Terrorized for years by a human trafficker, a Honduran woman and her children now live in peace after escaping their tormentor as a result of efforts by law students at South Texas College of Law Houston.
The 37-year-old woman, called Maria to protect her privacy, found help through the Asylum and Human Trafficking Clinic—one of 19 specialized clinics in the law school’s Randall O. Sorrells Legal Clinics.
“The clinics help students to connect with why they went to law school and give them hands-on experience to use the law to help others,” said Kristin Zipple-Shedd, who runs the clinic that assisted Maria and her family.
STCL Houston started the Asylum and Human Trafficking Clinic in 2010. Zipple-Shedd joined the clinic’s staff in 2015 as an adjunct professor.
A public interest attorney, Zipple-Shedd provides instructions to the students and supervises their work with clients at the clinic. Each student is required to spend 105 hours in clinic work outside class sessions. Over the years, about 14 students have worked with Maria’s family, she said.
“The students function as student attorneys,” Zipple-Shedd said.
Their involvement with Maria and her family began in 2015, when the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense referred her then-12-year-old son, Miguel, and his twin sister, Ana, to the clinic. As the student clinicians prepared their asylum cases, they met with the children’s mother, who disclosed facts that indicated she could be a victim of human trafficking.
“She said she wanted to make a report to the FBI about what happened to her,” Zipple-Shedd said.
Maria, who came to the United States around 2006, told the student clinicians that she had been looking for work when she met a Honduran man at a soccer game who offered her help. Zipple-Shedd said the man and his sister were perpetrators of human trafficking and forced Maria to work as a domestic servant and in a brothel.
After beating up a man who had sexually assaulted Maria, the man who initially offered her help instead forced her into a marriage with him as he and his sister continued to use force, fraud and coercion to force Maria to be a domestic worker and to work in the brothel, Zipple-Shedd said. She said the man told Maria, “Because I defended you, you’re my woman now.”
When Maria got away from the man, he found her and beat her, leading to charges against him. In 2010, the Harris County Attorney’s Office prosecuted the perpetrator for domestic violence. He was found guilty of Class A misdemeanor assault of a family member and sentenced to 30 days in jail, Zipple-Shedd said. After he completed his sentence, the man was transferred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported.
But the man’s deportation did not end the problems Maria and her family faced. When he returned to Honduras, the man called Maria and demanded that she send him money, and he also began seeking vengeance on her family members still in that country.
“Maria’s perpetrator inflicted years of horrific physical and sexual violence against Maria’s parents and children in Honduras because of her escape from trafficking and cooperation with law enforcement,” Zipple-Shedd noted in an email. Among other things, the man sexually assaulted Maria’s mother and stabbed Miguel when he tried to protect his grandmother. The grandmother brought Miguel and Ana to this country in 2014.
After identifying Maria as a victim of human trafficking, students and staff at the Asylum and Human Trafficking Clinic collaborated with federal law enforcement and social programs to help the woman and her family. Zipple-Shedd said the clinic referred Maria to YMCA International Services, which agreed that she was a victim of human trafficking. The FBI’s Houston office investigated Maria’s allegations of human trafficking.
Zipple-Shedd said the FBI certified Maria, showing that she had reported the human trafficking to law enforcement and helped lawmen to pursue the case. The certification enabled Maria, with the help of the student clinicians, to apply for a T visa. T nonimmigrant status allows certain victims of severe forms of human trafficking to stay in this country for up to four years.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved Maria’s T visa in the summer of 2017 and approved derivative visas for her family members at various times in 2018, according to Zipple-Shedd. She explained that although Ana qualified as a derivative child because she was under 21 and unmarried, the student clinicians had to prove that other family members face a “clear and present danger” because the primary victim of human trafficking had escaped or collaborated with law enforcement.
Maria’s oldest son, now about 22, had stayed with his grandfather in Honduras, but they both came to this country in March on T visas won by students at the clinic. Zipple-Shedd said the clinic also has represented Maria’s niece, who was persecuted by the human trafficker while living with Maria’s parents, winning her asylum case after she fled Honduras and entered this country as an unaccompanied minor.
Students and staff at the clinic assisted Miguel in obtaining a grant of asylum and are helping Maria’s father and oldest son with their applications for work permits. Zipple-Shedd said the clinic also is assisting Maria’s mother with a waiver that will allow her to join her family on a derivative waiver. She had to return to Honduras after bringing the twins to this country.
Cristina Gonzalez, a student in the clinic for the spring semester, said she helped Maria’s father and eldest son with their work permits and also drafted a letter brief to the USCIS that was included in Maria’s mother’s waiver packet.
“There’s a certain joy in helping these families,” she said. “I do have a sense of satisfaction. I’m hoping for them that her mother is able to come to the U.S. and start a new life here free from violence.”
Maria, who doesn’t speak English, said through Zipple-Shedd, “The attorney and law students changed my life. I am thankful.”