The Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) encourages law school students and lawyers to incorporate an enduring commitment to public service throughout their careers. The office offers advising sessions for students to discuss career options, plans events to expose students to the wide range of public interest opportunities available, and invites public interest leaders and mentors to HLS through its Wasserstein Public Interest Fellows Program.

As a part of National Pro Bono Week, Wasserstein Fellow Stacie Jonas discussed her commitment to serving those on the margins of society through her work in human trafficking. Human trafficking is a growing global epidemic. While sex trafficking is often what captures the media’s attention, labor trafficking is a prevalent problem. Jonas serves as the managing attorney for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s (TRLA) human trafficking team, which aims to protect those who have fallen victim to labor and sex trafficking due, in part, to the gaps in our country’s immigration and labor laws. During her lunch time discussion, Jonas dispelled the myths of human trafficking, distinguished it from smuggling, and discussed how structural policy and legal flaws in labor and immigration are “weaponized” by abusive employers and traffickers that make immigrants more vulnerable to abuse and harm instead of protection.

TRLA provides comprehensive legal services to survivors of labor and sex trafficking in Texas and six other southern states. At TRLA, attorneys help survivors report their trafficking to law enforcement, apply for immigration relief and represent survivors in civil lawsuits and administrative agency proceedings. Survivors of labor and sex trafficking are often reluctant to speak out and engage in a process to hold traffickers accountable out of fear of deportation. Recent policies and rhetoric have caused widespread concern among immigrants, and people are reluctant to report their abuse, fearing that the threat of arrest and deportation is just around the corner, Jonas said. She told Politico EU that “[Traffickers] take complete advantage of the increased climate of fear. So many of them use threatened abuse of the legal process, threats of deportation, threats to report people to law enforcement on phony allegations, like threatening to accuse them of theft, or threats to have their kids taken away from them as a big part of their scheme to coerce someone to work.” TRLA helps these individuals prepare to speak with law enforcement about the trauma they have endured and assists in helping them obtain the legal safeguards to protect their welfare.

Unlawful immigration and/or smuggling may be synonymous to human trafficking for some, but Jonas informed the audience that, under federal law, they are actually quite different. Even U.S. citizens and immigrants who enter the country lawfully can become victims of trafficking. Nearly 70 percent of labor trafficking victims enter the U.S. on lawful visas. Jonas differentiated smuggling, which centers on the unlawful transporting of individuals to a foreign country, from trafficking, which involves the exploitation and coercion of an individual for labor or commercial sexual acts. Jonas also noted in a Texas Standard article, that “Victims of human trafficking are eligible for certain legal remedies and protections that are not always available to people who were smuggled.” Labor trafficked individuals can still be paid, and do not necessarily have restriction of movement. She gave an example of a man who was promised wages and free room and board in exchange for trucking-related work. But the work the man was required to perform was different and more labor intensive and dangerous than original described, and he received less pay than promised. He was injured on the job multiple times. The trafficker and his family also belittled the man, provided him sub-standard housing, and even threatened to get him deported or that he could be harmed if he ever left the job. Other truck drivers noticed signs of the man’s abuse, and he was referred to TRLA for services. Jonas and her team were able to get him out of the situation and helped him successfully apply for various legal remedies.

Jonas also currently works part time with Justice in Motion, helping to ensure that migrants fleeing abuse or violence can remain safely in the U.S. and to reunite migrant parents who were separated from their children while in the U.S. Jonas said that organizations like TRLA, Justice in Motion, and other similar organizations continue working to help trafficked individuals subjected to abuse and harm, who are often times trying to escape poverty, improve their lives, and support their families.

Thank you to OPIA and the Labor and Employment Action Project (LEAP) for putting this event together