At a press conference last month, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit took aim at atSB357, the Safer Streets for All Act. The law, which went into effect two months ago,SB357, repealed previous California law that criminalized loitering with the intent to engage in sex work. Nisleit claimed SB357 prevented law enforcement from acting to disrupt human trafficking.
It was an odd claim, considering the police chief made it during a press conference in which he announced his department had successfully disrupted a human trafficking operation, identifying 16 victims of trafficking in the process and arresting 48 people after SB357 took effect. But Nisleit isn’t alone. In recent weeks, a small group of politicians and right-wing media personalities have spread similar claims. Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, for example, spent an entire segment accusing SB357 of turning California into “a haven for human trafficking.”
These claims are not only false, but they also threaten much-needed reforms —such as those made by SB357 — to combat trafficking.
In the past, police departments would use the criminalization of loitering with the intention of sex work to arrest sex workers. They claimed that these arrests allowed them to get information that helped to identify victims of human trafficking. But for years, many police departments — including those in Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego — have been moving away from relying on loitering charges to combat human trafficking. That hard data is difficult to square with the current hysterical claims that this repealed statute was an essential tool for law enforcement to address trafficking.
So why did police departments move away from arresting trafficking victims to prevent human trafficking? Because it doesn’t work.
According to a study by UCLA School of Law researchers, nearly 1 in 3 “loitering, with intent” charges from 2017 to 2019 in Los Angeles were rejected due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Moreover, the practice made the problem even worse. Countless survivors of trafficking have said that being arrested was not only traumatizing and revictimizing, but created insurmountable barriers to seeking employment, safe housing, public benefits and immigration relief. Among survivor groups, it’s often said that the fastest way to trap someone in a life of exploitation is to arrest them for it.
Arresting the victims of trafficking is also considered a harmful and ineffective intervention strategy by many federal officials. Guidelines issued by the U.S.intervention Department of Justice’s Enhanced Collaborative Model Task Force prohibit funding from being used to arrest those engaged in the sex trade or sex buyers as a means of identification, outreach and assistance, citing that these tactics compromise survivor safety and recovery.
The practice was also under fire for being discriminatory. “Loitering with intent to commit prostitution” is so vague and subjective — allowing an arrest based on how someone is dressed or what makeup they’re wearing — that officers could make arrests for completely arbitrary, discriminatory and baseless reasons. Data from across the state also showed significant racial and gender disparities in who was arrested for loitering. People arrested under the old law were overwhelmingly transgender and cisgender (i.e., not transgender) women of color — not sex buyers or human traffickers. Black adults, for example, made up a majority of the people arrested for this crime in Los Angeles from 2017 to 2019, even though they are only 8.9% of the city’s population.
Traffickers rely on these arrests to criminalize victims so that they are trapped and unable to access safety due to their criminal records. The arrests make individuals being trafficked even more vulnerable to continued exploitation.
SB357 reduces the criminalization and vulnerability of survivors and enables those who were convicted of the repealed loitering crime to clear their names.
A core tenet of human trafficking is that traffickers utilize force, fraud and coercion to control their victims. The state replicates these circumstances when it threatens survivors with prosecution under a loitering law to incentivize them to cooperate or provide information. By threatening arrest and incarceration, the government signals to survivors that they cannot trust the criminal legal system and that it is not there to protect them. These practices only make it more difficult for survivors to trust the services that are available to them, such as housing, health care and counseling.
SB357 is a small step in the process of repairing our systems that cause harm to survivors.
Survivors of trafficking need support and resources without the threat of arrest as well as strong labor protections that all workers deserve.
Human trafficking has existed as long as inequality has existed and truly addressing it means doing the work to reduce inequality — as opposed to grandstanding for attention.
Leigh LaChapelle is associate director of survivor advocacy at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. Tony Hoang is executive director of Equality California.
Addressing homelessness in LA will help stop human trafficking
Posted on January 23, 2023by Kay Buck, CEO, Cast
It seems like whenever human trafficking is in the news, we get a sensational view and not the full picture. A celebrity has been arrested for sex trafficking, and all the victims are young women. A company has been caught paying their immigrant workers nothing.
What should be making the news is that our own social systems are enabling human trafficking, and that it is happening right alongside homelessness. These are hard truths but they tell us what needs to be done. With a new Mayor of Los Angeles and changes in the City Council, let’s turn our attention to what we are doing – and could be doing – to stop human trafficking from happening in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
What makes someone vulnerable to homelessness also makes them vulnerable to human trafficking. For many survivors, a lack of safe housing was not only a cause of their trafficking experience but also a result of it. Many people are forced or tricked into living with their trafficker or in a place they cannot easily leave. When they do leave, most have nowhere to go and become vulnerable again on the streets. They cannot return to their home neighborhood or their families because traffickers threaten to harm them or their loved ones. Many who were trafficked when they arrived in the US do not know where they are or who to turn to, and do not speak the local language. Almost nowhere is safe.
As an agency serving survivors of human trafficking in Los Angeles, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (Cast) is acutely aware of the housing and homelessness crisis in our city and county. Cast runs a 24-hour hotline for anyone seeking help finding safety and resources. Over half of the 2,210 calls last year were from potential victims and most (over 1,000 people) were experiencing homelessness. Housing is human trafficking survivors’ number one need.
Since the homelessness crisis in LA has created the conditions for human trafficking, then addressing it properly will help prevent human trafficking.
For 20 years, Cast has been the only agency providing dedicated housing for human trafficking survivors in Los Angeles: emergency shelter for up to 90 days, transitional shelter for up to two years, and wraparound services while survivors get back on their feet, like counselling and legal aid. Cast served 1,625 survivors and their family members last year.
But we are facing increasing and unprecedented demand for housing – like everybody else. Our two shelters are dedicated to female-identifying adults, so we cannot provide housing to males or survivors with children and are often full. So, my team is on the phone most days, asking other shelters if they have room for survivors of human trafficking.
Nine times out of ten, the answer is ‘no’.
It is unacceptable that when survivors of human trafficking bravely escape their situation, they often have nowhere safe to go. When Larissa called our hotline, she and her three children – the youngest, a baby – were sleeping in her car, hiding from the trafficker. Since Cast’s emergency shelter (being run from a hotel during COVID) was full, we called over 30 other shelters but none could take them in. So Cast provided services to Larissa and her children in her car for a week, until a room at our shelter became available. They stayed with us for a month and then we supported Larissa to find a safe, affordable, permanent home, keeping in touch with her for months after to make sure she settled in and knew her rights as a tenant.
