231 – The Intersection of Diversity and Human Trafficking Vulnerabilities

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak interview Liliana Yanez, Esq, a managing Director of the Center for Legal Services at My Sisters’ Place. She is a lawyer with over 20 years of experience. Prior to working at MSP,  Liliana taught in the immigration clinic at the City University School of Law. They discuss the detrimental effects of labeling people as other.

Liliana Yanez, Esq

Liliana Yanez, Esq is the Managing Director of the Center for Legal Services at My Sisters’ Place.  A lawyer with over 20 years of experience.  Prior to working at MSP,  Liliana taught in the immigration clinic at the City University School of Law.

Key Points

  • When vulnerable people are labeled as other, it is much easier for them to be taken advantage of.
  • How do we begin to see people who differ from us in education, immigration status, or socioeconomic level not as other, but as a part of our community?
  • My Sisters’ Place is an organization with the goal to educate people about and help. people who have experienced human trafficking.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, this is episode number 231, the Intersection of Diversity and Human Trafficking Vulnerabilities.

Production Credits [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] My name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be your voice and make a difference in ending human trafficking and Sandie today I’m so glad for us to welcome to the show, Liliana Yanez. She is the managing director of the Center for Legal Services at My Sisters’ Place. She’s a lawyer with over 20 years of experience and prior to working at My Sisters’ Place, Liliana taught at the immigration clinic at the City University’s School of Law. Liliana, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show today.

Liliana [00:01:11] Thank you. Happy to be here.

Sandie [00:01:13] I met Liliana through the CEO of My Sisters’ Place, Karen Cheeks-Lomax, also an attorney. And Karen Cheeks-Lomax serves on the Public Private Partnership Advisory Council to end human trafficking with me. When we started talking about this, I wanted to know more about My Sisters’ Place, and Liliana one of the things I love about your web page is your tag line, providing hope, achieving justice, and changing lives. So, before we get into our conversation, would you give us kind of an overview of My Sisters’ Place?

Liliana [00:01:56] Yes, thank you. So, My Sisters’ Place is an organization that works, to serve survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking in many facets. The Center for Legal Services, of which I am the managing director, provides legal assistance in family law and immigration law to survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. We also have a domestic violence education and prevention department that targets young people in learning to talk about relationships. What’s a healthy relationship? What’s not a healthy relationship? And to identify signs of abuse. We have counseling services, supportive counseling services for both adults and children that survivors can access. We also have a human trafficking department again, where survivors of human trafficking can access services, can learn about their rights, can get support on leaving their situation, and turning to an empowered life. We also operate a shelter, a residential shelter for people who are fleeing, obviously emergency situations. Those are our departments. And again, we offer a holistic service model in helping all of our survivors and multifaceted ways.

Sandie [00:03:15] I love your Web site. If anybody wants to find it, it’s mspny.org and they’re on Facebook and Twitter as well. So, My Sisters’ Place, it just feels like a place I could go and feel safe. I really appreciate what you guys are doing and how long, I think it’s been around 40 years?

Liliana [00:03:36] Yes, it’s 40 years. It was a grassroots development, so to speak. You know, 40 years ago, domestic violence wasn’t acknowledged as such. And so, these women are founding mothers, saw that there was definitely a need and started organizing around this. And the name My Sisters’ Place, it comes from somebody wanting to access something as well as us wanting to keep somebody safe so that if you were telling somebody who and maybe there was somebody, an abuser present, he or she wouldn’t know what My Sisters’ Place was. It’s it was a was code for accessing a safe place for survivors.

Sandie [00:04:19] Wow. OK, let’s dive into our topic this morning. The intersection of diversity and human trafficking. Can you unpack that for us?

Liliana [00:04:30] Yes. And one of the things like language. I just mentioned the importance of language. I look at diversity and I think of something positive and something to be embraced. But it’s not always the case. And to me, the juxtaposition to diversity is different. And in highlighting on a difference, instead of highlighting on diversity, is where we can get into trouble and where society can get into trouble. And in my work, I see that when difference is highlighted, right, when we make somebody other, othering, different from us. Instead of highlighting the humanity and embracing the diversity, we other it. And that’s where I see a lot of the intersection in immigration law family law and that vulnerabilities are highlighted. Right, like it can be in skin color. It can be in race, can be in language. If you don’t speak English in the United States. What services you get or what you don’t get mostly. If you are poor, if you lack education, those things automatically become a place to exploit that difference.

