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  Equal Justice Works
     

AUGUSTA'S JUSTICE—Her Justice fights to unite trafficking victim with her daughter

Augusta*, a Colombian citizen, was brought to an immigration detention facility near New York City after her ex-boyfriend and abuser, Andy, reported her to immigration authorities so that he could take custody of their daughter and punish Augusta for leaving him.

One day last summer, Andy called Augusta asking to see their daughter, of whom they had shared custody, on a day that he normally did not see the child and Augusta took her daughter to Andy’s house for an overnight visit. The next morning, Augusta was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at her home and advised that a previous deportation order that had been entered against her without her knowledge (in absentia) nearly a decade before was being reinstated against her, leaving her without the opportunity of obtaining most types of immigration relief. Now that immigration authorities had her in their custody, she was told, she would be back in her home country within weeks.

Augusta’s only concern was for her daughter. She was willing to return to Colombia, but refused to do so without her child. As Augusta spent her days behind the walls of a detention facility, Andy filed for full custody of their daughter, alleging that Augusta had abandoned the child when she was taken into immigration custody. Despite being able to appear in Family Court to address the custody issue, Augusta was not able to regain custody of her daughter because the child could not live with her at the detention facility where Augusta was being held.

Augusta was adamant that she would not leave the U.S. without her daughter, and therefore refused to obtain a Colombian passport, which the U.S. government would need to effectuate her deportation, despite the threat of criminal prosecution. Augusta knew that Andy had engineered her arrest by immigration authorities, and that, if she left the United States, she would lose all hope of seeing her daughter again.

Six months after Augusta’s arrest, an attorney who had heard of her plight asked Her Justice to meet with her. Our Equal Justice Works Fellow funded by Greenberg Traurig, LLP, traveled to the detention facility where Augusta was being held to determine if there was any possibility of her being released. After meeting with her, the Fellow suspected that Augusta had been a victim of human trafficking. The Fellow researched immigration relief for victims of human trafficking and strategized with her supervisor at Her Justice about how to obtain lawful status for Augusta in the United States and to secure her release from detention.

After numerous meetings, Augusta grew to trust the Fellow enough to share her story. Ten years ago she met Mario online and began a long-distance relationship with him. Mario promised Augusta a great life and well-paying job in the United States. He convinced her to join him and arranged for her travel to the United States. During that trip, she was arrested by U.S. immigration authorities at the U.S./Mexico border, but was released with the understanding that she would return to Immigration Court for a deportation hearing.

Unfortunately, once she arrived at Mario’s house, he took her papers and told her that she could not go to Immigration Court. He also told her that the “great work” he had promised her was as a prostitute. Prostitution, she was told, would help her repay him for the $10,000 debt he had incurred to bring her into the country. Augusta, then 18 years old, refused to comply with Mario’s demands and was beaten repeatedly. She was adamant that she would work doing anything other than sex work and Mario finally agreed that she would work 10–12 hours per day cleaning houses instead. He collected her earnings and she became his own personal sex-slave to pay off her debt. Mario raped and beat Augusta nearly every day after she returned from work for nearly three years before she finally escaped from him.

Once Augusta shared her story, it became clear that she had been a victim of human trafficking. The Fellow explained to her that she was eligible for legal status as a result of having been trafficked, but that she would need to speak with the same government officials who were trying to deport her.

Augusta’s trafficker is part of a large human trafficking ring that the U.S. government is investigating and Augusta has firsthand knowledge of the organization’s inner workings. With Augusta’s approval, Her Justice reached out to U.S. law enforcement authorities who have interviewed Augusta to gain information about the inner workings of Mario’s trafficking ring.

Her Justice filed Augusta’s petition for T Nonimmigrant status based on her having been a victim of human trafficking. During the next four months, the Fellow repeatedly attempted to secure Augusta’s release from detention, but immigration authorities categorically refused to release her from detention awaiting the adjudication of her petition. Four months later, Augusta’s petition was approved. Her new lawful status enables her to live and work legally in the United States.

Augusta was finally released from immigration detention a year and two months after being detained and began the fight to regain custody of her daughter.

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*Names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.