Cast supports survivors to find permanent housing but rents in LA are at their highest ever, making leaving a shelter harder than it already is. If survivors cannot afford housing, they cannot easily access services or get a job, and are extremely vulnerable to being trafficked again.
This is an untenable situation. How can it be solved?
First, we need public agencies to include human trafficking in their victim housing and homelessness initiatives. We should not have to plead to be included and consulted, but we often do. Maybe it’s because well-meaning public servants think that human trafficking is happening somewhere else and not in our own neighborhoods. Maybe they don’t understand that human trafficking survivors need specialized services to meet their special needs. Who deserves housing?
Second, we need a dramatic increase in funding, especially for permanent housing, in line with the real world we are in. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments made large sums available to respond to the risk of homelessness, like rental assistance and emergency housing vouchers, but these have run out. The fallout of COVID, inflation and economic instability is only increasing the risk of human trafficking happening. We know that hundreds more survivors will call us this year, saying they are homeless and in danger. What do we tell survivors we can’t help simply because we don’t have the funds?
If we want to both prevent human trafficking and do right by survivors, let’s agree on what might make the biggest difference and let’s make it happen: a safe, affordable home for everyone. Addressing the housing and homelessness crises in Los Angeles – once and for all – will also help stop human trafficking.
The Durfee Foundation has announced that Kay Buck, CEO of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, is one of six recipients of the 2023-2024 Durfee Stanton Fellowship. The Fellowship aims to provide changemakers and leaders in Los Angeles the opportunity to pursue an inquiry that seeks to improve the lives of people living in Los Angeles.
As part of her fellowship, Kay will seek to explore more about what it will take to end human trafficking sustainably and in a way that honors survivors human rights. Kay knows from working with survivors of human trafficking that arrest is not the answer and can be extremely harmful to survivors. Kay aims to explore what the answer is, so survivors of human trafficking don’t have criminal records that stop them from getting housing, getting jobs, or moving on with their lives. Kay is deeply committed to ending human trafficking, and fighting the systemic barriers to that goal.
Daniela came to the US to escape police brutality in El Salvador. She never expected to face even greater hardships.
When Daniela entered Cast, she had been making good progress in her recovery from her trafficking experience and was happy to have been reunited with her family, who were escaping police brutality in El Salvador.
However, Daniela’s landlord did not want her family living with her, even temporarily. She knew her landlord would not offer protection if her trafficker came looking for her. The situation became so stressful that Daniela ended up in the hospital twice.
Cast’s Housing Case Manager Alejandra worked closely with Daniela to find safe housing and arrange rental assistance to ease the transition. After seven months, a determined Daniela was finally able to find a safe home she could afford! Now she is in a home she loves with her family and with an understanding landlord.
If not for our Rapid Rehousing Program, Daniela and her family might be living on the street. Instead, she feels safe and secure enough to get back to work and re-enroll in her educational program.
Safe, stable housing made all the difference for Daniela. With your support, we can ensure survivors have a home to begin healing this holiday season. Click here to donate to Cast today!
Open Letter to CBP on Trade Data Transparency
Posted on October 27, 2022
October 20, 2022
Below is a joint open letter to the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) calling on CBP to demonstrate its continued commitment to combating forced labor in global supply chains by rejecting a proposal by driven by industry groups as part of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) to shield ocean freight manifests from public disclosure.
The Honorable Chris Magnus Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW Washington, DC 20229
Re: Open Letter on Trade Data Transparency
Dear Commissioner Magnus,
The undersigned organizations and advocates write to express our collective outrage at a recent proposal driven by industry groups as part of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) to shield ocean freight manifests from disclosure. If adopted, the proposal would eviscerate the already limited access to customs data that is currently available to civil society. Public disclosure of vessel manifest data is essential to civil society, investigative journalists, and workers’ rights organizations, especially as we work to support effective enforcement of the U.S. Tariff Act and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA).
The COAC proposal advocates additional problematic legislative amendments, which if accepted, would further derail forced labor investigations and enforcement under Section 307 of the U.S. Tariff Act, 1930, as well as under the UFLPA. An article published by the Associated Press (AP) on October 18, 2022 revealed these proposals. The amendments in question would profoundly hobble the agency’s ability to enforce forced labor laws, as well as the ability of civil society to share evidence of forced labor in U.S. supply chains. As the agency charged with the enforcement of these laws, CBP’s perspective is given a great deal of weight, both within the Administration and on Capitol Hill, and it is absolutely critical that CBP reject these proposed changes outright.
Public disclosure of import/export data is critical to tracing and monitoring forced labor risks in supply chains. Transparency of trade data is already far too limited. Currently, U.S. federal law (19 U.S.C § 1431) provides for public access only to ocean freight data. Data on air and land cargo is still not accessible to the public. Moreover, U.S. law already grants both importers and shippers the right to request confidentiality of their data on a case-by-case basis (19 C.F.R. § 103.31).
The trajectory should be for more transparency, not less. We advocate for disclosure of air, road, and rail manifests, in addition to maritime vessel manifests, while the COAC proposal seeks to shroud all import data behind a thick veil of secrecy. We urge CBP to reject calls for more “confidentiality” and instead disclose all types of customs data – air, rail, maritime and road – to the public. In addition, we urge CBP not to fall prey to proposals that will drive up the procedural complexity of the forced labor enforcement process, placing burdens both on CBP and civil society that are intended to operate as barriers to the enforcement of existing law.
In sum, U.S. companies can not publicly claim to oppose forced labor, while lobbying the U.S. Government to shield their supply chains from scrutiny. The effort to hide trade data is aimed at hindering enforcement of provisions banning imports of goods tainted by forced labor, and serves no legitimate public purpose. This is a shameful example of corporate overreach to protect profits by disabling efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.
We call on CBP to demonstrate its continued commitment to combating forced labor in global supply chains by rejecting this cynical call for confidentiality of vessel manifest data along with any other associated proposals. For years, U.S. advocates fought to remove loopholes that had crippled enforcement of Section 307 of the U.S. Tariff Act, culminating in the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Enforcement Act (TFTEA) of 2015. Now is not the time for the U.S. Government to move in precisely the opposite direction.
