Human Trafficking in the News and LAF’s TSAP Work

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The Atlantic recently published a poignant, but problematic article from author Alex Tizon that details how his family enslaved a Filipino woman, forcing her into domestic servitude, for decades. Tinzon struggles to understand how and why his parents mistreated this woman, known to him as Lola, for years. It is a shocking confession of modern-day slavery in the United States. For many readers, this article exposed them to the insidious nature of human trafficking. Lola is a figure that is ever-present and always working; outsiders find it odd that she is always cooking and cleaning, yet they never are able to name what is happening to her. Human trafficking is evasive like that–it is a crime that occurs in almost all industries, but we find it hard to identify it because it is easier to believe that slavery no longer occurs in the United States. But human trafficking isn’t just a global problem, it’s a local one.

At LAF we combat both sex and labor trafficking through our Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP). TSAP provides legal representation to human trafficking survivors from all over the world, including U.S. citizens, in a variety of legal areas. While our client demographics are diverse, many clients come from similar circumstances that left them susceptible to traffickers. Human trafficking survivors come from vulnerable populations: runaways, homeless youth, domestic violence victims, impoverished migrants, and other marginalized communities that make them not only easy targets for traffickers, but easier still for the general population to dismiss as “real” victims. This is why one of TSAP’s biggest and recurrent responsibilities is to convince law enforcement officials that our clients are in fact survivors of human trafficking eligible for various forms of legal remedies.

Failing to recognize survivors of human trafficking is an overarching problem. While victims come from all walks of life, people often have a set idea of what a real victim looks like. They may imagine a young White woman forced into sex work. While White women are trafficked, they are not the only ones targeted by traffickers. Women of color are also preyed upon and coerced into prostitution, yet they are more likely to be ignored and dismissed by those in charge with protecting survivors. This problem is argued in great detail by law professor Cheryl Nelson Butler in her article, The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking. Professor Butler argues that a major reason why the justice system fails to see women of color as victims is due to long-held stereotypes that perpetuate myths about their sexuality. This results in women of color being punished more harshly for prostitution rather than being offered assistance as human trafficking survivors. At LAF, we see the barriers placed before our client/survivors when they fail to meet the sex trafficking survivor prototype. We fight right alongside them to educate law enforcement and obtain the legal relief available to our clients.

Beyond sex trafficking, deep-seeded racial stereotypes facilitate labor trafficking. Certain social groups are stereotyped with being hard workers or submissive, which allows traffickers to abuse people under the guise of hard work. The power of racial stereotypes became evident in a recent trafficking case involving Chinese buffet restaurant workers. We represented some of the trafficking survivors who were primarily from Latin America. Various temp agencies placed our clients in restaurants after advertising that they had “honest” Mexicans available for work. The restaurant owners then worked our clients to exhaustion through physical and emotional abuse.

So while racial stereotypes may seem disconnected from human trafficking, the truth is that traffickers use all tools at their disposal to further their crime. Relying on the public’s implicit bias that certain groups don’t mind being “worked hard” or that other groups are hypersexualized works to the traffickers’ advantage. It makes the public question and dismiss whether a survivor is a “true” victim because they fail to meet a stereotypical standard. With over 20 million people trafficked globally, we know that people are trafficked from all walks of life. Yet, when we envision only one type of victim we do a disservice to all other survivors of human trafficking. Further, we embolden the trafficker who opts to victimize certain types of people believing that no one will care about their wellbeing.

LAF cares, and through TSAP we ensure that traffickers are held accountable; law enforcement protects all people; and our communities gain awareness to fight this ever-present problem.

New ‘Ready to Work’ Initiative Breaks Down Legal Barriers to Employment

Chicago Workforce Center PilsenImagine you’re unemployed and get your driver’s license suspended due to parking tickets you can’t afford to pay—will you be able to find another job without a valid license?  What if your credit score tanked from a fraudulent car loan? How about if you were arrested back in high school, but don’t know how to get it expunged—will that prevent you from finding employment? For job seekers living in poverty, finding work is about more than just availability of jobs. “There are a number of legal issues that undermine people’s ability to support themselves and lead stable, productive lives,” says Miguel Keberlein, Director of LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. “It’s hard to tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if they don’t even have any boots.”

