Once a slave in the US, still fighting for her freedom

For María Suárez, a young Mexican, America turned out to be anything but the land of opportunity. When the 15-year-old came to the United States legally in 1976 to stay with her sister in Los Angeles, she was full of dreams. But those dreams turned into a nightmare within two weeks, when the teen was sold into slavery.

Thirty years later, the courageous woman is still confronting the consequences of that domestic servitude and is fighting for the freedom and opportunity to remain in America, where all her family resides.

Ms. Suárez became the sex slave of an older man who had bought other young girls before her. Thousands of women are living in similar circumstances in the US today, often invisible though sometimes in plain view. Yet Suárez's story is unique in that her five years of violation and beatings led to a longer incarceration.

The young girl arrived from her village in Michoacán a bit overwhelmed by the new country. Her sister, Rita, had lived in Los Angeles for years, but María knew no English and admits she was naive "and ignorant."

"A [Spanish-speaking] woman approached me on the street – she was very friendly – and offered me a job cleaning house and answering phones," Suárez says in a telephone interview. "It sounded like a good idea, and I was very happy."

Since her sister wasn't home at the time, she agreed to the woman's urging that she just come see the house where she would work. But the drive took more than an hour, and María never went home again.

At the house of Anselmo Covarrubias, a man in his late 60s, she was allowed to call her sister to say she had a job and would be back later. But a lock was then put on the phone, and she learned otherwise.

"He told me he had paid $200 for me and that I was his slave," Suárez says. She was shown a tiny room with a bed and an altar with a picture of Jesus Christ above it but many other strange items on it. He then raped her.

"He told me he was a witch, that he knew where my family lived, and I'd better not tell anyone or he would kill my family, burn down their house," she adds. "From then on, my hell started. He abused me mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually."

Suárez's ordeal began in the '70s, but such ordeals continue today. Some 17,000 people are trafficked into the US each year – many of them teenagers and children – for purposes of forced labor or sex, says the US Justice Department. An untold number are picked up and trafficked domestically, as Maria was. The government is just beginning to get a handle on the problem.

During those five tragic years, Suárez was not wholly confined to the house. Covarrubias got her a factory job on an electronics assembly line and drove her to and from work each day. On Fridays, he would take her paycheck from her when she got into the car. Yet, terrified and superstitious, she told no one. "People asked me about who picked me up, but I was afraid for my family," she says. He would take her to secondhand stores for clothes.

For those not familiar with such situations, it may be difficult to grasp why someone would not just run away. "It speaks to the psychological coercion, the way people are controlled by fear," says Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), in Los Angeles. "People are told over and over that if they tell anyone, they will be killed, or worse, family members will be killed. Coupled with violence on a regular basis, it wears down self-esteem."

CAST has worked with hundreds of slavery survivors in the past decade. The group was created after the 1995 case in El Monte, Calif., where 72 garment workers were found in an apartment complex where they'd been held captive for seven years. The workers had been trafficked from Thailand, yet when freed, were treated as illegal aliens and thrown in jail.

Community groups came together to try to help with services; CAST was formally created in 1998 and began pushing for appropriate legislation. Today it provides a range of services for slavery survivors and serves on a metropolitan trafficking task force with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and others, to make the police and public more aware of the growing trafficking problem.

Capt. Kyle Jackson of LAPD says the police never thought about the problem since they had no authority until the state penal code changed last year.

"You might look at a two-bedroom apartment with 20 people in it and think they're undocumented individuals – which local law enforcement doesn't get involved in – whereas it might in fact be trafficking," he says. Now they're training all LAPD officers and providing resources for other departments in the state.

Human trafficking is fast approaching drugs and the illegal arms trade as the most profitable criminal activities globally. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), to enlist the government in prosecution of traffickers and provision of victim services. At least 22 states have passed laws, but law enforcement is scrambling to train their people about the problem and how to identify situations correctly.

The failure to do so was extremely costly for Suárez. Her captor had rented an apartment in his garage to a young couple. But he began bothering the young woman, Suárez recalls. "One morning, I heard him screaming outside," she says. As she tells it, when she rushed out, she found the young man had hit Covarrubias with a piece of wood and killed him. When the man told her to wash the wood and put it under the house, she did what he said. Soon, they were all arrested.

In shock and still not understanding English, Suárez had what was later acknowledged to be terrible representation by a lawyer who was eventually disbarred. At 21, she was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison for 25 years to life, even though the man who committed the crime said she was not involved. Remarkably, she made the best of it – learning English, getting her GED, leading counseling sessions, and running marathons in prison for charity.

"She's an amazing person," says Charles Song, CAST's legal services director. "I expected to meet a bitter, angry woman who hated men, but she was totally different, very forgiving. She refused to sue anyone and said she just wanted a little justice."

Released from prison in 2003 after 22 years, Suárez's tribulations did not end. She was immediately placed in federal detention. Immigration law mandates the deportation of any noncitizen convicted of certain crimes, regardless of whether they were wrongly convicted. A judge ordered her deported, but Suárez was saved when she received a "T visa."

The TVPA provides special visas to trafficking victims for three years, after which they may apply for a green card. But regulations governing that transition have never been completed by the Department of Homeland Security. Her T visa expires in May, and unless she can win a pardon from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, she is again threatened with deportation.

Mr. Song is seeking a meeting with the governor and is also filing a writ challenging her conviction. Both police and the lawyer who represented her have supported efforts to change the conviction.

Meanwhile, Suárez has taken college courses with the aim of becoming a social worker and has a part-time job counseling domestic violence cases. She's also learning to drive. But what means most to her right now is time with her family, who visited her regularly in prison.

"The most beautiful thing is to be free – just to wake up and take my shower ... and go visit with them in the park, have a hamburger – that's what I treasure."

She also works with CAST, speaking at conferences to educate law-enforcement officials and community groups about slavery.

"It's very painful when you feel you are in a cage.... And so many people are still going through what I went through," she says.

Yet until she wins a pardon and gets a green card, she's still in a cage of sorts, reporting to a parole officer. "The only thing I want is for them to let me be free and to let me do something good for this country," Suárez adds.

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