We therefore respectfully request that CBP publicly oppose, and summarily reject, the call for additional import data confidentiality.
Advocating Opportunity Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Anti-Slavery International Campaign for Uyghurs Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking Corporate Accountability Lab FishWise Free the Slaves Freedom Network USA Freedom United Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) Greenpeace USA HEAL Trafficking Human Rights Watch Humanity United Action International Campaign for the Rohingya International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom No Business with Genocide Oceana Oxfam America Polaris Safe Horizon, Inc Solidarity Center The Freedom Fund The Human Trafficking Legal Center Transparentem Uyghur American Association Uyghur Freedom Forum Uyghur Human Rights Project Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project Verité Worker Rights Consortium World Uyghur Congress Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation Ambassador (ret.) Luis C.deBaca Professor from Practice, University of Michigan Law School Sabra Boyd Sabra Boyd LLC
Support Survivors on Labor Day
Posted on August 30, 2022
This Labor Day, Cast’s Managing Attorney shares an open letter about a special labor trafficking survivor, Gabriel.
Since I started as an attorney at Cast in 2017, Labor Day has been a difficult holiday. I love a cookout as much as anyone, but I feel conflicted about celebrating while thousands are being trafficked for labor.
What could Labor Day possibly mean to a person being forced to work against their will?
I think about people like Gabriel, a 50-year-old father who came to the US from Mexico to make money to support his family. Gabriel came on a professional work visa as a highly experienced mechanical engineer, and after multiple interviews, he believed he had a good engineering job waiting for him in the US. However, when Gabriel arrived, he quickly realized that the job recruiter had lied to him.
Gabriel’s story is more common than you might think; more than 40% of labor trafficking survivors are men and nearly half come to the US on a temporary work visa.
Working 12-15 hour shifts on a poultry farm in Atlanta, Gabriel was forced to deal with hazardous materials and faulty machinery and was continuously guarded and monitored – even during his sleep, Gabriel was often threatened with a gun. He suffered daily physical abuse and threats, all while his wages were stolen by his traffickers.
Gabriel was eventually able to escape to California, but his ordeal was far from over. Cast set to work on getting him a visa designated for victims of trafficking (T-visa) but due to the rules, leaving the US to see his family would disqualify him.
As the delays with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services were worsened by the pandemic, Gabriel had to wait nearly two years for news on his visa application. For those two years, he was unable to see his family, had to survive without a work visa, and could only get manual labor jobs. He stayed in shelters and on friends’ couches.
Cast fought hard for him – as we have done with thousands of other survivors of human trafficking – and we were ultimately able to help secure Gabriel’s T visa and to reunite him with his family. Gabriel’s ordeal should never have happened but Cast was there to help him move on with his life and to enjoy his rights.
(SACRAMENTO, CA) – Today, Assemblymember Tim Grayson (D-Concord) introduced AB 2553, sponsored by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, which would establish the California Multidisciplinary Alliance to Stop Trafficking Act (California MAST). This bill aims to examine and evaluate existing programs and outreach for survivors and victims of human trafficking and provide recommendations to strengthen California’s response to supporting survivors and holding offenders accountable.
“California is home to some of the largest hubs for sex and labor trafficking in the United States, and it is beyond time our state takes the necessary steps in combatting this criminal enterprise,” says Assemblymember Grayson. “I thank the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking for their sponsorship of this bill as we work to prevent human trafficking now and into the future.”
Human trafficking is the exploitation of human beings through force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of commercial sex or forced labor and is estimated to be a $150 billion a year global industry. Over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, our communities became more vulnerable to trafficking due to the suspension of regularly offered services. There was a significant rise in calls for urgent trafficking cases through the pandemic, leading to overburdened service providers unable to offer essential services due to the increased need. As a result, some survivors were re-trafficked, and many others were left without safe options for housing and employment.
“In my search for a better life, I found myself exploited by various individuals similar to other child trafficking survivors,” says Jimmy Lopez, Survivor Advocate for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. “Human trafficking is an invisible crisis plaguing our state and forcing thousands of children to grow up too fast; we must stop trafficking in its tracks, and we must hold offenders accountable.”
The California MAST task force will be comprised of select state agencies, survivors, and representatives from human rights and immigrant rights organizations whose main priorities are to evaluate the state’s progress in preventing human trafficking and providing support to victims and survivors. In doing so, the California MAST will be able to provide critical recommendations to strengthen state and local efforts to address the root causes that make individuals, families, and communities at risk of trafficking.
“California MAST is a huge steppingstone in addressing human trafficking in our state and supporting those who have been underserved for far too long,” says Leigh LaChapelle, Associate Director of Survivor Advocacy for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. “This important change in California law will provide the framework we need to create a future where we serve every survivor and abolish human trafficking all together.”
AB 2553 joint and co-authors include: Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles), Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo), Assemblymember Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson), Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), Assemblymember Luz Rivas (D-San Fernando Valley), Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Salinas), Assemblymember Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), and Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua (D-Stockton).
About the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking
Human Trafficking PSA: Nicole Scherzinger & California Attorney General Rob Bonta
Posted on February 4, 2022
Human trafficking awareness should happen every day of the year so we are ending Human Trafficking Prevention Month with this important PSA in partnership with California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Performer and Cast Ambassador Nicole Scherzinger. Survivors need and deserve our help, not just in January, but all year round. Please help us raise the last $15,000 to close Human Trafficking Prevention Month with enough funding to serve survivors in our confidential shelters and rights-based programs. Please give what you can today.
You are an important part of our outreach. Because of your support for Cast’s mission, we were able to provide essential and life-changing services to nearly 2,000 survivors and their families in 2021, and respond to a never-seen-before 556% increase in our in-person Emergency Response Program.
Thank you for championing the safety and rights of survivors!
Together, we can be the community survivors rely on. Join us by making a donation to Cast. Click here to donate.
More Than Giving Back, More Than A Shelter
Posted on December 30, 2021
When I think about the holidays, I think about home–about that feeling of security and trust, of knowing that the people around you love you unconditionally. I think about how Cast creates a feeling of home for survivors that opens the door to their journey to freedom and independence.
That feeling of home is why I have got up every morning for the past eight years and gone to work for Cast. The work can be exhausting. When survivors share the horrors they have experienced, it shakes my faith in humanity. But, knowing I can give them a sense of home makes it all worthwhile.