In partnership with National Able Network, LAF‘s Ready to Work (R2W) program is a newly funded initiative by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois that helps remove legal barriers that keep people from getting and keeping a job, with the goal of helping them get back to work. LAF’s R2W team consists of attorneys, paralegals, and a social worker who connects clients with resources outside of LAF that may help them find further stability. “We’re trying to provide a holistic approach in how we serve our clients,” said Lilian Lepe, LAF’s lead paralegal for R2W.

LAF staff are stationed at the Chicago Workforce Center in Pilsen—home to National Able, Easter Seals and a number of other workforce development agencies—on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To help caseworkers identify legal issues their clients may be facing, LAF developed a comprehensive screening tool and provided a number of trainings about the legal issues that lead to employment instability. As an established community workforce center that already offers a wide range of employment services, it’s the perfect home for R2W. “Creating job stability is a mosaic,” says Jonathan DeLozano, LAF’s lead attorney for R2W. “Legal aid is just one tile in that mosaic.”

Moving forward, LAF hopes to expand R2W by partnering with other workforce development agencies throughout Chicago. “By expanding the breadth of our work so we can reach more populations in more areas of the city, we hope to be able to reach as many people as we can,” Jonathan says.

Victims, Survivors, and April eNewsletter

Often, our clients need our help due to situations that arise outside their control and that are not their fault.  These people could be described as victims – of abuse, of oversight mistakes, of circumstance – but most of them prefer to be identified as survivors.  Some of them include Shelmun’s client Ellen, who was nearly evicted from her house because of a bank’s mistake; Kathryn’s client Betsy, who was almost not granted her nursing license because of records that should have been sealed; all of the CLASP program’s clients, who survive violence and abuse; and people subjected to systemic racism just because of where they live and the skimpy resources available to them.  Nonetheless, they continue to survive, and, with LAF’s help, to thrive.
You can read about these stories, and much more, in this month’s eNewsletter.  On behalf of everyone who does this work every day, and everyone who benefits from our services and your contributions, thank you.  Your continued support makes it possible for LAF to fight for the rights of victims and survivors and to ensure that they can see justice and fairness prevail, regardless of their circumstances.

The Elephant in the Room: When your ZIP Code Makes you Sick

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Recently the Sinai Urban Health Institute released the findings from its Sinai Community Health Survey 2.0.  The study is the largest face-to-face public health survey ever conducted in Chicago. The Surveyors interviewed residents from nine different Chicago community areas, focusing on sixteen health-related topics, like obesity. The data revealed alarming and stark health inequities that exist between neighborhoods and demographic groups.

 

Researchers found health inequities in all sixteen health indicators, but non-Hispanic Black adults, as well as adults of Puerto Rican or Mexican origin, were most affected, with one in three reporting fair or poor health status. Females of Puerto Rican origin had the most physically unhealthy days in the past month at 8.4 days; adults of Puerto Rican origin reported an average of five or more mentally unhealthy days in the past month.

We often don’t realize that barriers to health are linked to other systemic and structural issues. For example, in North Lawndale, West Englewood, Humboldt Park, Chicago Lawn, and Gage Park, over half of female residents are obese. Those neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores that provide access to fresh, healthful food choices, and fewer parks and green spaces than the North Side neighborhood featured in the study. Residents in those neighborhoods have the highest levels of food insecurity, meaning they don’t have money for more expensive, perishable food choices.

Sinai also surveyed health insurance coverage and usage. Since insurance is the primary way people fund health care needs and expenses, the Affordable Care Act (2010) enabled millions of uninsured individuals to obtain coverage through the expansion of Medicaid and tax credits for marketplace plans. People with insurance are more likely to use health services for preventative care and more likely to have a “health care home”—a regular clinic or provider. This can lead to improved health outcomes and reduced overall health care costs. The study revealed a statistically significant difference in the percentage of adults without health insurance based on race or ethnic group. For example, adults of Mexican origin had an uninsured rate of 36%, compared to a rate of 8% for non-Hispanic White adults. The study also indicated that about one in six adults in Gage Park did not get needed medical care or surgery in the past year due to cost. The percentage by race shows that Non-Hispanic Black adults were most likely not to get medical care due to cost.