Sandie [00:05:43] So for some of our listeners, they may not have heard this term of othering, but it always brings to mind a kindergarten booklet where you see three pictures and you’re supposed to circle the one that does not belong. And so, we have this in the history of our education, of looking for what isn’t supposed to be there, or what doesn’t fit what’s around it. And so, we have this tendency to separate it so that it doesn’t actually belong in that picture anymore. And when we do that, we take away their right to be there. And more and more in the antihuman trafficking movement, human rights-based methodologies are more and more present from the U.N., from IOL in our own State Department language. So, othering is just sort of an automatic response that we’ve grown up with. And how are we going to begin to identify when we other something? Because it can be so simple. I mean, I was at an event, actually, it was a baby shower. And the prospective father came in and people were like, oh, you don’t belong here. Well, he’s the dad. He should be able to be there. But he’s considered other. And he’s what doesn’t look like everything else. So how does that work for you?

Liliana [00:07:23] Yeah, it’s interesting that you hearken back to kindergarten and the othering and what doesn’t belong, because, from a young age like you, you say we identify what doesn’t belong. And then as we mature and in adulthood and in life hood, we create a story around what doesn’t belong or who doesn’t belong. And most of the time, that story is a negative story and that becomes fact in our heads as opposed to really finding out what is the story there. I think about a client I’ve represented recently who was is a survivor of human trafficking and she is from Mexico, an indigenous community in Mexico. And growing up in an agrarian society, she had so much knowledge about surviving. Right. Like the crops, the rhythm of the land and water tables, you name it. She knew all about that. And when she left that community because of poverty, she came to the United States and in suburban New York, Westchester County, where I practiced, there is not a lot of farms. And so she couldn’t come and work on a farm. She ended up working in a dry cleaner. And so all that knowledge that she had about the agrarian community and agrarian way of life she can’t use now in the dry cleaner. And she’s also indigenous. So, she didn’t speak Spanish and definitely didn’t speak English. So, all those things are othered. Right? She is a non-native, non-English speaking, doesn’t speak Spanish. So even if she had come to a community where Spanish was predominant language, you can’t really get by in that language. She was poor and her knowledge was not about the ways of the world. It was not about working 9:00 to 5:00 in a place. Right. It was about the land. And so, all that othering is used to exploit her. And she worked twelve-hour days at the dry cleaner. It was abusive, physically abusive, and they would also threaten her with deportation, would threaten to call the police on her. And because he could exploit the fact that she didn’t know her rights, that she didn’t know the language, that she was far from anybody who could help her. That’s what he used to keep her in a trafficking situation, which she endured for over two years, and to terrible consequences. And the conditions of this dry cleaner were such that she ended up miscarrying her child because of the work conditions.

Sandie [00:10:03] Wow. So, when we’re thinking about how diversity, somebody who comes from a different culture and knowledge, but it’s not transferrable knowledge, and so that becomes a point of vulnerability. But so many times that’s lost in our reports that are documenting statistics and everything. And so, for me, when I hear this story, it brings back her humanity and I live in Southern California, where we have the second-largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, people who came to this community escaping war and poverty and oppression and many of those. When I listened to this story from your community, I think, I have friends who were teachers and professionals in their country and even with Ph.D.’s who don’t have the language skill here. And so even though they have another knowledge base, they’re driving busses or doing pedicures. And so how do we begin not to see them as other, but as part of our community? That’s a steep ask.

Liliana [00:11:32] You know, it is only because we’ve gone down this road in life. But it really shouldn’t be right, because it’s the humanity that we need to be elevating, not the othering. Right. It’s that humanity where we should be drawing our connection and not highlighting our difference. Highlighting why these people, you know, four in the young person’s example, why this person doesn’t belong here. Why they don’t belong in our group of only English speakers. Why they don’t belong in our group of only lawyers, only educated people, only landholders. You know, like those kinds of things. Right back to this example of this client. She worked in a dry cleaner. And, you know, that’s not what comes to mind when one thinks of human trafficking. But because these people who are other are invisible to us or can be invisible to society, we don’t see them, and we don’t see what’s going on with them. And maybe we do. And we just, you know, ignore it and move on.

