Trafficking survivors and the American Dream

What happens to trafficking victims in America once they are free? Do they pick up where they left off, buy a home, raise a family, open a business? I can speak from experience that for survivors of modern slavery, the American dream is far less grand, because it’s a struggle simply to survive.

My path to an American nightmare began in my native Indonesia where I was a college-educated financial analyst until I lost my job amid political turbulence. I responded to a lead for a job in Chicago, checked the legal documents, paid a hefty fee and entered New York lawfully on a nonimmigrant visa arranged through a “recruiting organization.”

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I was optimistic, until I learned within hours of arriving in New York City that I and five other women had been horribly deceived. Our passports were forcibly removed, our lives were threatened, and within weeks I was trafficked into the sex trade.

After enduring months of rape and violence, I escaped by jumping through a window. One nightmare certainly ended, but another difficult path began. I did not have the financial resources to go back to my previous life, but a language barrier, immigration hurdles and work permit barriers made it very challenging—if not impossible—to earn a living here.

On Friday, the State Department is releasing its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks countries based on how well they address modern slavery. While the United States currently has the best possible Tier 1 status, I believe my experience is quite typical of other trafficking survivors, and I believe we should assess whether the nation is complying with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and demonstrating “appreciable progress in combating trafficking.”

In my mind, “appreciable progress” means helping survivors of the worst human rights violation of our time.

In the months after I escaped, I stayed at a shelter. While there, I had no resources, little money and insufficient food and clothing. I lived in poverty, but could not work because of my immigration status.

After many months, I connected with Catholic Charities, who placed me in my first job. Because I lacked survival training and experienced language and other barriers, I did not know my legal rights and my employers overworked and abused me. I heard so many similar stories from other domestic and international survivors of human trafficking that I began thinking about what kind of assistance would allow us to stand on our own feet.

While there were many organizations focused on trafficking victims in India, Cambodia, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines, there was very little support in the United States. Those foreign organizations helped survivors with training, job readiness and the job searches, and I wondered why so much funding went to other countries when there were people in the US who needed help, too.

Thousands of domestic and foreign national survivors struggle to survive in the U.S. because of the same barriers I faced. It seems once we achieve permanent resident status, support ends. Imagine that you have been enslaved as a domestic or sex worker for years. You may have professional skills, but English is your second language, and you are suffering from years-long trauma. What support would you need to rise above and succeed?

I recently founded a survivor empowerment group called “Mentari“ with the hope of helping survivors stand and thrive alone. My goal is to establish a training center where they can live safely, receive training, get prepared for the professional world and provide for themselves.

The only way my effort and similar ones will survive is if the U.S. government invests more resources to ensure trafficking victims receive the emergency and long-term support they need to fully recover. Though President Obama signed an omnibus budget this year that included a 41 percent increase in funding for Department of Health and Human Services victims services programs, there is still a huge gap between available funding and what’s needed.

If we are to maintain our Tier 1 ranking and status as a leader of the anti-trafficking movement, the United States must do a better job of supporting survivors here at home so they can thrive and, ultimately, have a chance to live the real American dream.

Woworuntu is a survivor of human trafficking, and an advocate for stronger federal and state policies to address trafficking.

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