Fear, uncertainty, trauma? For human trafficking survivors, this was already the norm

May 18, 2020

Fear, uncertainty, trauma? For human trafficking survivors, this was already the norm Banner Image

The coronavirus pandemic has increased the vulnerability of trafficking survivors in the U.S. For many of Lisa Dominguez’ clients, she is their sole source for food, housing, and other basic resources. Lisa shares how face-to-face contact is essential to building trust with individuals who find themselves exposed and alone in a new country.In May, Lisa recorded a podcast about how COVID-19 is changing her work with human trafficking survivors in Winter Garden, Florida. Below is a portion of her interview. <br />

How long have you worked at Bethany?

March 16, the day Florida went into quarantine, was my first day on the job. I went out and met my clients that day, taking gift cards and resources to help them.

My program, TVAP (Trafficking Victims Assistance Program), works with foreign-born immigrants who have faced human trafficking, whether sex trafficking or labor trafficking. Most of our clients have been labor trafficked. <br />

So it’s your first day, and the world’s spinning out of control. What was that like?

It was like fighting mini fires, where you’re putting one out and another one pops up. You have to think quickly and give a fast response because that’s what clients need. Their lives are happening in real time. The only way I can demonstrate that I’m here, I’m reliable, and you can trust me, is through actions, not words.

So I let them know, COVID or not, I’m here. I’m going to have my face mask and hand sanitizer and stay six feet apart, but I’m still going to have that face-to-face interaction. It’s essential to build trust and break through barriers and miscommunications. <br />

You’re working with people who have no safety net, no family, no resources. They’re literally alone in the midst of life-altering trauma with no one to stand by them or help them?

Absolutely. For a lot of my clients, I’m their number one resource. If they don’t have family members or friends here, I’m helping them build networks of support, connecting them with the community. The program runs for 12 months with the goal that they will establish a foundation for independence and self-sufficiency and continue to grow from there. <br />

What happens that causes someone to fall prey to a trafficker?

Many foreign-born people are being transported here, with their travel expenses paid. Generally, they’re being told, “If you come work for me, I’ll pay for your visa. I can get you citizenship and other things.” These are, of course, lies. Empty promises. Once traffickers know what the individual is trying to obtain—a new opportunity in a new country—they exploit that. Traffickers separate people from their support systems, limit contact, and take away their identification so the trafficker has all the power. Sometimes, they demand repayment for transportation and other “accrued expenses” with no evidence for what the individual actually owes. From there, the indebted person gets stuck, and so the cycle continues.

Traffickers are online, using social media, promising work, love, or success. Sometimes individuals use the rest of the money they have to travel here with no means to leave. They come here and find it’s not at all what they were promised, but now they have no money or legal papers—no way to get home. It’s not easy to break out. But when they do, there are still barriers. They don’t know U.S. laws and regulations. They’re afraid of the police. Traffickers have likely threatened to harm their family members. There are a lot of reasons why people find themselves in these situations and then can’t easily get out.

We’re beginning to see a lot of farm workers who have been trafficked. There’s a program in the U.S. that issues visas for migrant workers to legitimately work here and stay here for a period of time. Traffickers mimic this program, creating fake visas, social security numbers, and IDs; but the workers don’t know that what they’re responding to isn’t real. <br />

By the time someone comes to our program, they’ve managed to get out of their situation. What are their needs? How does Bethany help?

They’re coming from a situation where all the power and control was in the hands of the trafficker; now they’re out of that situation, but they still don’t have power or control over what happens next. Some clients have family or friends here in the U.S., so if they do, they typically go there to seek refuge. If they don’t, we help them find immediate housing while they’re getting their papers in order. Our job at that point is to stabilize them from the initial crisis. They at least know they have a place to lay their heads at night. <br />

Beyond their physical needs—housing, food, a job—how do we help with their emotional and psychological needs?

We can send referrals for counseling as needed. We do risk assessments to ensure clients are safe—mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. We’re always asking, “How are you feeling, now that things are moving in another direction?” That check-in is very important. <br />

How has the pandemic changed things for this population?

Everyone needs resources right now, and hard-to-find resources have become much more limited. Housing jumps to the top of that list. We had a couple of clients over Easter weekend who needed housing. We were scrambling, trying to find a shelter, a transitional home, somewhere for them to stay. Because of the risk of COVID exposure, shelters and transitional homes were not accepting new clients. They were only allowing people who were already there to stay and not leave. When shelters are full or not operating at all, you quickly run out of options.

These clients had no one else to call—no family, no friends. I went out and checked them into a hotel. I asked, “What else can I do for you? It’s Easter weekend—can I take you out and get you some food?” They looked at me and said, “You’ve already done so much.” Their response was indescribable. These people are so honorable, and I wish others could see the dignity I see in them. <br />

Listen to the full conversation on your favorite podcast platform: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

For more information or to learn how to help, visit Bethany.org/TraffickingSurvivors.