She was trapped and had no idea how to escape,” says Ana Deal, a domestic violence attorney with Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska (JFON-NE), referring to a 24-year- old JFON-NE client from Honduras that was a victim of severe human trafficking.
According to Deal her client, Emelina, lived in a small city in Honduras and was struggling to support a young son with a serious medical condition. In Honduras, Emelina was approached by Dulce, a family friend. Dulce proposed that Emelina travel to the United States to work as a live-in nanny for Dulce’s brother.
“Emelina was promised a good wage by Honduran standards, especially because the employer would pay for her travel to the United States and her living expenses,” says Deal, adding “Emilina left her son in the care of her parents and made the long and dangerous journey across Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, guided by a ‘cayote.’”
Deal says that her client was shocked when she arrived in Iowa. She quickly learned that she would be providing care for five children under the age of ten, instead of the three Dulce had mentioned. “For the next year Emelina worked approximately 20 hours a day, seven days a week without a single day off. Her day began around 4 a.m. and ended around midnight,” says Deal. The domestic violence lawyer says that Emelina had to prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire family, cleaned the house, did chores and provided childcare. “Her employers forbid her from leaving the house other than to collect aluminum cans every morning, they would trade the cans in for money, which they kept for themselves,” says Deal.
Deal indicates that the couple regularly threatened Emelina that they would call immigration enforcement on her if she left the house or called her family in Honduras without their permission. “Over the course of the year, Emelina’s employers never paid her for her work. They told her that they spent a large amount on her travel to the U.S and that she would have to pay back every cent, therefore, they would need to hold her paycheck until she paid the debt in full,” says Deal. Furthermore, Deal mentions that the couple also called Emelina’s family back home and demanded that they help pay her debt or they would be unable to provide her with food or housing.
“They took Emelina to the Honduran consulate to get a passport and consular ID. They kept these documents in a locked closet. They restricted her food and the number of showers she took a week,” says Deal. The JFON-NE lawyer indicates that they also refused to provide the live-in nanny with healthcare. “When she got the stomach flu and asked to go to the doctor they refused to let her leave the house,” says Deal.
According to Deal police officers made a visit to the home and Emelina was able to seize the opportunity as a chance to escape. When the police asked the couple how many people lived in the house, Deal says the wife said it was just her, her husband and the children. Ignoring her employer’s instructions to hide in her room and not make any noise, Emelina saw her chance to escape so she just walked from the bedroom to the bathroom past the police. “The officers fortunately were alert and suspected that something strange was going on. They asked her a series of questions and Emelina told them everything. A social worker came to the house and told Emelina that they would take her to a safe place, she went to live in a shelter for several months,” says Deal.
Deal mentions that after living at a shelter for a few months, Emelina connected with some distant family members in Omaha. “In Omaha one of our community partner agencies referred her to JFON and we helped her apply for a T-Visa for victims of human trafficking. We included her minor son as a derivative applicant,” says Deal.
The lawyer says that her team argued that Emelina was a victim of a severe form of trafficking. “She had been recruited and transported by means of fraud for the purpose of subjection to debt bondage,” says Deal, adding “we obtained a certification from Iowa law enforcement that she was helpful in the investigation against her traffickers and her application was recently approved.”
Deal adds that JFON-NE was able to help her client obtain work authorization and Emelina is now employed at a meat packing plant and has been able to send money back home to her parents and child twice a month. Thanks to this her family is doing well.
Deal concludes that this is just one of the many types of human trafficking cases they see and she encourages people to report any suspected trafficking incidents to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Furthermore, Deal says that residents can refer immigration assistance to the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline at 1-855-307-6730.