When Liliana first sent a letter to the Florence Project requesting legal orientation in February 2015, she was at wit’s end. She had been detained for three months and felt desperate and uncertain about how to proceed with her legal case. Like most detained immigrants, Liliana could not afford to pay a private attorney and was representing herself in immigration court. “I sent [the Florence Project] a letter because I needed help and I heard that they oriented people,” she recounted. “I didn’t know anybody who could help me and I didn’t know what to do.” After working tirelessly on her case with the assistance of the Florence Project, Liliana was approved for a special visa for victims of trafficking.
After suffering nearly fifteen years of physical and psychological abuse from her husband in Bolivia, Liliana separated from him. In the years that followed she struggled to make ends meet and support her children. A few years ago, Liliana received a call from Claudia, an old friend from Bolivia who had resettled in California. Claudia offered Liliana a steady job in the U.S. as a caretaker for the elderly and promised that she would earn at least twenty dollars per hour. When Liliana asked whether she was allowed to work in the U.S. with only a tourist visa, Claudia assured her that she would have a work permit.
Upon arriving in California, Liliana soon realized that she had walked into a trap. Claudia insisted that since she had paid for Liliana’s flight to the U.S., Liliana would have to live with her and work off her debt. Liliana started working as a caretaker for an elderly man who contracted with Claudia. On most days she would take the bus for two hours to arrive at the man’s home, where she attended to him, cooked for him and did housecleaning. Claudia payed Liliana a total of $100 for her first month of work. After a couple months, Claudia stopped paying her altogether.
In spite of working seven days a week as a caretaker, Claudia insisted that Liliana still owed her money for her flight to the U.S. When Liliana threatened to report Claudia to the police for forcing her to work without pay, her response was chilling: “She said she would take me to court,” Liliana recalled, “that she would accuse me of robbing her credit card, and that the court would believe her because she was a U.S. citizen and they would deport me.”
After four months of living with Claudia, Liliana managed to escape and moved to a nearby town, where she started saving to pay for her plane ticket back to Bolivia. A few days before her tourist visa expired, she asked a friend to take her to the U.S.- Mexico border to request an extension since she still did not have enough money to pay for her flight home. When she presented at the port of entry and explained her story to the immigration authorities, they accused her of trying to enter the U.S. with an expired visa and detained her.
Shortly after she requested a legal orientation, a Florence Project attorney explained to Liliana that she could qualify for the T Visa, a special visa for victims of human trafficking. She offered to guide Liliana in her legal process and worked with her for months to earn her trust and build a solid visa application.
Throughout her time in detention, the Florence Project staff accompanied her and gave her the tools she needed to represent herself in court. When the immigration judge denied Liliana’s asylum case and ordered her removed, Florence Project attorney Yessenia Medrano helped Liliana to appeal the judge’s decision to prevent her deportation while she awaited approval for the T Visa.
Liliana spent two years in detention before she was finally able to pay her $20,000 bond with the help of two church communities. Even after she was released, Yessenia continued to follow up on Liliana’s visa application and spent hours on the phone with immigration authorities. When Liliana’s visa was unexpectedly approved in February, Yessenia described it as a testament to Liliana’s grit in the face of obstacles: “It was amazing how persistent she was…it was her first time here [in the U.S.] and she had been detained for almost two years.”
Liliana credited the Florence Project not only for helping her apply for the T Visa, but for their constant moral support: “[The attorney] gave me confidence, and it made me so happy to see her. She gave me the strength I needed to stay and fight my case.”