vocal about its commitment to thwart human trafficking, but speeches by the president have tended to emphasize sex trafficking. "There's another humanitarian crisis spreading, yet hidden from view," Bush told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003. "Each year, an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold, or forced across the world's borders. Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as 5, who fall victim to the sex trade."

Though there is universal agreement that sex trafficking deserves government attention, some victim advocates are worried that the administration's stance is too narrow. "We do have the concern that there are limited resources and that the Bush administration will focus those resources on trafficking in sex, and leave other kinds of trafficking for labor to local governments," adds Jordan.

With public attention fixated on sex trafficking cases, the response of local bureaus of federal law enforcement to non-sex trafficking cases has been uneven. In San Francisco, the two agencies charged with investigating these cases are giving short shrift to labor trafficking. "The FBI very rarely handles trafficking-of-people cases," says S.F. bureau spokesperson Patti Hansen, who had never heard of a T visa before I contacted her. "We focus on terrorism these days."

Sharon Rummery, local spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the agency believes that sex trafficking is a larger problem than labor trafficking in the area. "We do mostly sex cases and not a lot of labor cases," she explains.

"We have gotten word that law enforcement is primarily interested in sex trafficking cases," adds the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Task Force's Mie Lewis, whose firm, API Legal Outreach, is handling Alice's T visa and asylum claims. "This is a big problem, because slavery in any form has to be addressed and the perpetrators need to be held accountable. But the government is, in effect, closing its eyes to certain forms of slavery."

In December 2002, Wanja Njuguna-Githinji's father died. The journalist booked a flight to Kenya to attend the funeral, and told Alice that she and her son would be gone for a month. Before she left, Alice claims, Njuguna-Githinji warned her that a friend would be checking in on her, and told her that there would be $8 in a drawer for the month's food.

After her boss left, Alice searched the house, but couldn't find any money. For weeks, Alice relied on a good Samaritan, one of Njuguna-Githinji's acquaintances who lived nearby, to buy her food. Later that month, Alice remembered a conversation she'd had with Njuguna-Githinji's friend, the Washington, D.C., reporter, who had come to visit Njuguna-Githinji when the journalist was not home.

"[He] asked me, 'What do you always do? What do [you] do during [your] free time?'" Alice says. "I told them I don't have any free time. I told them what Wanja was paying me, and [he] said it was too little. [He] says, 'If you have a child, how do you help your child and at the same time use the money?' I say, 'It's hard, but I don't know. I don't know anything about this country.'"

During that conversation, the reporter told Alice about a day laborer's center in Mountain View where she might be able to earn extra money. So on a Saturday a few days before Njuguna-Githinji was to return, Alice walked to the center, where a staffer introduced her to John Rinaldi, a pro bono labor attorney.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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