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Transformed into an expert in human trafficking cases from China

pba-january-2013Los Angeles-based Holland & Knight litigation associate Stacey Hsiang Chun Wang is a KIND pro bono attorney and human rights advocate. Through her pro bono work, she has specialized primarily in handling cases involving human trafficking victims from China. Utilizing her language skills to help translate their stories and needs to immigration courts, Stacey has helped secure U.S. protection for many of these vulnerable young clients. Stacey also manages attorney participation in KIND cases at Holland & Knight's Los Angeles office, encouraging her colleagues to donate their time and serving as an experienced advisor to those who do.

Stacey took her first KIND case as a second-year associate with little exposure to immigration cases. After attending a KIND training at the firm and speaking with the KIND coordinators in her office, Stacey was asked to assist on an urgent immigration case involving a Chinese-speaking youth who would soon turn 18 years old. From that point forward, she has remained actively involved with KIND and has taken five cases.

"I really enjoy working on the cases in part because I'm a first-generation immigrant," Stacey said. "For me, I feel like they are dealing with something that I potentially could have faced myself."

Stacey understands the challenges in adjusting to a new country and culture, but can only imagine how difficult it would be to do so as a human trafficking victim. Many of the youth smuggled illegally from China to the U.S. are forced to work as indentured servants upon arrival, putting in extensive hours without breaks at restaurants, small businesses, or factories, and receiving very little pay in return.

The smugglers who bring these children to the U.S., commonly referred to as "snakeheads," charge fees of up to $100,000 to the children's families. The smuggled children must then work for years in an attempt to pay off these exorbitant debts, which only seem to increase with time. These children typically either leave China against their will or are pressured by family members to sacrifice their own interests for the potential economic benefit of the family. Once in the U.S., it is often threats of harm to their family back home, as well as a lack of other alternatives, that keep these young human trafficking victims from running away or seeking help.

Still, there is hope for shedding greater light on this issue, as well as assisting those who identify themselves as human trafficking victims. Of the five cases Stacey has handled so far, all have been successfully resolved through issuance of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) visas. Each case involved a Chinese girl who had been trafficked to the U.S., but every case was unique. One client came to the U.S. at the age of three and had lived in the U.S. for years after being abandoned by her parents; another came at age twelve and worked under the snakeheads in New York for four years before escaping and seeking help.

Some were persuaded by their parents to leave, others were physically removed in the middle of the night kicking and screaming as they were handed over to snakeheads. None of them had wanted to leave China, yet all had felt powerless to fight their families' decisions to send them to the U.S.

"They all didn't really know what to expect, or hadn't had a great idea of what they were supposed to do here," Stacey said. But, once they left China, they were in for long arduous journeys across many countries -- by plane, boat and truck -- under the captive guard of snakeheads, and then "coyotes" (their counterparts in Mexico). This is why, in the debate over whether such a child is "trafficked" or "smuggled," the latter suggesting some free will in coming to the U.S., Stacey believes that these children are trafficking victims.

Stacey pursued SIJS relief for the children instead of a T (trafficking visa) because she knew their cases would be resolved more quickly with this form of relief and she didn't want the children – who had suffered greatly already – to have to face a long process to gain the safety and stability they desperately needed.

Because many of the cases involve children who no longer have strong family support, Stacey said the KIND pro bono attorneys in her office often find themselves serving as both lawyers and mentors. "Even though we're not called upon to do more than just the legal work, there is a lot to the cases in the sense that some of these kids start to look at you as that adult figure who is stable and can give them guidance," said Stacey. "I encourage my colleagues to embrace that role—telling these kids to stay in school and to not get in trouble. The cases are not the easiest of pro bono cases," Stacey explained, "but they are extremely rewarding and enriching. You have the opportunity to change the entire trajectory of a child's life." One of her KIND clients is now enrolled as an undergraduate at a University of California campus.

"I feel like people who are thinking about taking a case but who may be hesitant are that way because they don't have knowledge of immigration law," Stacey continued. "What I tell them is that working with KIND is great because it is working with children who have a very set list of defenses that you can learn relatively quickly. It doesn't involve a lot of the sometimes more intricate issues that would become the case for adult clients. With the kids, although you're learning a new area of law, it's a more confined universe of law. So it is a good stepping stone, because you're not just throwing yourself into everything immigration. And the KIND pro bono coordinators, who have seen so many of these cases, are a tremendous resource for helping you get through that learning curve. Once you understand the law and have taken a case, the second one is that much easier."

Stacey said many of the pro bono attorneys she has supervised have also continued to take more pro bono KIND cases, and that the program has taken on a culture and momentum of its own in the firm.

Stacey also agreed to be interviewed for a short documentary on trafficking, which also includes interviews with two other KIND pro bono attorneys. You can watch the film here www.walkingmerchandise.com and learn more about Stacey and human trafficking from China.

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