309 – The Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force, with Panida Rzonca

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Panida Rzonca as the two discuss the importance of organizations who provide services to those of different cultures, specifically the Asian Pacific Islander community.

Panida Rzonca

Panida has been working with Thai victims of human trafficking at Thai CDC since 2007. Panida oversees and provides all direct social and legal services at Thai CDC. Panida’s experience includes clerking at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) where she worked with both clients of labor and sex trafficking. Currently, Panida is primarily assisting victims of sex trafficking from what may be the largest Thai sex trafficking enterprise to date. She provides counsel to victims who are called upon to be federal witnesses, provides immigration legal services and also case manages comprehensive social services including reporting trafficking cases to law enforcement and assisting victims in navigating the legal system to obtain immigration status, restitution, and ultimately, justice. In addition to her work in anti-human trafficking, Panida has been involved with both labor and housing rights advocacy. She is dedicated to workers’ rights advocacy within the Thai community working on public awareness campaigns and direct services to help workers navigate governmental agencies for wage and fair labor standard claims. Panida is a HUD certified housing counselor, providing counseling to Thais with limited English proficiency that are in danger of losing their homes. Panida is determined to continue assisting the underserved through the Slavery Eradication and Rights Initiative (SERI) Project campaign to raise awareness of the Anti-Human Trafficking Program at Thai CDC. Panida is also a member of the California State Bar Access to Justice Commission and the 2018 President of the Thai American Bar Association. Panida finished her J.D. at Southwestern School of Law and her B.A. in Political Science with a focus on International Relations at the University of California at San Diego.

Key Points

  • The Thai Community Development Center is a community economic development organization that focuses on increasing economic mobility among Thais and other ethnic minorities in the greater Los Angeles area.
  • With a grant from the Department of Justice Office of Victims of Crime, the Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force, Thai Community Development Center, and other sister agencies, are able to provide services in several Asian languages.
  • The Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking task force does provides technical assistance through a variety of training, to its sister organizations, ensuring that they are all equipped to properly serve victims of sex and labor trafficking.
  • When aiding victims of different cultures, it is important to understand the culture’s dynamics and language to better serve the victim.



Sandra Morgan 0:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast. This is episode #309: The Asian Pacific Island Human Trafficking Task Force, with Panida Rzonca.

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. My name is Sandie Morgan and this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Our guest today is Panida, the directing attorney at the Thai Community Development Center where she manages the delivery of legal and social services to human trafficking victims, which includes immigration relief, civil remedies, victim benefits, restitution, and ultimately, justice. She is co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force and she is commissioner on the California Access to Justice Commission. I have been in the same circles with Panida since I came to Orange County back in 2004, but her work here started 25 years ago. So would you like to tell us a little bit, Panida, about your experience with the emergence of the Thai Community Development Center?

Panida Rzonca 1:51
Sure, just let me backtrack a little bit because my work at the Thai Community Development Center actually started in 2007, and my executive director, the founder of Thai CDC, Chanchanit Martorell, was the one who started Thai CDC and started the anti trafficking work that we’re doing at Thai CDC now, just to make that clear.

Sandra Morgan 1:51
Okay, that’s good. That’s good. I’m so glad you’re here, because then we’re gonna get all this stuff just right.

Panida Rzonca 2:23
Sure. So the Thai Community Development Center is a community economic development organization that focuses on increasing economic mobility among Thais and other ethnic minorities in the greater Los Angeles area. Now, because we have such a broad base mission, we’ve been able to not only build affordable housing, and provide small business counseling, and books on public benefits, and run certified farmers markets, and start social enterprises, but we’re also able to reach out to the most vulnerable in our community, which is the community of victims that we serve, both labor and sex trafficking.

Sandra Morgan 3:10
I’ve seen Thai CDC, the recipient of multiple awards. The last time I remember particularly, was when the mayor of the city of El Monte presented Thai CDC with a commendation, recognizing the work to liberate 72 Thai garment workers back in 1995. We didn’t even have the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and here were 72 Thai workers hidden away in a makeshift garment factory that enslaved them. How do you see that as part of your development story? Because you didn’t have the language of anti human trafficking, and now we have lots and lots and lots of anti human trafficking efforts, but Thai CDC is a little different, because when it started, it was already working on solutions to the economic challenges. Can you address a little bit about how that particular case impacted?

