“Gabriela” was struggling to survive on her own in San Diego when a new friend suggested she should apply for a job with a company that provided housekeeping services. When Gabriela went to the would-be employer’s address to say she’d like a job cleaning homes, the woman who greeted her was encouraging and cordial. Gabriela accepted her offer of a nonalcoholic drink — which she later realized was laced with drugs — and handed all of her identification papers over so the woman could verify her eligibility for employment. Instead, the woman locked her in an apartment and forced her into sex work.
Growing up in a small village in Mexico, where transgender people aren’t well accepted, Gabriela experienced physical abuse at the hands of family members and discrimination in school and in her community. On multiple occasions, Mexican police arrested her for dressing like a woman, but instead of taking her to jail, they brutally beat and raped her. With nowhere to turn for help, Gabriela made her way to the US border and then to San Diego.
Without official documentation, Gabriela was unable to look for work. It wasn’t long before Gabriela walked into the sex traffickers’ trap — and a seven-year nightmare. Together with several other transgender women, Gabriela was confined to an apartment where her jailors kept her and the other women dependent on drugs and beat them to keep them in fear. Many of the traffickers’ clients also beat the women.
Eventually, however, Gabriela found the courage to tell a client that she was being held against her will. He helped her jump out of a window, drove her out of the area, and gave her $20. With nowhere to go — homeless and fearing the sex traffickers would find her — Gabriela returned to Mexico. When her reunion with family members didn’t go as she’d hoped, she again made her way to San Diego. The traffickers eventually located her, but by that time Gabriela was living with a boyfriend, and although the traffickers harassed them, they never again laid a hand on Gabriela. Gabriela applied for asylum, and with a pending asylum application, she was able to look for work.
In 2017, Mintz attorney Melissa Brayman received an email from Casa Cornelia, an organization working with immigrants in Southern California, listing several immigrants in need of legal support, including Gabriela. Although Gabriela had a pending asylum application, the organization also wanted to explore the possibility of securing a T1 visa, an immigration option for victims of human trafficking. Melissa was moved by Gabriela’s life circumstances to request approval to assist with the client’s T1 visa and work authorization application.
“Securing a visa and work permit can be lifechanging for immigrants,” Melissa said. “It sounded like Gabriela had had an incredibly difficult time, and as a member of the firm’s Mintz Pride group, I was interested in the LGBT aspect of her case.”
The T1 visa application required a declaration describing Gabriela’s plight as well as a cover letter establishing how she fulfilled all of the visa’s legal requirements. Through many in-person meetings, Melissa established a rapport with Gabriela and learned what she’d been through. “In order not to overwhelm her, I would switch from difficult questions to topics that were less emotional,” Melissa said. Former Mintz attorney Yarazel Mejorado, fluent in Spanish, often served as interpreter for Gabriela, who felt more confident expressing herself in Spanish than in English.
“In Gabriela’s declaration, I focused a bit on the deplorable treatment of LGBT people in Mexico, and specifically on the harassment and beatings that Gabriela endured from the Mexican police, to show she should not be sent back,” Melissa said. She also documented Gabriela’s many scars, the result of the horrific abuse she’d experienced while being trafficked.
In the fall of 2020, Melissa learned that Gabriela’s T1 application had been approved.
Today Gabriela is married to her former boyfriend and holds a job at a local business, where she’s recently been promoted. “She is very dedicated to her job and grateful for the opportunities she’s had,” Melissa said. With her T1 visa and work authorization in place, she can apply for a green card, which will allow her to remain in the United States as a permanent resident.
Melissa is happy to have had the opportunity to work with Gabriela, who has demonstrated exceptional resilience and is remarkably optimistic, in spite of all she’s endured. “After all that Gabriela’s been through, it would be understandable if she weren’t such a wonderful person. But she is a really nice woman, and so hopeful and dedicated,” Melissa said.