MIAMI - Thursday, October 26th, 2016 -- By Brenda Medina - Reporter
This immigrant was certified as a victim of human trafficking, but she could still be deported. For almost two years, she worked for a family that paid her to what amounted to about $3 an hour for days that stretched to 13 hours. At night, she slept on the floor of the family’s apartment in a posh Miami neighborhood.
Her employers also denied her access to health care, monitored her communications and warned her that if she complained about her working conditions she would be deported to her native Colombia and lose the temporary U.S. visa obtained for her by the family.
When she finally overcame her fears in October of last year, Ana — not her real name — gathered up her identification documents and two changes of clothes and left. She filed a complaint against her employer and cooperated with federal officials in an investigation that eventually determined that she was a victim of exploitation.
But a few months after she fled, she was arrested by Customs and Immigration agents.
"This is the worst thing that ever happened to me..."
Ana said during a brief telephone interview from the Broward Transitional Center, an immigrant detention facility in Pompano Beach. El Nuevo Herald is not using the real name because of fears of reprisals against Ana and her two young children, who are still in Colombia. She has applied for a special visa for victims of human trafficking.
For many lawyers and advocates, Ana’s case highlights contradictions within the U.S. government. The Department of Labor has concluded that she is a victim of human trafficking who must be protected. But she has been locked up for months under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — even as the Department of Labor investigated her case.
Since her detention four months ago, lawyers for two non-profit organizations have been trying to win her release while her labor exploitation case is pending. But an immigration judge had repeatedly denied bond, ruling that she is a flight risk because of a theft accusation pending in Miami — filed by the family that once employed her.
In August, the Department of Labor issued a ruling that certified that Ana was indeed the victim of “a severe form of human trafficking.”
This week, as el Nuevo Herald was reporting this story, an immigration judge approved a $5,000 bail for Ana. But she remains in detention because she doesn’t have the money to pay for her release, which must be paid in full.
The ruling came weeks after her immigration attorney, Mark Prada, filed an appeal arguing that Miami Police had determined that there was “no further information” available to investigate the theft allegation. Ana emphatically denies the accusation.
Immigration experts said that detaining anyone who may be a victim of human trafficking is another form of victimization and does not meet the standards that federal agencies are required to meet.
“It’s crazy!” said Jennifer Hill, an attorney who specializes in labor law and represents Ana through the non-profit Advocacy Partners Team. “During the this entire process, which has been going on for months, every one of the agencies involved was informed that (Ana) was cooperating with authorities as a victim.”
ICE and the Department of Labor declined to comment on Ana’s case. But both agencies said they take human trafficking and workplace abuse complaints seriously. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor said the agency refers cases of potential human trafficking to appropriate law enforcement agencies for prosecution.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which detained Ana, did not reply to requests for comment.
Ana’s case is not uncommon.
“Sadly, almost 20 years after the law that protects victims of human trafficking was approved, we still see these kinds of cases where the victims are detained,” said Ana Isabel Vallejo, a lawyer with VIDA Legal Assistance. “Although these kinds of situations have diminished over the years, many times — while the cases are processed — a person can be detained for immigration violations before he or she is determined to be a victim.”
Thousands of people enter the United States each year with temporary visas like the one Ana had — B1 visas for domestic workers — which requires sponsorship. Their legal stay in the country is directly tied to their employers. Activists argue that cases like Ana’s deter victims from denouncing human trafficking or wage theft.
A report by the Polaris Project in 2015 indicated that 18 percent of the 30,000 calls to a help line for victims of human trafficking received from 2007 to 2014 came from immigrants with temporary visas.