Panida Rzonca 4:28
Well, El Monte was really the first case of transnational human trafficking at that time, because we didn’t have TVPA or people really being acquainted with modern day slavery, since the abolition of slavery, right? So everything was quite new, and even though we had this coalition because of other worker exploitation and other issues that happened in the community, I think El Monte really woke up the world to being concerned that modern day slavery existed at all. With El Monte it was so clear that those 72 Thai people were working in conditions of slavery, in that makeshift garment factory in El Monte, behind barbed wire, under 24/7 armed surveillance, threats of retaliation should they escape, and because of Thai CDC’s place in working with other organizations, it was kind of in a great position to form a coalition of civil worker, immigrant rights organizations to advocate for the rights of these workers. In the beginning, they weren’t seen as victims, they were actually held in immigration detention, and we had to free them.

Sandra Morgan 6:00
What? Wait a minute, wait a minute, I’ve only ever heard the glorious part of the story.

Panida Rzonca 6:06
Right. So Thai CDC, we’re not a translation organization, we’re advocates. When Chanchanit was there with the federal authorities, and with the DOL, and the other folks that advocate also for immigration relief, but at that time, as you said, there was no TVPA, no T-visa, so what happened was we were trying to advocate for some kind of relief. Because they didn’t have immigration status, even though we received some kind of assurance that those workers would be protected, they actually were taken to immigration detention and Thai CDC, along with a coalition of other organizations, had to protest outside of the immigration detention centers for their release.

Sandra Morgan 7:03
Oh my goodness, wow. And now every year, they have a big anniversary celebration, and I’ve heard many of the survivors tell their stories. They inspire us to look for those who are hidden away, like this garment factory was, and they blow up some of the myths that people have. I know someone said to me, “Well, the label says ‘Made in the USA,’ so it’s slave-free.” That may not actually be true.

Panida Rzonca 7:39
Right, you don’t really know, even if it’s made in the USA, because we view labor exploitation on a spectrum, right? So it’s very common for garment workers to be paid a piece rate, and that piece rate doesn’t necessarily add up to what minimum wage would be calculated at if those workers were paid by the hour. So many, many labor claims are based on calculating how much was actually made, versus how much they should be making based on minimum wage. We find folks who are facing worker exploitation at minimal levels, all the way up to what would be considered slave-like conditions where they’re forced to stay, whether it’s because of psychological coercion or otherwise, debt bondage, you name it.

Sandra Morgan 8:34
Okay, so let’s take a look at the emergence of the Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force. When did that emerge and what is the significance to our movement as a whole?

Panida Rzonca 8:52
So the Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force came together under the organization, Asian American Pacific Islander Equity Alliance, which is formerly known as the Asian Pacific Planning Council, that had been around since the 1970s. In this umbrella organization, included the Thai CDC and other nonprofit API organizations. What happened was around 2015, we started realizing that API communities were being adversely impacted by human trafficking, and we wanted to make sure that our sister agencies were also prepared to receive those victims and provide them with appropriate services, because many of the organizations, they might train to assist victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, but not necessarily trafficked victims. In 2016 through 2020, we came together and applied for funding from the Department of Justice Office of Victims of Crime, which we received to provide specialized services, and our cohort of organizations were able to provide the case managements, the legal services, as well as mental health therapy in multiple Asian languages. So our our lead organization was actually Thai CDC and we partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, Korean American Family Services, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Pacific Asian Counseling Services, South Asian Network, and by the way Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking was born out of the needs of the victims from the El Monte case, and so with CAST, we’re able to figure out how to make sure that all the multifaceted needs of trafficked victims, not just Thai, but all kinds of national and domestic victims, their needs could be addressed, and kind of made that a model to ensure that other organizations that need to assist victims could look to a technical assistance provider. So now CAST is also a TA provider, to make sure that other organizations are trained up.