Survivors like Laura (they/them) remind me just how transformative our work can be. Laura was manipulated by people they thought were their friends, sex trafficked at a bar, and force-fed drugs. At every turn, Laura was betrayed by people they trusted – their girlfriend.
Once Laura made it to Cast, they finally felt at home. Laura found the courage to explore his gender identity, secured multiple professional certifications, and became a counselor for people struggling with drug addiction. Now, Laura is pursuing t he next step in their journey: becoming a community leader and running for office! These were all possible because of their tenacity and hard work, traits one uncovers when you finally have a home and unconditional love that Cast provides for survivors.
The pandemic brought never-seen-before needs and numbers of urgent human trafficking cases. The isolation and economic precarity, combined with L.A.’s homelessness crisis, have served as fertile ground for traffickers. Cast stepped up, adapting our programs and serving more survivors than ever before.
Your generosity makes the support we provide possible. This holiday season, I’m asking you to make a gift and provide a sense of home to survivors who so desperately need it.
Thank you for all you do for Cast, and for considering a gift before the end of the year.
Yours in strength,
Associate Director of Equitable Housing
P.S. Your gift to Cast is fully tax-deductible, and the organization meets the highest standards for transparency, financial stewardship, and leadership on Charity Navigator.
P.P.S. If you have donated to your donor-advised fund, you have already set aside
money. Now is the time to contact your fund manager to send a grant.
Together, we can be the community survivors rely on. Join us by making a donation to Cast. Click here to donate.
Every year, more than a thousand domestic workers are brought to the U.S. by diplomats and other foreign officials. What happens when those workers face abuse?
She remembers wearing the baby around her like a shield. Taking care of him was part of her job: Sri Yatun was the one-person housekeeper, cook and nanny for an Indonesian consular official and her husband in Los Angeles. Sri loved the baby deeply — but she says that she had another reason to keep the child close. She claims that the husband was an explosive man; he would verbally abuse her and once, Sri says, threw a remote control and hit her in the head. Wearing his son provided a measure of protection against his outbursts.
But the child grew wigglier and heavier until suddenly he was a toddler — and then, unbelievably, he was on the verge of starting preschool. That meant Sri would be in the house with the husband alone, while the wife was at the consulate working.
Sri had weighed escape countless times. But consul Cicilia Rusdiharini, and Cicilia’s husband, Tigor Situmorang, had threatened her with jail should she step outside without their permission, she says. And why leave? America was a nightmare of mass shootings and gang members waiting to snatch up lone women and sell them into the sex trade, they had told her. Especially someone like Sri, a poor farm girl who’d had only six years of schooling in Indonesia. She barely spoke English, had no money and knew no one outside her powerful employer’s orbit.
But one day, she found her passport hidden in a nightstand drawer. Sri had asked for it repeatedly over the more than three years of her employment, wanting to just look at this thing so prized in Indonesia. She was also terrified of overstaying her allotted term. If her visa had expired, she could be deported, she knew, and maybe even barred from ever returning to the United States. She says Cicilia had reassured her that the visa extension was in process. (Neither Rusdiharini nor her husband responded to numerous messages requesting comment.)
Her heart pounding, Sri saw that her visa had expired, and it did not appear to have been renewed. Sri took the passport, concealing it in a plastic bag she wore underneath her clothes.
Shortly thereafter, Sri says, Cicilia and Tigor accused her of theft — money, a missing watch. Sri finally snapped, shouting that she hadn’t stolen a thing. As Sri tells it, Cicilia had to leave for work and stormed out in a fury. Tigor made a similarly noisy exit with his son — taking with him, Sri was startled to realize, the last thing tethering her to the house.
Sri was alone; the house was silent. For once, the dishes were unwashed, the beds unmade. She opened the door and left.
Sri had arrived in the United States on May 26, 2004, one of the many domestic workers brought in every year by diplomats and international-organization staff under a special U.S. visa program. Each year, the State Department issues 1,200 to 1,800 of these visas: A-3s for workers employed by diplomatic officials, G-5s for employees of staff at international organizations like the World Bank. Specifically attached to the employer, the visa provides the domestic staffer with both work authorization and lawful immigration status.
It’s a powerful document, and one that can enable abuse. The domestic worker’s ability to live legally in the United States is in the hands of the employer — who may have diplomatic immunity from U.S. law. While many of these domestic workers have had respectful and deeply sustaining relationships with their employers, the power imbalance embedded in the visas can lead to problems: overwork, underpayment and much worse.
In researching this story, I came across many cases like Sri’s; ultimately, I built a database of more than 100 reports of alleged abuse of domestic workers by diplomat employers going back to 1988. More than half resulted in legal action, including out-of-court settlements and civil and criminal cases; I learned about these cases from court documents, law enforcement news releases and a database of cases maintained by the Human Trafficking Legal Center. The other instances came from victim statements, studies by anti-trafficking and domestic-workers’ rights organizations, reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Human Rights Watch, media accounts, a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other partners, and interviews with advocates, lawyers, government officials and survivors of diplomatic trafficking.
But the true scale of the abuse is almost certainly much wider. Anti-trafficking and domestic-worker experts believe the problem is underreported because of law enforcement agents’ lack of familiarity with cases involving diplomatic immunity, workers’ fear of deportation and police (often stoked by their employers), and their isolation in the homes of esteemed diplomats — some of whom speak out against human rights abuses publicly while exploiting workers in private.
A Qatari diplomat, for instance, called for redoubling efforts to end “today’s slave-like practices” at a United Nations event — even as he and his wife were allegedly forcing their Filipina domestic employee to work more than 17 hours a day, every day. They eventually hired another worker to join the first. The wife regularly slapped the women — who lived in the pantry — and called them “animals” and “slaves,” according to court documents filed by the women in a lawsuit. (The diplomat denied the allegations. The case was later voluntarily dismissed with prejudice. This outcome often indicates that a case has ended with a confidential settlement in favor of the plaintiff, says Sarah L. Bessell, deputy director of the Human Trafficking Legal Center. The diplomat’s attorney said that neither he nor his client could comment on the case.)Sri still has pain in her back and knees. “Little things to remind me,” she says. For her efforts, she was paid the occasional $50 to $100 or so a month, she alleges.
The allegations in my database included long hours and scant pay; extreme work conditions, such as being forced to shovel snow in bare feet or washing a child’s soiled sheets by hand in the middle of the night; and conditions that meet the definition of human trafficking — that is, the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel another person’s labor, as alleged in both civil and criminal cases.
