Legal help sought for trafficking survivors in immigration detention center

  • Written by Brad Broberg
  • Published in Local
More than 1,500 people are held at the federal Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. They include human trafficking survivors who need legal help to obtain special visas allowing them to remain in the U.S. Photo: Tim Warden-Hertz More than 1,500 people are held at the federal Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. They include human trafficking survivors who need legal help to obtain special visas allowing them to remain in the U.S. Photo: Tim Warden-Hertz

TACOMA – Rathish Pandian, a human trafficking survivor, beat the odds.

After spending nine months in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma awaiting deportation, the undocumented immigrant from India walked out the door with a special T visa that gave him the right to stay in the U.S.

Pandian, who had been forced to work for no pay in a sandwich shop, got his visa without legal help — except for the books he studied day after day in the immigration detention center’s law library. “I became my own lawyer,” he said.

Pandian’s perseverance is a remarkable story, but not a realistic option for most human trafficking survivors, according to Tim Warden-Hertz, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

“T visas are nearly impossible to do on your own,” Warden-Hertz said of the complex process that’s compounded by language barriers. “We wish everyone could have a lawyer, but we don’t have the resources to represent every person who can make a case.”

Now, Catholics and other people of faith are working to increase access to legal services for these trafficking survivors. On Nov. 16, the Multifaith Coalition to Address Human Trafficking Through the Lens of Compassion is hosting a recruiting event at St. Leo Church in Tacoma (see box). The goal is to enlist 30 attorneys to provide pro bono assistance to trafficking survivors being held at the detention center.

Justice with compassion

The federal government created the T visa to encourage people like Pandian to testify against sex and labor traffickers (trafficking is a federal crime) and spare them from the retaliation they would likely face if sent home.

“From the government’s standpoint, it’s about catching the traffickers, but from a human standpoint, it’s about helping survivors heal and find peace,” said Elizabeth Murphy, a staff member with the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle and a parishioner at Seattle’s St. Joseph Parish.

Rathish Pandian
Rathish Pandian, once forced to work without pay at a Miami sandwich shop, is doing all he can to raise awareness of human trafficking in the U.S. Pandian was held at the immigration detention center in Tacoma for nine months before receiving a special visa allowing him to stay in the country. Photo: Courtesy Rathish Pandian

IPJC, supported by 22 Catholic religious communities across the U.S., is a member of the multifaith coalition. Initiated in 2013 by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, the coalition brings together Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders throughout Western Washington to raise awareness about human trafficking and help survivors.

“We have to be at the forefront of this issue,” said Joe Cotton, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s assistant director of pastoral care and outreach. “It’s right there in Matthew 25: Welcome the stranger. This is who we are as Catholics.”

With 1,500 people in custody, the Northwest Detention Center is among the five largest U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, Warden-Hertz said. Lawyers from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project screen undocumented immigrants to identify human trafficking survivors, but can represent only a handful, he said.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center recorded 111 cases of human trafficking in Washington state in 2015 and 5,544 cases nationwide, but countless others go unreported.

‘A problem in America’

Human trafficking can happen before or after someone enters the U.S. In Pandian’s case, he was working for a cruise line when he “jumped ship” in Miami in 2007. Just 18 at the time, he feared for his life if he returned to India, where authorities had threatened him for speaking out against those in a higher caste.

Another Indian immigrant offered Pandian a place to stay and a job at a sandwich shop. Pandian didn’t know his “benefactor” was a labor trafficker who conspired with the shop owner to compel Pandian to “work like a dog” without pay, under threat of a call to immigration authorities.

“I didn’t understand I was being trafficked,” Pandian said. “I thought that’s just the way it is — that it’s OK to get abused.”

Three years later, after learning English and becoming more familiar with the U.S., Pandian made his way to Seattle. A year later, he landed in the detention center after a car accident.

When Pandian won his release in 2013, he was assisted by API Chaya, a Seattle nonprofit that found him a place to live and helped him get training to become a truck driver. Now living in Bellevue, Pandian is doing all he can to raise awareness about human trafficking. He approached the multifaith coalition with his story, which became the inspiration for the Nov. 16 event.

“It’s a problem in America,” Pandian said. “I want to speak about it and get help for people like me.”

 

How to help trafficking survivors

Attorneys willing to do pro bono work for human trafficking survivors are invited to “Passion for Justice,” a gathering from 7-8:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at St. Leo Parish’s Bichsel Hall, 710 S. 13th St., Tacoma. Community members are also welcome.

Tim Warden-Hertz, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, will explain how lawyers can help trafficking survivors being held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The immigrant rights project employs a pro bono coordinator to mentor lawyers in immigration law.

The evening’s goal is to sign up 30 lawyers to take on this work, according to the event sponsor, the Multifaith Coalition to Address Human Trafficking Through the Lens of Compassion.

For more information, call 206-382-4580 or 800-869-7028, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. the archdiocese’s Missions Office.

 

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery. Definitions in the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 include:

Labor Trafficking — The  recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Sex trafficking — The  recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services