When 911 feels like a ticket to deportation, undocumented workers turn to a local nonprofit

Policy shifts leave at-risk workers looking for help in other places.


Names marked with an asterisk (*) have been changed to protect the privacy of victims. 

Rainbow-colored party lights dappled the beige walls of a community room in San Elizario, a rural town near El Paso, Texas, as a group of women danced to Latin pop music on a recent Thursday morning. Their Zumba instructor enthusiastically counted out the beat in Spanish as the women — many of them victims of crimes like trafficking, exploitation or sexual assault — shouted words of encouragement. 

The thrumming tempo almost drowned out the near-incessant ringing of a phone at the front desk of the Adult and Youth United Development Association (AYUDA), the community center that hosts the class. And as the women danced, it was possible — if only for a moment — to forget how the United States government’s recent moves have drastically complicated their lives. 

A series of executive orders on immigration from the Trump administration has inspired extensive raids by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents, resulting in the highest numbers of immigrant arrests since 2014. But the increased immigration enforcement has had some unintended consequences: The fear it instills is silencing the voices of some of the most vulnerable immigrants, the victims of human trafficking and other crimes. 

Now, instead of reporting to law enforcement, victims seek help at community centers, such as AYUDA, a nonprofit created by and for immigrants that is based in the border town of San Elizario. 

OLIVIA FIGEROA FORMED AYUDA in 1992 with a group of women from her neighborhood whose initial goal involved a campaign for clean water and utilities in their rural town. They raised money to build the center by selling taquitos and tamales. Over the years, AYUDA’s scope has expanded. Today, the center — whose name also means “help” in Spanish — provides information and resources for recent and undocumented immigrants in the El Paso area. 

Many undocumented workers come to the U.S. fleeing violence or oppression. Though they might be eligible for asylum or immigration status, they often lack permission to work while their case is being processed. Many victims of trafficking and sexual assault end up seeking help from AYUDA, where they receive counseling on how to leave an abuser and take classes to learn their rights. They can also obtain referrals for affordable healthcare and housing and attend job-training courses. Many get involved in political advocacy for the domestic workforce. 

Maria*, one of AYUDA’s community members, fled her home in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, after her neighbor was killed for not paying gang extortion requests, crossing the border into El Paso with her children. Through word of mouth, she soon found employment at a restaurant, but within weeks, she says, the owner’s son began sexually assaulting her. If she resisted, her employer often withheld her salary in retribution.  

“He would tell me he knew where I lived, that he would call immigration, and he wanted me to agree to do what he said,” Maria said. 

“You are left with no choice, and so you take it.”

Because she can’t legally work while her immigration case is pending, Maria is left with few options. At the overburdened shelters, there often isn’t enough food for her and her three children. That means she’s forced to work in the kinds of unregulated environments where abuse often thrives. But Maria is determined to give her children some stability, so she has to work, no matter the cost of her own well-being. 

Figeroa, AYUDA’s managing director, also immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Last year, Figeroa co-led an intensive research effort to quantify how pervasive labor abuse is in the El Paso region. The resulting report found that nearly 50% of undocumented workers are asked to do different work than they were hired to do. Additionally, 25% were threatened, and nearly 20% were physically pushed or hurt — suffering abuse at much higher rates than their documented counterparts. 

Before 2016, advocates like Figeroa encouraged victims to report their abuse to law enforcement. But the recent policy shifts have complicated this. Advocates have noted cases where immigration enforcement now overpowers criminal law at both the local and federal level. 

In May 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended administrative closure, a practice that protected victims from deportation if they had a trafficking case in court, as part of his initiative to tighten immigration enforcement. 

“We can never guarantee that they're not going to be deported,” says Cristina Garcia, the director of the Crime Victims Program at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. 

Once a victim is deported, applying for a visa granted to victims of trafficking is complicated. Furthermore, without the victim in the U.S. to testify in the case, there’s little chance the trafficking case would be prosecuted. 

Late last year, one of Garcia’s clients was detained by ICE while her case was ongoing.  Garcia applied for a temporary immigration status that allows victims of trafficking to stay in the country while cooperating with law enforcement. But after eight months in detention, her client was deported with the application still pending.

In this “worst-case scenario,” as Garcia calls it, the trafficker will likely never be convicted, and future victims will be too afraid to report trafficking. 

In a community where dialing 911 feels like asking for deportation, safe havens like the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and AYUDA end up filling the gap. 

 AFTER FOUR YEARS OF ENSLAVEMENT as a domestic housekeeper, Itzel* attends as many of AYUDA’s classes as she can. On a recent weekday morning, she sat in a semi-circle of plastic folding tables in a fluorescent-lit conference room still decorated with paper flowers from a recent quinceañera. The class was explaining about proper foot support for jobs that require standing all day. 

Through an open window into an industrial kitchen, volunteers listened in while cooking up massive platters of enchiladas and tacos. The hallways were lined with letters from children detained at a center in Clint, Texas, just a few miles away. A woman named Jacienta*, who spent her first year in El Paso enslaved at a domestic residence, spoke up, joking about how she needs foot support for chasing her Chihuahuas. The room roared with laughter. 

Owing to her immigration status, Itzel has never considered reporting her trafficking case, but at AYUDA, she has a place to get support, learn her rights, tend a garden, and attend a dance class where she sways under colorful lights. Through this community center, she’s gained back some of the physical, mental and emotional health and dignity that she says was stripped from her at her U.S. workplace. 

“We create the American dream,” Itzel said. “You can get ahead here.”

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Adelante Reporting Initiative.

Emily Kinskey is a multimedia journalist and documentary filmmaker who splits her time between Brooklyn, New York, and El Paso, Texas. 

Anna Clare Spelman is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona, and Washington, D.C.

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