Sandra Morgan 11:34
Okay, so that technical assistance?

Panida Rzonca 11:37
Yes! So API Human Trafficking Task Force doesn’t actually receive technical assistance funding, but we do provide technical assistance because we want to ensure that these smaller, more grassroots organizations that have the cultural and linguistic competencies, are funded to provide the services that are necessary.

Sandra Morgan 12:00
Oh, okay. So expand a little bit on what it means for you to provide technical assistance, it doesn’t mean you’re setting up computers, networks.

Panida Rzonca 12:11
No, it does not. So what we do is we talk to our sister community based organizations, about the needs of the victims and how they can be addressed. Whether it’s in house, or referrals, but also train them on human trafficking, and provide HT 101 trainings, both as a trainee and trainer so that their communities can, again, receive it so they could understand the key flags and myths about human trafficking, so that more cases are identified in their communities, because our belief is really that trafficking is so rampant, but no one is identifying and no one’s saying anything about it, because they’ve come to accept it.

Sandra Morgan 13:02
So talk about how, as a Technical Assistant, you’re improving the ability to identify possible victims.

Panida Rzonca 13:12
As our communities are more informed about what human trafficking is under the laws in the United States, under TVPA and others, they’re able to call the people they need to call, whether it’s going to be CAST or the hotline, or even called Thai CDC so that we could help them report to law enforcement. Our identification numbers have gone up, and also our ability to serve those clients both in the field, during potential operations with law enforcement, as well as referred to our organizations for those services, in their language, with people who know their culture. The other problem is that when the national victims from API communities get referred elsewhere, a lot of times they fall between the gaps because of language and culture barriers.

Sandra Morgan 14:08
Okay, so the whole thing about culture and language. I think that’s a piece that in the bigger narrative that we hear with federal task forces, it often gets left out. We swoop in, we’re going to do a rescue, and then because we do have to prove force, fraud, or coercion, unless we are recovering a child being sold for commercial sex, we have to be able to get the information for that force, fraud, or coercion, and if you don’t speak the language or understand the culture, that is a huge challenge. Can you help us understand how this is part of what you do?

Panida Rzonca 15:03
With any operation, we make sure, first of all, that all of our folks are trained, because even though you get someone who might be bilingual and speak the language that you need, it doesn’t mean that they actually understand what’s going on, and how to translate those key terms that we need, having to do with force, fraud, and coercion, and human trafficking. So it’s not enough, honestly, to have someone that speaks the language. I’ve actually had translators on the line before that are just simply not translating correctly, but no one knows because they don’t speak that language, and if there aren’t advocates present to flag that, it could be detrimental to the case. I can point to an example where I was at an immigration detention center, and a federal investigator had a language, I don’t remember what language service it was, but a language service provider, and once the interpreter got on the line and started interpreting, my client looked at me and said, “Are they speaking Thai?,” and I’m looking at her and I was like, “I don’t think they’re speaking Thai,” and they just kept going. Finally, we had to stop and say, “Hey, this isn’t Thai,” but that investigator would never have known and might have just thought that the victim was not being forthcoming or cooperating, which could be really bad, right? So it didn’t even stop there. On that day, they got another translator on the line, another interpreter on the line, and when they were translating, at least they spoke Thai, but this was a person that spoke multiple Southeast Asian languages and just had Thai as another language on their resume. Even though they could translate, they actually didn’t know how to count in Thai, because we have specific words for thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand, and so on. I was just like, “What the heck? That’s not what she said. She said she was sold for x amount.” It’s just really difficult to have to keep stopping and going, and also re-traumatizing the victims. So you know, language is one thing, but also culture, right? There’s a lot of signaling that goes on in terms of body language. If you don’t understand, like in a lot of Asian cultures, if you don’t look someone directly in the eye, or a lot of folks that I’ve worked with, victims that I’ve worked with, will kind of look away and not look directly in the eye. In the Western world, you see that as some kind of disrespect, like you’re not paying attention, but for Asians, that is a sign of respect because they don’t want to be confrontational. So there’s a lot going on behind the scenes and just having any kind of law enforcement, it’s very intimidating. Many, many victims will just kind of nod and go along with whatever, but even though they’re nodding, it doesn’t mean they’re saying yes as an affirmative response. It’s really, “I’m trying to do whatever you need me to do.”

