Fighting for Survivors of Child Labor Trafficking

Xiaorong Jajah Wu, Deputy Program Director

Ten years ago, 15-year-old May was taken from her hometown in Fuzhou, China—against her will—and brought to the United States. During her 8-month journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, May endured thirst, hunger, robbery, and sexual assault as she was handed off from stranger to stranger. When she finally reached the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration authorities identified her as an unaccompanied child and sent her to a children’s facility in Chicago.

In Chicago, May learned for the first time that the cost of the journey she never wanted to take was $80,000, and that her family was obligated to pay this sum—plus interest—to her traffickers. Worse, May was expected to pay the bulk of that debt by working long hours, and under extreme conditions, that would prevent her from attending school or living any semblance of a child’s life. May’s family told her that if she did not start repaying this debt, the snakeheads who trafficked her to the U.S. would hurt them.

May was not alone. According to the International Labor Organization, at least 5.5 million children are forced into labor, a practice called labor trafficking. Over 70 million children are part of the labor force around the world. Many work under hazardous conditions and are deprived of education.

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In the United States, a law known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) provides critical protections for children like May. The law ensures that when children are found at the border, they are brought into protective custody, like the program in Chicago where May was appointed her Young Center Child Advocate. Under the TVPRA, children are reunited with family in the United States—or find safety in a foster home—instead of languishing in federal custody. And they have the right to apply for protection so that they are not returned to situations of trafficking or persecution.

When the Young Center was appointed as May’s Child Advocate, we fought for her to be recognized as a victim of labor trafficking. While there are considerable efforts to protect child victims of sex trafficking, there is much less coordination for children subjected to labor trafficking. But our Child Advocate prevailed in persuading officials to recognize May’s need for help, and May was placed in a safe, long-term foster home where she applied for protection as a trafficking victim.

May eventually won her claim to stay in the U.S. However, she knew that her family would still be held accountable for her debt. When she turned 18, she began working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to repay the debts her family incurred when May was trafficked to the United States.

Today, nearly ten years later, May is a citizen. She continues to work, but she also cares for her own family, including her young son. She dreams of the day that she will escape the long shadow of her trafficking. That possibility exists because of the TVPRA, which gave her the chance to find protection from her traffickers, and to be a child for a few more years. Today, as members of Congress introduce legislation to end the TVPRA and call it a “loophole” because it provides special protections for children, the Young Center is fighting to protect that law, which makes it possible for us to stand alongside children like May and ensure that they are treated as children. 




Maddie Witters