Trafficking Victims Find Lifeline At City Heights Agency, But Funding May Run Dry
In an anti-human trafficking video, an unidentified woman faces away from the camera and explains in Spanish how she was physically and emotionally abused by her American spouse, a truck driver. He forbade her from working to earn her own money and forced her to join him on long trips across the country while her children stayed behind with a relative.
"I didn't want to go with him because he could do whatever he wanted with me out in the middle of the desert," she said.
Because he threatened to harm her children if she didn't go with him, she joined him, she said. That is where her story takes a gruesome turn.
"He would bring men inside the truck to rape me to the point I would bleed," she says in the video, speaking through tears. "But the rape would continue."
For nearly a year, the woman was exploited by her husband until she managed to escape, collect her kids and flee here, where she connected with the support she needed. The San Diego region is home to thousands of victims of a nearly billion-dollar human trafficking industry, and there are several service providers in the county offering assistance.
La Maestra Community Health Centers in City Heights is one of those programs, with a focus on foreign victims. The nonprofit provides wellness services to San Diego's low-income residents regardless of immigration status. The woman in the video brought her son to a La Maestra doctor.
When the doctor asked why her son had a fever, she replied that it was wintertime and that they lived in their car. She went onto explain that somebody was following them. That's when legal advocate Carmen Kcomt was called.
Kcomt leads La Maestra's human trafficking program. After hearing the woman's story, Kcomt immediately identified the woman as a victim and got to work.
"She was totally destroyed," Kcomt said.
Kcomt provided the woman with a monthly stipend, supplied her with donated items, connected her to health and counseling services and put her on the pathway to securing a visa. Because the woman's husband didn't seek legal status for his wife, who is from Mexico, she did not have a green card. But as an immigrant victim of trafficking, she was eligible for what's known as a T-visa. With Kcomt's assistance, the woman received hers after about 18 months.
Kcomt said the two have maintained a friendship since then.
"She's doing better now. Of course, you know those scars in the soul never get well, but the kids are doing well," she said.
Over the last five years, Kcomt has helped nearly 90 other victims of labor and sex trafficking in San Diego. Although a majority of trafficking victims countywide are U.S. citizens, most of Kcomt's clients are immigrants. She tracks them by placing a pushpin in their county of origin on a large wall map in her office.
"We have one girl from Russia. She was a labor trafficking," Kcomt said, pointing to a blue tack, which indicates labor trafficking victims while red pins signify victims of sex trafficking. "We have two girls from India. These two girls are engineers. We have a girl from Latvia...We have Japan, Philippines. Mexico is full. That's why we have two extra maps for Mexico and the Philippines."
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Todd Hemmen said it can be difficult for the Bureau to combat the region's large trafficking market because victims who could provide key information often stay hidden in the shadows. He said this is especially true for those who are enslaved as laborers, which is a less overt market than sex trafficking.
"We vet every lead that we get and unfortunately we're missing a lot of these victims because we never get that information," he said.
He said law enforcement agencies often work with organizations like La Maestra to connect with victims. By cooperating, the immigrant victims also increase their chances of receiving a visa.
Kcomt said all of her current clients are working with either federal or local agencies. The 18 victims also rely on her agency's cash assistance of $500 to $600 a month while their visas are pending. She said clients often pool this money together to pay for housing instead of possibly ending up in a shelter. However, recently the funding for her program from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants was cut by 25 percent.
The committee's president and CEO, Lavinia Limón said funding for the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is in jeopardy. She said the organization relies on an annual grant from the federal government to fund its nearly 100 affiliates, but the network is serving more victims each year, which requires more funding.
"We're actually running out of money," Limón said in a Skype interview. "As of about mid-June, we're going to have to ask everyone to stop serving these survivors."
She said the number of victims seeking services at the organization's affiliates has more than tripled over the last few years.
"This is really a problem of success," she said.
In the past, the federal government has raised the organization's funding, but not this time. Limón said her organization's funding gap of $2.5 million will hurt more than just victims.
"Because the people we help they help law enforcement, they testify in trials, they give law enforcement information so the police and the FBI and everybody can go after these very well-connected gangs who do trafficking and make millions of dollars off of it," she said.
Monday reportedly marks the beginning of "Combating Trafficking and Child Protection" week in Congress, where several pieces of legislation will be considered. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants said, so far, the bills do not contain language that would increase its budget, however, Limón said there is a chance existing funding could be shifted to cover the gap.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department for Human and Health Services's Administration for Children and Families, which distributes the funding, said the agency is continuing to work on the issue.
"HHS’ Administration for Children and Families has been in regular contact with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants on this matter as we work to develop an appropriate resolution," Deputy Director of Communications Kenneth Wolfe wrote in an email. "We appreciate the work the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants does to care for human trafficking victims, who are some of our most vulnerable populations."
Meanwhile, Kcomt said her program could run out of money by the middle of July. She said until additional funding comes through, she can't accept new clients. She currently has five people on a waiting list.