It takes a village
Recently, law enforcement in the American state of Georgia busted a large farm labor trafficking ring, releasing 26 migrant farmworkers who had come to the U.S. on work visas. They shared the myriad of processes that government agencies and local non-profits initiate to support survivors including legal, medical, immigration and employment aid.
A representative from the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which led the years long investigation into the trafficking ring, said the farmworkers were “lucky to get a meal a day.” They were also sporting bruises, cuts and infections due to their living and working conditions.
Investigations continue but HSI shared that in-depth interviews with survivors were saved for much later to avoid re-traumatization.
Meeting survivors’ needs
In the meantime, immigration support is a pressing service to enable survivors to remain in the country as well as legally work.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports,
Experts say that one of the immediate objectives of farmworkers freed from forced labor operations is to waste no time getting back to work. That’s because they are cash-strapped, with wage theft being a common crime against trafficking victims, including, allegedly, in the South Georgia “modern-day slavery” case.
“One of the first things workers desperately want is a job when they get out, because they have not been earning the money that they wanted to earn to support their families,” Germino said.
Compounding the urgency, many migrant farmworkers take out loans to pay their travel costs to come to the U.S. Returning home without having paid lenders back could expose workers to danger.
“They are [stuck] between a rock and a hard place,” said Solimar Mercado-Spencer, senior staff attorney at the Georgia Legal Services Program’s Farmworker Rights Division.
Survivors’ immigration rights
HSI began working immediately on a 2-year visa that trafficking survivors are eligible for known as “continued presence”. This is because the farmworkers’ visas were only for a few months – something traffickers capitalize on when preying on migrant farm laborers. Most often, traffickers keep workers beyond their legal stay to increase their vulnerability and fear of seeking help.
Another visa program for trafficking survivors allows them to petition for their family members to join them and also to potentially eventually become permanent residents.
HSI said that they aimed to take a “victim-centric, holistic approach” to ensure that “all their needs are met.”
This is a stark difference from the way that some other countries treat trafficking survivors.
Despite all the assistance, survivors will still live with the trauma caused by their experience. At least a human rights led support system helps prevent further administrative victimization.
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