Valentines Day 2019 marked the end of a 17-year-long battle that at one point Alexandria Santa Cruz didn’t think would end in victory.
She said she arrived in this country under a spell of lies and deceit, but at last, and with her two children watching on, she earned her citizenship to be an American.
Today Santa Cruz lives a happy new life in Washington, D.C., working full-time at a daycare center and spending weekends with her 10-year-old daughter Fairyn and six-year-old son Owen. Her life looks like everything she dreamed it would happen in 2002 when at 15 years old, she first accepted an opportunity to come to the United States for work.
“In my hometown, Quito, Ecuador, I worked for two years from 13 years old for an American diplomat and his family… I heard so many good things about America, like I could help my family, get paid good money, and learn some English,” explained Santa Cruz. “I trusted my boss. I felt like I had to.”
When asked to describe Quito, Santa Cruz painted a grim picture. “I love my hometown; don’t get me wrong. However, my friends and I had to leave school so that we could work. Our families didn’t come from money, so they sent us girls away to help pay for this and that.”
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “The 1998 Constitution [called] for children in Ecuador to be protected in the workplace against economic exploitation, or conditions that may hinder a minor’s personal development or education. The government only began enforcing them [in 2005] after the United States threatened sanctions.”
According to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, years after legislation was made to combat child labor, the cruelty of the situation remains firmly in place: “Ecuador still lacks effective coordinating mechanisms to combat child labor and programs providing adequate coverage.” Not enough is being done to correct the damaged system actively, so children and minors continue to face the worst forms of child labor consequently.
When her father was killed in a motor accident when she was eleven years old, and her mother was left alone to fend for their six children, Alexandra had no other choice but to work and send money home.
At 15, she was still a minor when she was brought to D.C. with a fake passport and no legal documentation to stay. The boss she placed her trust in for years managed to smuggle her through customs under a false identity, fly her into America, and bring her directly to his home that she would eventually call “her prison.”
Santa Cruz found herself alone, voiceless, and hopelessly indebted to her employer who trapped her and refused to give her pay for her labor. She said she was physically, mentally and emotionally abused for years.
“In my first month in the U.S. they told me they couldn’t pay the salary they promised, but the same amount that they paid me in Ecuador. A few months later, I still hadn’t seen a penny,” Santa Cruz thought back fretfully to the days she was too young to navigate her way out of the complex situation. “Months turned into years, and I remember thinking to myself over and over, ‘alright, what do I do now?”
Santa Cruz continued to work near Capitol Hill for the diplomat and his family who threatened her safety, wellbeing and her chances of ever seeing her mother again if she sought help, she said. When asked to identify her employer, Santa Cruz declined for fear of reprisal.
“I kept working because I saw no other choice,” said Santa Cruz. “It wasn’t until I was put in contact with Jayesh (the Director of the Immigration Justice Clinic) that I saw a sign that I would ever reach the end of my journey.”
In the dead of night, just blocks away from Capitol Hill, a car was waiting for Santa Cruz with the side door open, lights off and engine stalling. She ran from the house that had once held her prisoner, escaping with only two trash bags of her belongings and her baby Fairyn, strapped tightly to her chest. She was finally headed to a safe place where she would receive the tools and resources necessary to live a free life. With the guidance of the Immigration Justice Clinic, all of the empty opportunities she was once promised were now available to her.
In the District of Columbia, nine of the 43 cases reported to the Human Trafficking Hotline in the last year involved labor trafficking. The likelihood of females of foreign nationalities being trafficked for work in the United States is three times more than that of females born in the U.S.
In many cases, victims of labor trafficking that cross U.S. borders are at risk of deportation. The Immigration Justice Clinic (IJC) is a program offered to law students at American University in Washington D.C. that provides legal support to immigrants in need of representation.
New attorney and A.U. law graduate Victoria Latus said the program takes a “humanitarian, not a national crisis” approach towards immigration. Under the direction of Professor Jayesh Rathod, they launched into action for Santa Cruz, ensuring the safety of her and her family before beginning to help improve her quality of life.
“The IJC allows students to work as primary representatives for clients on a wide range of cases,” said Rathod. “We have clients that are refugees seeking asylum or citizenship, others that are being detained, some that are refugees facing deportation, and others that need help navigating the complexities of America’s Court system.”
She continued, “The compassion and dedication of the students to their clients change lives. Their values and perspectives can also change how this country views and treats immigration in the future when they begin to practice across the U.S.”
“They saved me,” Santa Cruz expressed when thinking back to the JIC and the important role they played in her life. “I had nothing left to give, but they still saved me.”
Members of the program stood by her side for years, helping her to secure a special visa for trafficking victims, her green card, and finally witnessing the moment that she passed her citizenship test. “They fought for me when I wasn’t able to fight for myself.”