This kind of community-level data is valuable to get a snapshot of what is actually happening in the communities LAF serves, because City-wide data often masks the experience of people living in poverty in Chicago. Data like this helps us use our resources effectively and efficiently to address structural issues that keep people in poverty, and unhealthy, in Chicago.

For example, LAF participates in a Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) with Erie Family Health Centers, which primarily serves Humboldt Park, West Town, and Lawndale, as well as the new Health Forward/Salud Adelante MLP, a collaboration with the Cook County Public Health System, which serves Garfield Park and Back of the Yards (adjacent to the surveyed neighborhoods). Many of our clients from these programs share demographic qualities with the subject of Sinai’s study: they are Puerto Rican or African-American, with physical disabilities and behavioral health challenges. Through these MLPs, where doctors refer clients with legal issues that affect their health, we are able to help treat their issues holistically. We help clients obtain medical insurance so they can get the full range of health care they need, enroll them in SNAP benefits so they can buy food, ensure they have adequate heat, and address hazardous living conditions that cause them and their children to suffer from asthma.

The work LAF is doing with our MLPs is targeting these very disparities and helping people get and stay healthy regardless of where they live.

Heartwarming Card from Client

In this charged political climate, it’s hard sometimes to remember the everyday impact of our work at LAF.  We can get caught up talking about the impact proposed funding cuts would have on our agency or the impact proposed policies would have on our clients.  But what LAF does every day has nothing to do with politics.  Every day we work to make a difference in peoples’ lives, one client at a time.

And often, it’s those clients who break through that fog of distractions and remind us about the core of our mission.  A few days ago, Karen Doran, a Staff Attorney in our Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, got a card from a client that did just that.  The client had been unfairly denied unemployment benefits and was facing all sorts of financial problems.  Karen’s advocacy won her the benefits to which she was entitled.  Karen was just doing her job, but the client’s effusive gratitude is a ringing reminder of the real impact LAF’s work can have in a client’s life.  She sent the following note in a card to Karen:

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Repsonse to Proposed Federal Budget Cuts

The federal budget proposal released this morning by the President includes a complete defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. A mere 0.0001% of the overall federal budget, LSC funds the majority of civil legal aid agencies across the country. LSC funding is 46% of LAF’s budget. The budget proposal also includes the elimination of the AmeriCorps program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and several Department of Justice grants that fund LAF’s work with people living in poverty in our community. These cuts would be devastating to LAF and its clients across Chicagoland, so your contributions are more important than ever now.
The Legal Services Corporation, set up much like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (also eliminated in this budget proposal), is a nonprofit organization that distributes federal funding to grantees in every state and territory of the United States, to provide professional legal aid, at no cost, to people facing real emergencies. LAF got its start more than 50 years ago with funding from LSC’s predecessors to “provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation.” “Our aim,” President Lyndon Johnson declared, “is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and above all, to prevent it.”
The staff, Board, and family of LAF and I remain committed to that aim. We continue to believe that civil legal aid is the single most effective tool to combat poverty and bring families out of poverty for good. Without LSC and the other funding eliminated under the proposed budget, there will be more families made homeless by illegal evictions and unfair foreclosures, more victims of abuse and trafficking trapped in dangerous situations, more children denied special education services, more people denied healthcare and the public benefits to which they are entitled, more seniors taken advantage of by scheming contractors, more veterans whose service has cost them their health or their homes, and more immigrants without access to a fair shot at the American Dream. Without LSC, there will be many more people living in poverty denied their right to justice in the American court system.
I cannot say what LAF would look like without the funding and guidance from LSC and these other funding sources, but we will work to develop a plan if this budget is passed by Congress. Even with our other generous funders, no organization can absorb a cut of nearly half without having a smaller staff serving fewer clients. But LAF will not be shuttered by this. We are dedicated to our mission, our city, our clients, our practice, and the ideal that justice, fairness, equality, and representation should not depend on a person’s ability to pay. With your ongoing and increased financial support, LAF will remain the source of the best legal help money can’t buy.