In the reports I identified, well over half of the employers allegedly confiscated their workers’ passports. About half of the workers said their employers forbade them from leaving the house alone or speaking to people outside the employers’ family. More than 20 workers claimed physical abuse: One was beaten with a wooden shoe, another with a package of frozen chicken before later being kicked unconscious. Some employers sexually harassed or groped the women; a number of workers said they were raped by their employers or employers’ friends.
In light of these alleged abuses, critics of the special-visa program — including domestic workers, activists and human rights lawyers — have asserted that the U.S. government isn’t doing enough to protect workers and punish abusers. Domestic workers as a group — both those who are U.S. citizens and those who are not — have long been denied protections, including the right to organize. Add to this situation the power of diplomatic immunity and the precariousness of a temporary work visa, and these foreign workers have little recourse if they encounter exploitative bosses.
Advocates have been pressing their case for decades through civil lawsuits, organizing campaigns and a still-unresolved 2007 petition filed against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States. In August 2020, the commission decided that the petition could move forward and indicated that it would also examine the broader issue of all domestic workers’ exclusion from many U.S. labor laws. The State Department now has until early February to respond to the petitioners’ final brief.
The U.S. government has made some efforts over the years to address the problem. In 2008, Congress instituted a mandatory work contract and a know-your-rights pamphlet for workers; it also granted domestic workers filing lawsuits against their employers the ability to live and work legally in the United States. The State Department began requiring that a diplomat’s employer sign off on any special-visa request. Additionally, the agency established a check-in process for workers living in the D.C. area, as well as New York and Houston, in which they meet with State Department officials within 30 days of their arrival and go over their legal rights and work requirements. The agency intends to expand the check-in program beyond these three locations, once it is safe to do so in light of covid-19 precautions, according to a State Department spokesperson.
When abuse does occur, the U.S. government has a number of options for providing remedies. Should a law enforcement agency decide a case merits prosecution, the State Department will request a waiver of diplomatic immunity, according to department guidance to law enforcement. The department can require a diplomat to leave the United States, or ask the diplomat’s sending country to provide payment to a wronged worker — a goodwill, or ex gratia, sum that does not indicate legal liability. Finally, the State Department can cut off access to special visas to any country that has tolerated abuse of domestic workers, according to federal anti-trafficking law.
And yet it’s far from clear how often these measures are taken. The State Department did not provide any specifics in response to repeated queries about its enforcement actions related to the domestic-worker program; Freedom of Information Act requests I filed more than two years ago remain unfulfilled. There is only one known case of the department successfully assisting a domestic worker in receiving an ex gratia payment. And though a spokesperson asserted that, “in cases of serious criminal offenses, the Department requires the alleged offender to leave the United States,” only one such occurrence has been widely reported in U.S. media: a 2013 case involving an Indian diplomat. As for prosecutions, the department has requested waivers of diplomatic immunity in publicly known cases only a handful of times. In all, only 12 federal criminal cases and one state case have been filed against current or former diplomats since 2000.
Meanwhile, even though Congress has required suspension of countries in response to abuse since 2008, the State Department only acted on the requirement in 2019, after lawmakers stripped discretionary language from the law. Malawi was the first to be suspended, and Cameroon this year. But there is ample evidence to suggest that list should be longer. One of the suspension requirements is triggered by unpaid judgments against diplomat employers. By that measure alone, India, the United Arab Emirates, Zambia, Burkina Faso and Ecuador should be suspended, according to an examination of court dockets. And the judgment that triggered Malawi’s suspension remains unpaid, according to the department’s trafficking in persons report. (I contacted the embassies of all the governments named here; none replied.)
On its website, the State Department proclaims that “it leads the U.S. global engagement to combat human trafficking.” Yet here in America, the holes in domestic law and international diplomacy have long lined up. And at least for a time, Sri Yatun fell through.
I first met Sri in September 2018 at a cafe. (Sri has officially changed her name to an Anglicized one that she asked me not to use, but many people still know her as Sri.) She was a small, glamorous slip of a person — 32 years old, not even 5 feet, in leggings and a spangly top, oversize sunglasses perched atop her head, hair straightened in a sleek curtain and her expertly applied eye shadow the shifting colors of a sunset. She didn’t always dress this way, however. For years, she’d worn nothing but baggy men’s clothes. “I didn’t want people to see me,” she says.
We spoke for hours, Sri in fluent English inflected with the richly rolled r’s of her native Javanese. We have kept talking for over three years now, and I’ve learned a number of things. She has a dark, droll sense of humor, which she deploys in describing the worst of situations — learning how to defend herself by watching “Kill Bill,” for example. She carries a stun gun thicker than her forearm, she’s an astonishingly talented chef who also loves McDonald’s Creamy Ranch Sauce, and she has the anticipatory eye and swift stealth of someone who has spent a lifetime answering needs before they can be named. To spend time with Sri means that your table will be expertly bused, takeout cartons packed, even used tea bags tidied.
Not everything could be so neatly put away, though. Her story, for one. Although she’d managed to hold on to her belief in God, her experiences had complicated her relationship with him (“What’s he doing up there, just sleeping?”), and deep into our first conversation, she hastily pulled down her sunglasses over her eyes but kept talking, tears slipping from under the frames. I’ve since corroborated her story in interviews with social-service providers and friends, as well as declarations submitted under penalty of perjury as part of Sri’s application for a T visa, a special document granted to victims of human trafficking.
Born in a village in central Java, Indonesia, she was the sixth of nine children. Her hair was big — unruly and thick — but she was so tiny that her family called her “Tonel,” or “small.” Her parents grew corn, bananas, coffee, tobacco and spices on their farm. She doesn’t remember a time without work, starting from when she’d roll tobacco leaves and pick cloves and cinnamon from the age of 4 or 5. The smell of spices reminds her of her parents to this day.
When she wasn’t working, she was reading — when she took the cow out during the day, by lantern at night. She loved school so much that she had a side business doing homework for other children. “I didn’t know that was wrong then,” she says. She got paid in money and in socks. (“What!” she told me. “They were nice socks!”)
But a drought blighted their crops when she was 12, putting an end to her schooling. One of her sisters died that year, and then typhus and malaria ravaged the rest of her family two years later. Her father started selling off slice after slice of their land; her older siblings also peeled away to seek work in the cities. When she was 16, a labor recruiter with whom she was friendly came to her village, looking for a domestic worker. She was determined to help her family and signed up immediately.