Sandie [00:12:33] And to that point, labor trafficking is so much more difficult to prove that it often is sidelined because it’s not against the law to work in a dry cleaner like it is to operate a brothel. So, labor trafficking is more difficult to prove. And we’ve done a couple of podcasts. We’ll put them in the show notes for those who want to understand better how to improve identifying labor trafficking. But the bottom line here is that her otherness created a set of vulnerabilities that made her more exploitable and more vulnerable, more likely to be exploited in a way that it reflects labor trafficking. OK, so another area where diversity actually can become a point of vulnerability has to do with people’s legal right to be in a particular country. And this happens in other places, not just here in the U.S.. I’ve done a lot of work, as you all know, in Greece. And immigration status can result in someone who is escaping with their family from Syria and bombs dropping on their village and arriving and not being able to get the paperwork to even get a job to provide for their family. And we have so many examples of trafficking in those circumstances. What does that look like at My Sisters’ Place?

Liliana [00:14:08] You know, I think about this, the immigration status, because that’s what I’ve done for most of my adult life, is serve immigrants. And one of the things that’s interesting in the human trafficking and the labor trafficking is that a lot of labor trafficking is through legal immigration. You know, the seasonal industry in the United States. Places like Cape Cod, places like, you know, ski lodges. They hire seasonal workers to come and work either in the summer or in the winter months, resort hotels, golf and country clubs. And so they bring workers from other places. And the biggest draw of seasonal work is farms in the United States.

Sandie [00:14:51] When we talk about this and you and I understand what that means, a lot of people think that people who are working in the fields somehow sneaked into the country. But we need this labor force and we provide a legal mechanism. So, can you just take like three minutes and explain how they get a legal visa to work?

Liliana [00:15:13] Sure. So, a farmer has a big farm and he needs people to work the harvest. A lot of the times the farmer will petition the U.S. government for seasonal laborers and these seasonal laborers can come from anywhere in the world. Usually the farmer, you know, the big farming collective has contacts in, let’s say, Latin America for argument’s sake, and in Latin America or in the Philippines, they contract with a number of workers to recruit workers to come to the United States for a set amount of time. It could be from a harvest beginning in June and ending in December or for seasonal work at a country club beginning in May and ending in November, whatever it is. And so, people apply for legal work at the consulate. They get a visa. They enter the United States legally. One of the requirements for hiring these seasonal workers is that they be paid minimum wage, which is set by the U.S. government. And the other requirement is that the employer provides room and board. And inevitably, what happens in the clients that we have seen somebody who is working Strawberry Fields in Florida and he was contracted in Honduras and there were about, I don’t know, 50 people who were also contracted to come to Florida. They were promised eight dollars an hour to pick strawberries for eight hours a day. They were promised room and board when they got to the United States and they got to Florida. None of that was true. They were paid five dollars an hour instead of the eight. They were made to work 12 hours a day. Their room and board that they were promised was a trailer where 12 other men, in this case, lived sharing one bathroom and they were being charged rent for the trailer. So, all this was illegal. And contrary to what the law says, you need to provide for a seasonal worker. And they endured these conditions until one of the men got bitten by a snake and had to go to the hospital. And it was at the hospital that they were able to talk to somebody else who identified that what was going on. And law enforcement was called. But these workers had all entered the United States legally. Their employer had said that they would pay them a minimum wage. And, in fact, didn’t. Their employer had also said that they would provide room and board and wasn’t doing that. And these people were exploited because when they arrived, the employer also took away their identity documents, took their passports and forced them to continue to work under these conditions, saying that if they complained to anybody, they would be deported. They would not get their identity documents back and they would not be paid. And it was under this both fraud and force that they were able to keep these men employed for the almost the entire harvesting season, pay them at a terribly depressing wage, and creating very unsafe conditions on top of the trafficking.

Sandie [00:18:31] So my favorite part of the story is that the snake bite resulted in them ending up in a health care environment. And everybody knows I’m a nurse and I am passionate about equipping health care providers so that they can identify what is going to be right there in front of them. And what a great example of how one person in an ER situation made a difference for, was it, nine men, in this crew?

Liliana [00:19:05] It was 12 men, yes. 12.

Sandie [00:19:07] So that’s great.

