When *Heidi arrived on the Big Island from Asia over 15 years ago, she was ready to tackle her studies at the university. She was full of dreams and excited for her future.
But she started dating a local guy after two years and her life changed – for the worse.
That relationship led to a life of abuse, fear, and shame. The boyfriend became very controlling and manipulative. He isolated Heidi from friends, flaunted his gun collection, and made her work nonstop in his business. He used her expired student visa to keep her from running away, threatening to report her to authorities to get her deported.
“I did not know who to ask for help,” said Heidi whose working day would start at 4 a.m. and end at midnight. “I thought the police would arrest me.”
As an immigrant to the United States, Heidi was vaguely familiar with the legal system. She was unfamiliar, however, with the rights and privileges she is entitled to even as a non-U.S. citizen.
The abusive working conditions continued until, in 2011, a fellow employee called police to intervene after witnessing Heidi being hit by her boyfriend. The prosecutor referred Heidi to Legal Aid for assistance.
She was hopeful, but her boyfriend’s threats stopped her from contacting us and left her with fear. He was angry, she recalled, and destroyed some of her property, including the car of her sister who was visiting that time.
In 2013, Heidi continued navigating safety for herself and her daughter and escaped her abusive boyfriend. She moved as far away from him as logistically possible for her. She also reached out to Legal Aid again with Staff Attorney Jennifer Jung, Hawai'i Immigrant Justice Center (HIJC) at Legal Aid, as her primary advocate in applying for immigration status.
“When I met Heidi, she was distraught and very fearful because of the threatening environment her abuser created,” said Jennifer. “The physical trauma was so severe that she was losing clumps of hair. But even with those trauma impacts, she was focused and resilient and always displayed an amazing amount of courage and strength. Heidi is the expert on her safety needs, and together we worked closely to reimagine a safer life, one that would provide space for her to pursue her identified goals.”
Legal Aid started assisting Heidi with a U visa, an immigration status created for victims of serious crimes like domestic violence.
The U visa provides lawful status in the United States, work authorization, and eventually an opportunity to apply for a green card. However, as Jennifer continued the conversation, she realized that Heidi was also a survivor of human trafficking.
“When Heidi’s abuser forced her to work for him this was no longer only about the serious crime of domestic violence; this became an intersecting case of human trafficking and domestic violence. Our society generally associates forced sex work with human trafficking. However, Heidi’s story is really important for all of us to learn about trafficking dynamics as her abuser used power and control dynamics to force her to work without pay at his shop,” said Jennifer.
“This type of human trafficking is called labor trafficking, and it can occur whenever there is force, fraud, or coercion in a work setting. Sometimes labor trafficking looks like Heidi’s case in which she served as a cashier among other duties. Sometimes labor trafficking is even less visible and takes place inside a home setting in which the trafficked person is forced to take care of a person or family.”
“In collaborating with Heidi on her immigration options we decided to apply for a T-visa,” said Jennifer. “T visas are available for survivors of human trafficking and offer more public benefit protections than a U visa does. The wait time is also significantly faster than a U visa, which can take more than 10 years to obtain. The lengthy wait times of these visas is incredibly discouraging for our clients as it becomes another barrier in safety planning.”
After receiving her T-visa Heidi was able to finish her undergraduate degree and was admitted to a Physician’s Assistant program. She is starting this fall.
Legal Aid helped advocate during the undergraduate enrollment process and provided education to the school system on immigration statuses eligible to receive financial aid.
“Using a trauma informed lens, we worked closely with Heidi to help her achieve immigration stability, restore a felt sense of safety, and connect her with various agencies that help with domestic violence support,” said Jennifer. “We also helped advocate for a formal finding of unpaid wages against the trafficker.”
In July 2022, after almost a decade of fighting for justice, Heidi finally received her green card.
“The help from Legal Aid is life changing,” Heidi said. “If I say Legal Aid saved my life it is correct on many levels. Not just that, the help is free. The people who worked there, they don’t just do their job, they take the extra mile. They would give suggestions to better my situation. They want to see that you are safe and secure.”
“Every time I reach out to Jennifer, she had no problem stepping in so I can do something,” Heidi added. “She advocated for me, did more than what she needed to do. She laid out all the possibilities for me.”
The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations awarded Heidi over $100,000 in back wages from working for her boyfriend for four years. Unfortunately, she may never see the wages paid to her. Within those ten years, the trafficker had lost most of his source of income and business ventures.
Heidi, on the other hand, gained so much more during that time and drastically changed her life – for the better.
In the midst of her legal battles, she successfully finished school and worked in the medical field, met someone and gotten married, raised her daughter well, and bought her first house. She also currently teaches ballet and plays the piano for a community. Her next goal is to be a Physician Assistant.
“Heidi is thriving now,” observed Jennifer. “She has always been strong and goal oriented. She has an excited focus and is empowered to pursue her goals. Instead of being stuck in an abusive relationship, she is empowered to pursue her dreams.”
“I am really grateful that there is a law to protect people like me,” said Heidi. “But more importantly to have organizations like Legal Aid who work to help people with low socio-emotional status, not just people who do not have enough money. I think they are the most efficient people to help people understand the law the most.”