Her new employer was Cicilia Rusdiharini, a foreign-ministry official who’d be traveling to the United States soon. Sri didn’t know what to expect of living abroad, but, she recalls, Cicilia offered her a chance at more schooling in the United States. Sri made her decision even before her new boss had finished speaking.https://0c17a230afb2ce74dbc6f1fdd52d1383.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In the meantime, Sri moved to Jakarta to work for Cicilia and her husband, doing housework and taking care of their 6-month-old baby. In the first sign of trouble, Cicilia told her she’d be working for free for four months until they moved to the United States, according to Sri and her T-visa documents. The money she should have been paid would instead be used to cover expenses for her visa application and plane ticket.
It would all be worth it, Sri tried to reassure herself. The U.S. contract looked good: $400 a week for 40 hours of work, $13 an hour for overtime. It was all laid out in black and white in Bahasa Indonesia, the main language of the country, and translated into English years later for her visa application.
Once in the United States, however, Sri was made to work day and night, with no days off, according to her T-visa documents, as well as interviews with a subsequent employer, three of Sri’s friends, and Ima Matul, an Indonesian anti-trafficking activist who assisted Sri years later. She still has pain in her back and knees. “Little things to remind me,” she says. For her efforts, she was paid the occasional $50 to $100 or so a month, she alleges. All this while enduring verbal abuse and threats from Tigor and Cicilia.
“She takes care of the baby,” cooking, cleaning, “everything, nonstop,” recalls Tuti, one of the friends. (She requested that I not use her last name.) Tuti was also a domestic worker at the time of Sri’s employ with Cicilia. Friends of Cicilia and Tigor brought Tuti along on visits to their home, where she witnessed Sri’s unrelenting workload. She contrasts Sri’s experience with her own. Tuti’s boss would say, “ ‘It’s okay. You tired, you take a rest. You wanna working, you working.’ … It’s good,” Tuti recounts. “Not for her. … Different.”
To get a sense of the plausibility of Sri’s allegations, I also interviewed three colleagues of Cicilia’s, all of whom spoke on the condition that they not be named out of fear of retaliation. They detailed Cicilia’s 3 a.m. diktats for work to be completed an hour or two later, as well as her “bullying,” “toxic” and “narcissistic” behavior in the workplace. “Her impact on my mental health is very catastrophic,” one said. “This is her pattern of working style to us in a professional setting where we are not financially dependent on her. So I can just imagine her treatment of her housemaid who was financially dependent on her and her husband.”
Sri’s dependence on Cicilia — for not just work but also her legal status — caged her. Until, that is, the discovery of her passport — and her apparently expired visa status — steeled her in anger. And so that day in July 2007, Sri walked out with no plan and no money, and wandered the strange streets of Los Angeles for hours, crying, thirsty, utterly lost. She got to a gas station and, exhausted, just stood there and wept.
Then a middle-aged Asian woman pulled in to get gas for her car. She said something in English. Sri shook her head, uncomprehending.
“Yes! Yes!” Sri burst into renewed tears. The woman was Indonesian, from Sri’s native island of Java even. Incredibly, she too was a domestic worker.
As the woman would later recount in a declaration for Sri’s T-visa application, “I noticed an Asian girl, standing by herself, crying her eyes out. I thought that I had seen her before, and she seemed like she really needed help. So, I went up to her, asked her what her name was, and asked her why she was crying. She told me briefly that she had just escaped an abusive situation with employers … and that she really feared for her safety.” The woman took Sri home with her, to an Indonesian enclave only a few blocks from the consulate itself.
Sri praying. She keeps a gun hanging on the wall in her bedroom because she is afraid of break-ins.
Sri’s safe haven may have been near her former home, but it seemed worlds away — past the tony manses of Hancock Park and into the crowded commingling of Koreatown and Little Bangladesh, where the gas station good Samaritan lived in a two-story building the color of faded mustard. Sri felt utterly lost, in both time and place. One thing kept her going, though: the woman who found her, the woman who became her godmother. Like her, a devout Muslim. Her name was Djuariah Tabarzad; she went by Riah.
“I have known Sri for over six years and love her like a daughter,” Riah said in her declaration in support of Sri’s T-visa application. “My heart immediately went out to her. She was around my son’s age, and she reminded me of the struggles that I experienced when I first came to America from Indonesia. So, I decided to help her.”
Sri calls the woman Mama now. Just a few months before they met, Mama had lost her son; he’d died in a motorcycle accident in Indonesia. Mama had just gotten her green card to go visit him; instead she returned to bury him. So Sri’s meeting Mama at the gas station — a terrified young woman, a mother grieving for her child — was an act of divine intervention, they believed.
I didn’t hear about Mama’s family tragedy from her, however. A jovial, forcefully generous woman with a plump face and indomitable energy, she didn’t have time for slopping around in the past. She also did not approve of a journalist sniffing around for sadness, and declined to speak to me about the circumstances of first meeting Sri or Sri’s former employment. Instead, she tried to stuff me with Indonesian chicken soup, vegetable fritters, rice, salad, a dragon fruit the size of a softball, litchis and an immense chocolate muffin while flapping her hands at Sri and telling her she should move on from the past, forget it, let it go.
Riah was protective of Sri, but even her fierce care couldn’t banish Sri’s fears. Sri hid deep inside the apartment, afraid to be seen from the window, and cried constantly, terrified of her proximity to the consulate and of the sharp eyes of the surrounding community. Thankfully, Mama soon arranged for her to take a job with friends in Corona, 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Sri would live in a guesthouse on the property and take care of the family’s children, particularly the youngest, a little girl.
Her new life was disorienting, like sudden, roaring silence after living in a din for years. Having nothing to do — Sri never thought of it as “free time” — was confusing. The little girl would clamber into the guesthouse sometimes on Sri’s days off, despite her mother’s admonishments, and would want to play. But Sri welcomed her visits; the child was “a distraction from all the bad things in my brain.”
After a few years, Sri began to yearn for something other than her quiet life far from the city. She moved back to Los Angeles and took a welter of jobs — cleaning, cashier at a Chinese restaurant, flower arrangement, informal hospice work — before she found stable employment near the west side of the city. Her new employer was warm and welcoming, and she continued to earn money to fulfill some of her deferred promise to her family.
