From Smuggling to Trafficking: The Path to Status and Healing

Since January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight one of our recent trafficking cases, which highlights how smuggling can turn into trafficking. What our client went through was beyond horrific and I’ve changed some identifying information. But, I hope this post helps people see that just because you make one bad decision (arranging for your smuggling), doesn’t mean you deserve to be treated like less than a human being (being trafficked).

Cindy lived in her home country and her husband lived in the United States; he came years earlier to get a job and establish a life for them. However, Cindy was sad and tired of being alone. She was in a country and society where she didn’t feel safe being alone as a woman. So, when she found someone who could help her get to the United States without a visa, she said yes.

Cindy knew that smuggling was expensive and she told her contact over and over again that she couldn’t afford the fees. He told her not to worry about it, that he would pay to begin with, and that she would pay him back over time once she was in the United States with her husband. She provided a downpayment of jewelry and thought she would be safe.

The original contact got her to Mexico and, once there, she was handed off to another smuggler. She was told that the Mexican smuggler was safe and would ensure that she got to the United States without harm. Tragically, this second smuggler was anything but safe. 

While Cindy was asleep one night, the Mexican smuggler started to sexually assault her. She protested, but he told her that no one would hear her and he would send her to the police if she didn’t cooperate. He began to beat her and Cindy realized she had no power over what was happening to her. This was only the beginning of the nightmare, though. For three weeks, this “smuggler”—now her trafficker—forced Cindy to have sex with his clients. If she tried to refuse, she was denied food and water, and she was beaten over and over again. He told her that he had a video of their earlier encounter and that if she didn’t do exactly what he and the clients said, he would share the video with her family. Cindy was forced to have sex with up to five different men in one day.

The Mexican smuggler then brought Cindy to the United States. Although she was finally in the United States, nothing changed and she was forced to continue as the trafficker demanded. Eventually, Cindy needed new clothing and she asked her trafficker to take her to the store. Cindy, being small, was able to escape and hide in the store until it closed. She was then able to call her husband and ask for his help in escaping. Thankfully, he was able to come and rescue her. 

Although Cindy should not have made arrangements to come to the United States without the proper paperwork, no one should have to go through what she did. Being smuggled is something you do willingly and usually out of desperation. It turns into trafficking when the agreement is broken and you are forced to work (labor or sex) without pay, threats are made, and you are not allowed to leave. 

We are still waiting on a decision for Cindy’s case, but I have confidence that it will be approved. We are hopeful that gaining legal status will take some worry off of her so she can focus on healing. 

If something like this has happened to you or someone you know, there is no need to be ashamed. There may be help available and we would love to talk with you. I often tell clients that we can’t change the horrible things that happened in the past, but we should try and get all the good out of it so the future can be much better. You can also read more about the specifics of human trafficking in our past blog post here.

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