Enslaved in Palo Alto

A domestic worker from Kenya has accused her employer -- a prominent African journalist -- of human trafficking

Alice went to see one of Njuguna-Githinji's friends, a neighbor and a former Knight Fellow, when her boss wasn't home. (When SF Weeklycontacted the friend, who is now a reporter in Washington, D.C., he declined to comment for this story "for professional reasons.") She explained that she had been unable to send money to her mother and daughter in Kenya, and asked if there was another way to get funds to her family. He told Alice that she could send the money on her own, and drove her to a nearby Western Union one day when Njuguna-Githinji had left for the Stanford campus and her son was at school. When Alice's employer learned of the clandestine trip, Alice says, Njuguna-Githinji allegedly became angry and chastised Alice for not repaying her travel debt first.

The verbal abuse began to erode Alice's spirit. "I felt lonely and depressed," she says. "I didn't expect it. It was not what I had in mind. But I didn't know anyone to talk to."

She hoped to find solace at church. Njuguna-Githinji had recently begun giving Alice a few hours off on Sundays, during which she was expected to attend religious services. In November 2002, Alice walked to Mountain View to attend Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. After the service, she waited until everyone else had left before approaching the priest.

Alice's attorneys, Kathleen Kim (left) and 
Nancy Harris, are "confident" a California 
jury will agree that Alice was mistreated.
Paolo Vescia
Alice's attorneys, Kathleen Kim (left) and Nancy Harris, are "confident" a California jury will agree that Alice was mistreated.
Alice B. felt chained to her job as a 
domestic worker.
Paolo Vescia
Alice B. felt chained to her job as a domestic worker.

"She seemed kind of fearful, desperate," says Father Bob Moran, who has been with the church for eight years. "She worked long hours, she claimed, and she was always on duty. She said they took her passport and she couldn't really go anywhere. It didn't seem right; she didn't seem to have that much freedom." Moran told Alice that he would get in touch with a nun he knew at Catholic Charities, to see if she could help.

Though she was unsure about what to do next, Alice says, she had slowly come to realize that things were very wrong. "One day when I was taking the child to school, I saw the bus and it was written, 'Home of the free,'" she recalls. "Also, my employer used to say that there is freedom in this country. So I was thinking, 'America is home of the free.'

"I didn't understand why there is freedom and I am not free. I am like a prisoner in the land of the free people."

The product of nearly two years of nuanced political wrangling, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 passed easily in Congress. The legislation -- the first to tackle the issue in the United States -- makes it easier to prosecute traffickers while also offering protection to victims under a newly created "T visa."

Conservatives saw the bill as a way to strengthen law enforcement and curb worldwide prostitution; liberals viewed it as an opportunity to provide relief to victims of human rights violations and address labor exploitation. A compromise was struck: While temporary immigration status, social services, and work authorization were made available to victims through the T visa, a large component of securing the visa would involve cooperating with law enforcement during its investigations and prosecutions.

Before the act was passed, abused, exploited, and trafficked domestic workers -- whose immigration status is linked to their employers' -- had nowhere to run. Even if they had an opportunity to escape, they might face deportation. But because of the T visa, they can now seek government protection. To apply, victims need to show evidence that they have been trafficked, that they are willing to cooperate with law enforcement, and that they would be harmed if they returned to their home country.

Congress placed a 5,000 annual cap on T visas, but the government has authorized only several hundred per year -- because, officials say, not many victims come forward. In 2003, for example, 750 people applied for T visas and 283 of them were approved.

Victim advocates, however, say that the law enforcement component prevents more people from presenting themselves. "Reporting trafficking is not like reporting a stolen car," says the International Human Rights Law Group's Ann Jordan, who worked with legislative staffers on the 2000 act. "Most of them don't have documents to be here. They could be in shock and not able to react immediately. Many of them are afraid about what will happen to them -- will they be deported, will there be protection?" Alice has expressed just such a fear, though she did eventually agree to report the alleged crime and cooperate with law enforcement.

The Bush administration has been vocal about its commitment to thwart human trafficking, but speeches by the president have tended to emphasize sex trafficking. "There's another humanitarian crisis spreading, yet hidden from view," Bush told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003. "Each year, an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 human beings are bought, sold, or forced across the world's borders. Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as 5, who fall victim to the sex trade."

Though there is universal agreement that sex trafficking deserves government attention, some victim advocates are worried that the administration's stance is too narrow. "We do have the concern that there are limited resources and that the Bush administration will focus those resources on trafficking in sex, and leave other kinds of trafficking for labor to local governments," adds Jordan.

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