Wanting to prove to herself that she was no longer afraid, Sri started returning to the consulate for special events. The staff at the consulate had turned over, Cicilia and Tigor long gone. Bit by bit, she was building a fragile sense of peace. Until the day she walked into a bathroom at the consulate and found a woman in distress. “She looked like she needed some help,” says Sri. The woman’s face was like a mirror into Sri’s own past. “She reminded me of myself.”Sri’s new life was disorienting, like sudden, roaring silence after living in a din for years. Having nothing to do — she never thought of it as “free time” — was confusing.
Her name was Elis — and like Sri, she’d also been brought to Los Angeles on an A-3 visa by an Indonesian official. Elis is now 40 years old, not even 5 feet tall, but has an outsize sense of style — a bright orange vest one day, perhaps, then a blush-pink formal jumpsuit for the end of Ramadan. I’d met Elis at a party hosted by Ima Matul, who herself had arrived in Los Angeles years ago as a trafficked domestic worker. Over the course of the day, I realized that at least five of the 50 women at the party had experienced trafficking as domestic workers; I’d read their stories or knew of their names through the community.
“More like 80 to 90 percent of them,” said Ima, when I asked her later. “It was very common,” particularly in the past, when workers and employers alike had less knowledge of labor rights — and before the passage of federal anti-trafficking legislation in 2000. Many of them, including Ima, had escaped thanks to the intercession of another domestic worker. “The system didn’t help us,” says Sri. “We had to help each other.”
As she would help Elis. Upon her arrival in the United States, Elis had allegedly discovered — according to Elis’s T-visa declaration, as well as interviews with Elis, Sri, Tuti and Ima — that her working conditions were not what she expected. And yet she continued at her job for years in the hope that her situation would improve — until she met Sri.
Sri said she’d help Elis find a place to stay and work. Months went by because Elis couldn’t decide whether to stay or go. Then her employer announced his term in the United States was up. He was leaving, and taking Elis with him. She decided she’d try to live underground in the States and make up for lost opportunity on her own. She and Sri sketched out a plan.
On her last scheduled night in Los Angeles, Elis slipped out the door and met Sri several blocks away. The women made it to Sri’s place and gasped with relief. They’d done it. Elis slept in Sri’s bed, Sri on the floor. It was a kind of idyll — both of them contemplating better days.
The next morning, or perhaps the one after that, Sri got a text from an Indonesian friend. The consul general and other staff were on their way to Sri’s apartment.
The women froze, then flew into a panic. Terrified, Elis wanted to hand herself over. Sri was just as frightened but convinced Elis they’d come too far to capitulate. Sri frantically called Tuti. Sri was “so scared,” Tuti recounts, and told her, “ ‘The consulate is coming!’ … I was so scared, oh my God.” Tuti called around and found a place for Elis to stay. Sri called a taxi, crammed Elis into it and then waited for the officials to come.
Consul General Hadi Martono barged into her tiny room, accompanied by five of his staff, Sri says. Martono threatened to call the FBI and have Sri jailed and deported. Sri called his bluff. “I said, ‘Go ahead,’ and handed him my phone.” She stonewalled them until, frustrated, they eventually left. (I reached out to Martono and received no reply.)
And then Sri went on the run. She stayed far outside Los Angeles and would commute to work; her time in the city was punctuated with a few nights with one friend, and then the next friend or room or couch. She always found a way to sneak back to visit Mama, but became catlike in her caution — darting into the apartment under the cover of darkness, alert by the door before she’d leave — when in such proximity to the consulate.
With good reason. Elis had found work far from Los Angeles — but was spotted by Indonesian neighbors one evening outside Mama’s apartment. Sri had met Ima Matul sometime after she’d helped Elis, and Ima had given her a card with a number to call in case she needed help; both women had also heard from other Indonesian women Ima’s organization had aided. Now, with their cover blown, the women called the hotline, and Elis was picked up by a team from Ima’s workplace, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. It was 2013, six years after Sri had escaped her employer.
Diplomatic Security Service agents from the State Department interviewed both Sri and Elis, but neither heard anything more from the agency. Sri felt some disappointment. She admitted that she “kind of wanted” Cicilia (who went on to work as a diplomat at the Embassy of Indonesia in Ottawa and Paris) and Tigor to face potential criminal charges. “But do you think it makes me a bad person to think about that? … She gonna lose her job. Her kid gonna suffer,” Sri says. “I’d rather just her give me the money that I was supposed to get when I worked with her.”
Sri and Elis both eventually received their T visas — an indication that the U.S. government found their stories credible — and Sri became a citizen this year. Two domestic workers receiving T visas should have provided ample reason to suspend Indonesia from the A-3 visa program at that time. But the Indonesian government did not face any public consequences, and the State Department did not answer questions about Elis’s or Sri’s cases, or about any actions it might have taken in response. In an email, a representative from the Indonesian consulate wrote that staff members had tried to reach out to Sri, Elis and their former employers to understand what had transpired and to offer assistance. Sri and Elis said no one from the consulate contacted them in this capacity.
In the same statement, the consulate also claimed it had learned that “to a certain extent,” Sri’s and Elis’s T-visa applications were “related to an effort to get a US Green Card.” When I relayed the consulate’s response to Sri, she barked out a laugh. “Bulls—!” she cackled over the phone. Getting a T visa would be impossible “unless you have a case and prove it.” Someone caught lying to law enforcement could “go to jail instead because you fabricated something that never happened. … The point is … of course we wanted a green card because we needed protection. From them. The Indonesian government. From getting deported. An opportunity to live here, right? But also reporting them is supposed to be bringing justice and preventing this from happening again.”
As for other remedies, Sri doesn’t recall her counsel advising her of the option to file a lawsuit. But even had she known, she thinks that she wouldn’t have wanted a potentially prolonged legal battle with Cicilia and Tigor.Former visa recipients have a flood of suggestions for the program. Some want a bond guaranteeing full payment, or a visa granting workers the right to keep their legal status even if they switch employers.
Civil suits have become an avenue for accountability. Although diplomatic immunity presents a daunting challenge, it is not insurmountable. Unlike ambassadors and high-ranking diplomats, most consular officials and international-organization members receive immunity only for actions undertaken as part of their official work. (And even for top diplomats, their full immunity converts to a “residual” form that only covers their official acts once they leave their post.)
