When I was asked last summer if I want to handle a pro bono case our firm might accept, I jumped at the opportunity. At the time, I was a second-year law student eager to get my feet wet in the actual practice of law. Throughout law school, we as students, learn the theoretical side of the law and rarely get the opportunity to handle an actual case from start to finish. I quickly capitalized on the opportunity to gain a real-world experience.
The case was referred to our firm from a legal clinic that assists victims of human trafficking. The case is about a woman from Guyana who is seeking a form of immigration protection called Withholding of Removal pursuant to the Convention Against Torture—commonly referred to as CAT. The woman is a victim of human trafficking and has suffered immeasurable harm at the hands of some of the world’s worst type of criminals. I knew I had to help this lady and immediately scheduled an appointment to meet with her and get her full story.
The Convention Against Torture (CAT) is an international human rights treaty which aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment around the world. Among other things, it forbids countries to transport people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured. “Torture” under the CAT is defined as any unlawful infliction of severe suffering or pain and can include many different harms such as rape, electric shock, being forced to take drugs or other substances, being deprived of water, physical beatings, and threats of harm. Also, sex-trafficking and forced sex-work are forms of torture under the Convention Against Torture.
The time was approaching to meet the client. I was kind of nervous; I knew her story was harrowing and I didn’t want to ask certain questions about her experiences. I knew it was traumatizing for her, I was hesitant to inquire about the specifics of her victimization. So, after we met, and said our pleasantries, I thought it would be best to just have her tell her story to me and my supervisor from the beginning hoping she could get comfortable with us, as people before answering the tough questions we had to ask her. Luckily this did the trick, and our client was comfortable enough to answer all our tough questions towards the end of the meeting.
In regard to her story though, it was quite horrifying. It honestly scared me; it made me realize that human trafficking is REAL and is present in the NYC metropolitan area. I, like most people, have not had exposure to the seedy world of human trafficking; it was one of those things that are “out of sight = out of mind.” This woman re-calibrated my perspective and made me realize the horrors of human trafficking are in our backyard. This is a woman who was trafficked to this country, NYC specifically, and sold into forced prostitution for years. She was subjected to mental and physical torture. The crazy thing was, she was being held in the basement of a house in Long Island, NY. I’ve been to Long Island before, it seemed to me like a nice suburban area where joggers lined the sides of the roads and people rode bicycles. Not a place where someone gets sold into a sex slavery ring.
Living in the United States, it is hard to conceive of human trafficking taking place so close to home. In the news, it is covered as an imperative matter in need of international attention, but one that is other countries’ problems. This case highlights the naivete of thinking the United States is immune to such horror; it can, and does, take place within our borders and in our neighborhoods. In fact, New York City is a gateway and one of the largest destinations for trafficked women in the country. Research shows that traffickers exploit vulnerabilities such as immigration status, debt, education, language, or children to entrap victims.
Luckily, there are support centers designed to help woman who have been trafficked to this country. Restore NYC is one such nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking in New York and provide economic, social, housing, and emotional assistance to the survivors of human trafficking located within New York City. Some employees from Restore NYC managed to find my client and assist her with obtaining her first U.S. immigration visa. This small step paved the way to where we are today. Because of this center, our client was able to have her case screened by a few law firms, ultimately landing at ours. The link to Restore NYC’s website is here, https://restorenyc.org/, in case you are interested in learning more; they really do great work and provide an invaluable service to the victims.
This case is still pending. It is up to me, and by extension, my law firm, to convince an immigration judge that our client will be subjected to torture and/or human trafficking once more if she is to return to her native county–a place where she has no employment, no family, no money, no housing, and no friends. This is a life or death case for our client and we treat it as such. Our job, as immigration attorneys, is to give the clients the very best representation we can possibly give them. We hope we are able to convince the immigration judge to grant her CAT protection, which would allow her to remain here in America.
Eric Mark Law Office
69 Montgomery Street, Unit 3956
Jersey City, NJ 07302