Help for a Labor Trafficking Victim Whose 'Whole Life Was Changed by That Moment'
Thousands of people are brought to the United States each year as victims of labor trafficking, the federal government reports.
Jorge was one of them.
Jorge (we’re using a pseudonym to protect his privacy) was recruited in his native Mexico to work building barns at farms in the Midwest.
Jorge paid his recruiter a large sum of money in a “pay-to-play” scheme in order to be considered for a visa—illegal under U.S. law. The recruiter instructed him to lie about this fact at his visa interview under the threat of losing his money and never being able to work in the United States. He boarded a van in Mexico together with others caught in the same trafficking scheme and was taken first to Chicago, then to Iowa, and eventually to South Dakota. There, he and fellow workers were forced to perform dangerous work in sub-zero temperatures for sub-standard pay—with no pay stubs or other documentation.
Hazardous Work, Mysterious Transactions
Much of their work consisted of scaling barn frames and walking among slats where the barn roof would eventually be constructed, high off the ground. Men were forced to work atop these metal roof frames in the dead of winter, in icy and extreme conditions, without adequate safety equipment. Serious injuries from falls went unreported and untreated by medical professionals. Crafty use of anonymous cell phones, WhatsApp accounts, mysterious gift cards, and anonymized banking transactions kept the traffickers in the shadows from law enforcement. Benefits promised to Jorge before he left Mexico, including free meals, were never provided.
Jorge worked 12-hour days, six days a week, including forced overtime. Thousands of miles from home, unable to speak English, lacking any independent means of transportation, and completely unfamiliar with their rural surroundings, Jorge and his fellow workers were entirely dependent on the traffickers for basic life needs.
The Hurt Gets Worse
Then, on a snowy day in December 2019, Jorge’s supervisors insisted that his team work despite snow coating the barn roof frame. He slipped, fell, and slammed his ribs against the metal frame. His on-site boss prevented him from seeing a doctor, allowed no time to recuperate, and forced him to continue working. He was told that if he left to see a doctor, he should not return.
When the pain became unbearable, Jorge called a relative, a U.S. citizen who lives several hours away in Minnesota, to take him from the site to see a doctor. Fearful of deportation or other retaliation, Jorge left the work site secretly while others were away at work.
After receiving treatment for his injury, Jorge was advised to seek help from The Advocates for Human Rights. The esteemed Minneapolis-based nonprofit addresses human rights issues globally through education and advocacy. It also provides direct services to individuals whose rights have been violated—individuals like Jorge.
That’s where Conor Smith enters the picture.
Legal Help Arrives
Conor is a lawyer in Ballard Spahr’s Minneapolis office, which has worked cooperatively for many years with The Advocates for Human Rights on human and civil rights issues and cases. With training and support from the organization, Conor took Jorge’s case pro bono.
Jorge said that when he first learned he would be provided with an attorney and met Conor remotely, “It was a very exciting moment for me because I did not feel alone, and I felt immense joy knowing that I had found a lawyer who could help me in this process. I met a very kind, very honest person, and I felt that he was a person with a big heart.”
With the help of an interpreter and online translator app, Conor learned Jorge’s story, documented it, and guided Jorge through logistics, including outreach to the U.S. Department of Labor and a meeting with the FBI. Conor and Jorge worked together on the lengthy process to apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a T visa for Jorge. USCIS makes a limited number of T visa available each year to noncitizens who can show they have been victims of human trafficking, and who assist law enforcement agencies in investigations.
“It would be very difficult for somebody who’s a victim of trafficking to get the same results that I achieved, and that my client achieved, without the help of an attorney,” Conor said. “The system is complicated. I can’t imagine somebody who has limited English and limited education managing their own way through the T visa a process."
Within days of the visa being approved, Jorge visited Conor in Minneapolis.
“It was really one of the best points in my career,” Conor said, to see the person whose “whole life was changed by that moment.”