In my research I identified at least 60 cases filed by domestic workers against diplomat employers. Most prevailed, according to my examination of court records, but some outcomes are unclear because cases may have been settled confidentially. Yet many domestic workers do not file suit. The cases can take years, says Ashwini Jaisingh, a onetime domestic-worker organizer and former student lawyer at the American University Immigrant Justice Clinic. “And then language … cultural barriers — it takes a lot to go through the legal process. Add trauma to that, and it isn’t surprising that people choose not to file.”
There is also the problem of unpaid judgments. Germania Velasco of Ecuador filed suit in 2007 — and won a default judgment of more than $45,000 after her employers failed to show up to court. But despite being granted the judgment, Germania and her lawyers say she has yet to see a penny 14 years later.
Germania is not alone. At least six other domestic workers are owed payment on judgments against their diplomat employers, to the tune of more than $6 million. Germania’s lawyers have reached out repeatedly to both the State Department and the Ecuadoran government over the years. Most recently, in March, they wrote to the department to request the suspension of Ecuador from the special-visa program and seek assistance in engaging with the Ecuadoran government to secure damages. There was no response.
Former visa recipients, I’ve spoken to have a flood of suggestions for the program. Some want a bond guaranteeing full payment, or a visa granting workers the right to keep their legal status even if they switch employers. Others suggested the State Department do its check-in interviews alongside outside lawyers or domestic-worker organizing groups. According to Antonia Peña, the D.C. organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a former A-3 domestic worker herself, at least 15 domestic workers within a two-year period informed her they did not tell the State Department the truth about being overworked and underpaid. Some were forced by their employers to lie under the threat of potential deportation and future blacklisting.
After escaping their employers, most of the workers whose experiences I researched for this story — I formally interviewed seven but have talked on background to more over the years — continued to work in poorly regulated, low-income sectors like housekeeping, custodial services or restaurant work. Many ended up in workplaces that resembled their former situations, with sexual coercion, physical violence and threats.
But some have also fought back against the system that allowed them to be abused. Germania engaged in domestic-worker organizing, while Sri trained as a survivor advocate for the anti-trafficking organization that helped her.
Elis, meanwhile, bent her will toward sending her earnings back home. She works a crushing number of hours: 5 to 10 a.m. at a grocery sushi counter six days a week, then as a nanny from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day. She can take time off but rarely does. “I know I’m crazy about working,” she told me. When she isn’t, “sometimes I get sad. Think too much. Better to just work.” She’s been able to build her parents a beautiful blue house in Indonesia; she showed me the pictures with pride. While she is grateful to “whoever cared about me” in the dark years, “now my life is better,” she says, almost defiantly. “I made it better.”
In the fall of 2020, Sri had to quit her job doing hospice work all around California. The reason was Mama. Her godmother had suffered a few mysterious health issues over the years, but the older woman was incorrigibly stubborn and thought it best to leave things in the hands of God — and avoid missing work and dealing with a sky-high insurance deductible. Sri was busy with traveling nursing-assistant work, so she didn’t have time to strong-arm Mama — until one day she admitted she really wasn’t feeling well. Sri squinted at Mama on the phone screen and saw the sallowness of her face, a yellowing of the whites of her eyes. Sri flew back and took her to the hospital, where they soon had their answer. Mama had Stage 4 bile-duct cancer, with a prognosis of six months to a year to live.
In mid-February, Sri moved Mama into her house. She was largely paralyzed from the neck down but just as obdurate as ever, wanting Sri to be the one to feed her, administer her fentanyl patch, bathe her and change her diaper, even though Sri had hired a home health aide to help. Sri tended to her with such devotion that several of Mama’s friends admitted to me, only half-joking, that they wished to adopt her so they’d have someone to care for them with that much tenderness in the future. The work and the worries took their toll, though: Sri slept so little that one day in April, she fell down the stairs and passed out at the bottom.
They’d had dreams. Mama had built a house in Indonesia for her retirement, which she’d planned for this year. She’d spend six months there, six months in the States with Sri, who would have moved to a more spacious house by then, she suggested. Someday Sri would settle down, have a child, and Mama would become Grandmama.
Sri had taken care of so many people, but it felt different to look after Mama. She’d started her career in caregiving with strangers who had felt entitled to extract what they wanted from her; she’d also cared for kind and generous people, and everyone in between. She’d mastered the domestic worker’s art of invisibility: the ability to take in everything in a home and render her own self unseen to avoid disrupting her employers’ perception of their privacy. So none of her experiences could prepare her for what it was like to care for — and potentially lose — the woman who had found her, who had truly seen her, at a gas station 14 years earlier.
Like any other group of experts from a formerly colonized, still-poor country, the Indonesian community was sharply divided between the haves and the have-nots, in an echo of the disparity between diplomatic employers and their domestic workers, Mama told me two years ago. They have identified with and “believe … the employers,” she said. “They just think, ‘She’s a bad girl, running away from the person who gave her a chance to be here and gave her a job. She should be grateful.’ They don’t know how much they make you work and what it is like. I knew.”
In early May, Mama began to slip out of consciousness. Her breathing slowed, 12 seconds between gasps, then 26 seconds. Sri gave Mama a manicure and pedicure. A facial. She called Mama’s friends. They gathered around her bed and prayed; after midnight, Mama tried to speak to them one last time, and then she was gone.
Sri spent the next days in a knotted fugue of grief, grappling with the paradox that Mama was everywhere and nowhere. Objects that never had life seemed animated with Sri’s memories of her, while Mama herself had vanished. Sri was seized with panic attacks: a flame inside her chest that convinced her she herself might be dying. Two days after Mama passed, she fainted at the funeral, unaware of what had happened until she blinked up and saw a ring of frightened faces above her and the blank sky beyond that.
Two of the faces would take her home after the funeral — Mama’s home health aide as well as one of Mama’s close friends. Without their help, Sri says, “I probably would have died.” Even before Mama passed, the women had told her they’d stay with her; in the days to come, they would make sure she ate, they would lead prayers and they would mourn with her. For now, however, the dishes were unwashed, the beds unmade. So the women walked back into the house together, and went to work.
Noy Thrupkaew is a writer in Los Angeles. This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. For more on this story, please listen to Latino USA’s “Trapped in Diplomatic Limbo.” Database design and analysis was provided by Dana Chinn of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.