Sandra Morgan 18:28
So that cultural understanding is going to make the difference between a victim getting the services that they need or not, because if we can’t identify and get the right qualifications, if you will, for services, then they are outside the ability of us, often, to provide those resources.

Panida Rzonca 19:00
Absolutely, and that comfort level is paramount, because sometimes, especially with sex trafficking, it’s so shameful that they don’t want to come forward, and many will deny and decline services, and if they’re not identified properly, especially with an untrained interpreter, that’s really the end of the case and that person will not get services. Also in different communities, I’ve had interpreters that are talking down to my victims, because they do understand that this is human trafficking, but because they might be from a different social class, they might speak differently to the victim, and so the victim will feel more closed. So you have to see and understand those nuances within every community.

Sandra Morgan 19:52
So culturally responsive programming. How do you help one of these smaller, more grassroots organizations implement this in their on the ground, anti-trafficking work?

Panida Rzonca 20:11
So we make sure that those on the ground activities are in conjunction with community based organizations that understand the community, where they’re coming from, and the mindset and motivation. Because right now, what we’re seeing is, even though the victims may not understand that they are victims, and are not self identifying as victims, it takes a relationship to not just a person that understands the language, but a relationship that only the community will understand why they’re making certain decisions. Sometimes when that happens and comes into play, in conjunction with real information and not potential misinformation that’s also in the community, I think that’s where we come into play. Because if they don’t understand that their employers or traffickers, who might be from the same community as well, have been giving them bad information, or have been making false promises, because they don’t understand the laws in the United States. They don’t understand that their traffickers promised them a green card, but it’s not possible and they remain undocumented. Or they’re getting themselves into an asylum scam.

Sandra Morgan 21:39
Wait, back up just a second, because that is an area that has been in different conversations out in my community, and here’s the statement. Listeners air quotes here, somebody says to me, “Well, they just came here to get asylum.” So when I hear from you that they may end up being lured into an asylum scam, what is an asylum scam?

Panida Rzonca 22:12
Well, an asylum scam is an asylum petition or filing, where there is no basis for the requested asylum, but they know that once it is filed, asylum seekers actually receive a work permit while they’re waiting. Many times, employers and traffickers are using this system to obtain work permits to lure those workers to stay in the United States so that they can work, while promising them green cards. But what the workers don’t understand is how these work permits are being had.

Sandra Morgan 22:57
Okay, okay. That falls under the elements of human trafficking as fraud.

Panida Rzonca 23:05

Sandra Morgan 23:06
But the victim may actually then be accused of perpetrating that fraud.

Panida Rzonca 23:13

Sandra Morgan 23:14
That’s not fair.

Panida Rzonca 23:16
It’s not fair, but it happens. Sometimes the victims have no contact with the attorneys that are filing the paperwork because the employers have their passports, give the attorneys all the information, and are just kind of proceeding without them, until something happens where they either no longer have a work permit, or they don’t understand why they don’t have their green card, or something else like some kind of operation. Then, they can start asking questions to someone that is willing to help them like the community based organizations that understand what’s going on.

Sandra Morgan 23:59
So my last question I want to address is how do people outside of our geographical region, replicate what you’re doing or access the resources, particularly the technical assistance? Because we have listeners, Penida, in 148 countries, and I think these principles are transferable.

