The Perseverance of a Mother and the Love for her Child

Luna’s* immigration journey starts in Peru, where she had experienced an abusive relationship that put her and her daughter at risk. Thanks to a friend, she was able to safely escape the situation and was offered a path to the United States. Unfortunately for Luna, this “friend” of hers was capitalizing on the end of one abusive relationship to create another one.

Luna’s “friend” invited her and her daughter to NoVA to start a new life, complete with a job and a legal immigration status – and even offered to pay for the trip from Peru to the US. Eager to put as much distance between her and her abuser as possible, Luna jumped at the opportunity and began planning for her trip to the US with her daughter.

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A photo of Luna

The “friend” instructed Luna to make her way to the US-Mexico border. At the last minute, the “friend” instructed Luna to immediately present herself to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and say that she was a family member. This “friend” told her that it was the only way to avoid being sent back to Peru. Luna was conflicted, but knew she would face additional violence if she and her daughter were sent back to their abuser. Luna followed these instructions and was temporarily detained by ICE for processing, and later released with an ankle monitor.

Upon release, Luna’s “friend” booked Luna and her daughter bus tickets to NoVA. Once they arrived, the abusive nature of the “friendship” became clear and this “friend” of Luna’s became an abuser and a trafficker.

All of Luna and her child’s documentation was confiscated by the trafficker, trapping them in the house indefinitely. Then the trafficker fabricated an extensive web of lies, manipulating Luna and taking advantage of her immigration status. The trafficker told Luna that if she tried to leave the house, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would immediately be notified by the GPS device on Luna’s ankle monitor and from camera footage inside the house.

Then came the debt bondage, which is a form of human trafficking where people are coerced into labor for little to no money to repay a “debt.” The trafficker demanded that Luna repay her for the trip from Peru to the US, the bus tickets from the border to Virginia, an exorbitant amount of rent, food, and a mountain of other “debts” that she felt Luna owed her in exchange for bringing her to the US. To repay this “debt,” the trafficker forced Luna to take her place as an elderly caretaker in a local nursing home. Despite working constantly, the entirety of Luna’s paychecks were confiscated by the trafficker and put towards debt repayment, resulting in Luna and her daughter experiencing food insecurity. To make the situation even worse, the trafficker lied to Luna, telling her that if she failed to make her payments, ICE would come and take her daughter away.

After enduring this for 6 months, Luna was finally able to escape from her trafficker thanks to the help of a friend of a friend. Even after they escaped, Luna still remembers how afraid she was to share her story and seek help. In an act of bravery, Luna pushed her fears aside and connected with an immigration nonprofit called RILA in Northern Virginia. After hearing the details of her case, RILA connected her to Just Neighbors.

Managing Attorney of DC-MD, Sarah Selim Milad, met with Luna and her daughter and agreed to take their cases. Sarah and Luna worked together to report the abuse to the US Attorney’s Office for Virginia, the Fairfax Police Department, and the Department of Justice. Then, Sarah helped Luna file for a T-visa, which is a special visa designation for victims of human trafficking.

Within 9 months, Luna’s visa was approved, she received a work authorization permit, and now has a path to citizenship.

USCIS currently estimates the processing time for T-visas to be anywhere from 17 to 36 months, but Just Neighbors has T-visa cases that have been pending for years. This is extremely problematic considering that T-visa applicants do not receive a work permit until their application is approved, unlike other types of immigration applications. The long wait time isn’t the only issue. Federal regulations cap the number of T-visa approvals at 5,000 per year, yet USCIS only approves an average of 1,270 cases each year. And even if you file a T-visa, there is no guarantee that you will win your case. 33% of all T-visa cases are denied by USCIS, placing the applicants in danger of deportation and retaliation from their traffickers.

If you ask anyone at Just Neighbors, Luna lights up any room she walks into. She is grateful for Sarah and Just Neighbors, as they greeted her with dignity and helped her face her trauma. Luna says she is no longer afraid and has confidence from the relationship she has with Sarah. She knows her story is long, but says that Just Neighbors helped her open her heart and mind and gave her the confidence to share her story.

Luna wants everyone to know that Just Neighbors is a safe place, and it is the place where she feels most welcome because of the open arms and people that listen to her. One wish she has for immigrants is for them to know that there are so many opportunities to find help, and that they will get past their challenges.

Luna is now a permanent resident of the US and has applied to school with the help of Just Neighbors. In the future, she has aspirations of learning English and becoming a US Citizen, along with her daughter.

*Name changed for privacy

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