Liliana [00:19:09] And my sisters place understands that education is so vital in rooting out these evils. And this is what we do. We do domestic violence and education, prevention. One of our departments trains people in the health care industry to identify the signs of both abuse, domestic violence and also the signs of human trafficking.

Sandie [00:19:34] That’s such a good story. And what a great example of how important it is to have a very collaborative, community-wide approach to being able to identify and report on human trafficking cases. So, another area that puts us in different categories is poverty. And we see this globally. But do you see it also here in the U.S. and specifically there in New York?

Liliana [00:20:05] We definitely see it here in New York. You know, one case that comes to mind is the case of a young girl. She was 16 or possibly 17 years old when she was brought to the United States by an aunt and the family was poor and her stepfather was trafficking her and making her do all this work around the community. So, she had to mow lawns and do kind of yard cleanup work for this stepfather who was stealing her wages. Right. So, he wasn’t paying her. And one might say, well, use her stepfather. He’s providing room and board. In addition to that, he was also sexually abusing her and holding over her the fact that she was living in his house. So, she had to do this. And also, in addition to that, she also had to work for him. So, she was working these long hours and he was exploiting both her work and her body. So, when you when we talk about poverty, it is so endemic in so many places. But again, it is something that if we as educated people don’t have a relationship to or aren’t asking more questions, we fail to see what’s going on all around us.

Sandie [00:21:22] So he exploited her. And somehow this happens in communities. And some of the case studies that I’ve noticed have gang involvement that is transnational. Can you respond to that?

Liliana [00:21:38] Yes. So, a lot of our human trafficking clients were fleeing trafficking situations in Central America. So, as you know, there’s a big gang problem in Central America and the gangs recruit the boys or males, right out of middle school to be lookouts and to sell drugs and to do whatever else they need done for them. They recruit girls in sex trafficking and exploitation. So that happens at a very early age. And so many families that are poor, that don’t have much of a voice in Central America are unable to call the police and have the police do something about this, because oftentimes the police are corrupt and work for a gang or work for a rival gang. And so, these young people are forced to leave their homeland to escape the gang because there’s no other way. The gangs have infiltrated so much of life in Central America. And then they arrive in the United States on a you know, maybe perhaps an uncle has offered a home or perhaps a family friend has offered shelter here in the United States. And so those young people are away from everything they know, away from their families and are in a completely vulnerable situation. And most times it ends up okay. But oftentimes what we’ve seen is that the adult then is exploiting these children in their home.

Sandie [00:23:11] So I was looking at some of the content on My Sisters’ Place and from your reports. And I think what I want to leave people as we start to wrap up this discussion is that we see a place where people in vulnerable situations because of language and immigration and education and just poverty, where they have access to things we consider normal, that puts them in a place where someone else can take advantage of them. And using your words, treat them in a less than human way. How do we begin to change that?

Liliana [00:23:56] It requires us to really look inward and see are we treating everybody to the best of our ability. You know, we talk about the Constitution and what that affords everybody living in the United States. And there is the Constitution, but there’s also our own moral compass. And, you know, I’m a person of faith. And nowhere in my faith does it say that I should be treating somebody less than human. And that is really, you know, something that MSP, My Sisters’ Place, strives hard to live up to and to address because we see it so much around us.

Sandie [00:24:34] I am looking forward to the lifting of travel restrictions because I want to come visit My Sisters’ Place. Your stories today have really provided hope for me. And you’ve demonstrated the hard, difficult road for achieving justice for people. And I know their lives are changed. So, what you say you do. You do. And we are grateful to be in collaboration with My Sisters’ Place.

Liliana [00:25:04] Thank you.

Dave [00:25:06] Sandie and Lilliana, thank you so much for this conversation today. And we’re inviting you also to take the first step, especially if maybe you are engaging with the show for the first time. Take a moment to go online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, it’s free. The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know. Before joining the fight against human trafficking. You can get access by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also will you, where you’ll find all of the links or the episode notes today. The links to My Sisters’ Place. More information on their organization. And of course, every other episode that we’ve aired in the past. If you’d like information on the next Ensure Justice conference. That’s at ensurejustice.com. And the next conference is planned for March 5th and 6th, 2021. We will be back with our next conversation in two weeks. Sandie, thank you as always. Thank you, Dave. Take care, everybody.


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