Panida Rzonca 24:26
Thai Community Development Center and the API Human Trafficking Task Force not only trains sister community based organizations, but we also train law enforcement, because we need law enforcement to also be understanding of what cultures they’re stepping into, once they go to that location. It’s really on both sides, where everyone is there knowing what population is their target population of victims, and how to meet their needs. I really think that because in the United States, we have so many ethnic enclaves, you heard about Chinatown, in LA we have Thai town, but every ethnic enclave has some kind of community support system, and sometimes it’s formalized in the form of a nonprofit organization that provides services, but sometimes it’s not formalized. It’s really looking to these community leaders in how they would be able to help others that would fall as victims to human trafficking. Sometimes I’m outside of the formal system too, because I can’t find enough beds or shelters, so I’ll turn to the local temple and ask them, “Are there any beds available?” It’s the same with churches, so there are other community resources for people from that community in a time of need. That’s kind of how we start because we weren’t funded initially, but we have so many cases, case after case of both sex and labor trafficking in large groups, because Thai people are actually more vulnerable and more impacted by human trafficking. So we look everywhere to find out where we can get those resources and bring them together, and make sure that we can kind of cross train on who is providing what services so that there is an effective referral mechanism.

Sandra Morgan 26:32
So you can easily understand, if you’re listening to Panida, how she was a hero as a trailblazer in this area of culturally responsive programming, and spreading that to others. When I was co-chair of the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council, and we were part of the President’s Interagency Human Trafficking Task Force, I was so pleased to see in 2021, that she received the Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. When I think about what they’re doing now, and looking at the future, I want to wrap up this interview with asking you Panida, what do you see that we need to do next?

Panida Rzonca 27:36
I’m just going to go back one second and say, the award was conferred on the Thai Community Development Center, and it’s not an individual award. It’s based on all of the cases that we’ve worked on because not only did we start with El Monte in 1995, but we continued to work on major group cases that involve a lot of federal agencies, and to this day, because of those relationships that we have, we’re able to pursue more access to remedies and relief for the victims that we encounter.

Sandra Morgan 28:09

Panida Rzonca 28:09
Going forward, I would really like to see more of the relationships with community based organizations that cater to ethnic enclaves, no matter where they are. Sometimes I do work out of state, and I realize that everywhere you go, there are organizations, and some are more suited than others to be able to receive victims of trafficking, but they’re actually not funded. Many of the Human Trafficking Task Force Grants, they’re partnering with mainstream organizations, and I see a lot of organizations that focus on sex trafficking and not necessarily labor trafficking. But to ealize that there is a lot of worker exploitation going on in the US, and how we could spread the information to make sure that they understand what is exploitation and when that becomes human trafficking, and how we can help them better by going into the communities so that we understand when they will identify and be able to receive resources, because right now, I think a lot of victims are not coming forward.

Sandra Morgan 29:24
I am very hopeful that exactly what you said is the direction that we’re going. More and more people are aware that there are resources, and the idea that we just have to go and rescue and get people out of a geographical location, isn’t enough. We actually have to pull them into a safe community with the kind of resources that they need to thrive, and that they deserve as human beings. I love that you’re an attorney Panida, and I hope that many of my students will start following your work. We’ll put your links to the website in the show notes, and anything else that we’ve mentioned here. Last word from you.

Panida Rzonca 30:23
Thank you so much for having me as a guest on your program today. I certainly hope that your students would like to become more involved, we would definitely welcome student volunteers, especially if they would like to be trained to translate, and even legal interns because we always have more cases than we can handle.

Sandra Morgan 30:47
Ooh, legal interns, that sounds like fun. Do you have an age limit for that? I might sign up.

Panida Rzonca 30:53
We do not have an age limit. Maybe we actually do have an age limit, you have to be an adult.

Sandra Morgan 30:59
Oh, okay. Okay. All right. We just love the work that you’re doing and how you model so much justice in our community, along with the cultural respect for everybody, not just one particular group. We appreciate you a lot. I also want to thank our listening community for sharing your favorite episodes with your friends and colleagues. This week, more than any other time. I’ve had so many social media dms and comments, “I just shared this podcast with my friends.” So if this is your first time listening because somebody shared with you, please go to endinghumantrafficking.org. You can find all of our resources that we just mentioned in this conversation and so much more. We hope that you will become a subscriber and join us every two weeks for our next conversation.

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