Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Why Advancing Justice-LA Calls for a Renewed Fight Against Human Trafficking

Wednesday, August 2nd 2017


By Christopher Lapinig, Skadden Fellow, Impact Litigation

On August 2, 1995, 72 undocumented Thai garment workers were freed from a suburban slave shop after years of exploitation.  Advancing Justice-LA, in partnership with the Thai Community Development Center and other community-based organizations, provided legal assistance to the 72 garment workers and filed the lawsuit Bureerong v. Uvawas, widely considered the first modern human trafficking case in United States history. The garment workers had been trafficked from Thailand to work in a heavily guarded sweatshop in El Monte, California. The lawsuit brought the garment workers immigration relief and a settlement of over $4.5 million. Our advocacy also helped lead to the passage of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the creation of the T visa, a visa dedicated to foreign nationals trafficked to the United States.

Our work with the El Monte garment workers underscored the profound need for legal services for victims of labor trafficking, especially foreign nationals brought to the United States for work. Migrant workers from Asia are particularly prone to human trafficking. The U.S. Department of State estimates that as many as 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the U.S. each year, and data suggest that a significant number of trafficking victims in the United States come from Asia. For example, from 2010 to 2015, individuals originating from countries in Asia received more than two-thirds of T visas issued. In particular, India, the Philippines, and Thailand ranked among the five most common nationalities for T visa recipients in all of these years.

Public awareness about human trafficking has grown dramatically since Bureerong, labor trafficking—overshadowed by sex trafficking—remains largely unrecognized, underreported, and underprosecuted. We believe, however, it is imperative that we combat all forms of human trafficking. For example, we recently obtained a $15 million judgment for a group of Filipino workers who were lured with false promises to work in exploitative conditions at high-end French bakeries in Southern California. We also secured T visas for the workers and their families, reuniting the workers with their spouses and children after years of separation.

Labor trafficking victims work in many industries, including domestic work, caregiving, and hospitality. Unfamiliar with the laws and customs of the U.S., migrant workers often are misled by unscrupulous employers and recruiters and given false information about rights and protections under state and federal law. Cultural, linguistic, and sociopolitical factors also make many migrant workers from Asia reluctant to report exploitative work conditions and reach out to law enforcement or nonprofits for assistance. Many trafficked foreign nationals come to the United States with guestworker visas that tie migrant workers’ immigration status to a particular employer, exacerbating workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.

Much work remains to be done, but we remain steadfast in our fight against human trafficking. We continue to provide legal services to victims and survivors of human trafficking, and we regularly partner with government and nongovernmental agencies through coalitions such as the Los Angeles Regional Human Trafficking Task Force, the Asian Pacific Islander Human Trafficking Task Force, and the national coalition Freedom Network USA. On this 22nd anniversary of freedom for the EL Monte workers, we urge you to join us in putting an end to human trafficking.



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Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.