Enslaved in Palo Alto

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

With public attention fixated on sex trafficking cases, the response of local bureaus of federal law enforcement to non-sex trafficking cases has been uneven. In San Francisco, the two agencies charged with investigating these cases are giving short shrift to labor trafficking. "The FBI very rarely handles trafficking-of-people cases," says S.F. bureau spokesperson Patti Hansen, who had never heard of a T visa before I contacted her. "We focus on terrorism these days."

Sharon Rummery, local spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the agency believes that sex trafficking is a larger problem than labor trafficking in the area. "We do mostly sex cases and not a lot of labor cases," she explains.

"We have gotten word that law enforcement is primarily interested in sex trafficking cases," adds the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Task Force's Mie Lewis, whose firm, API Legal Outreach, is handling Alice's T visa and asylum claims. "This is a big problem, because slavery in any form has to be addressed and the perpetrators need to be held accountable. But the government is, in effect, closing its eyes to certain forms of slavery."

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.

In December 2002, Wanja Njuguna-Githinji's father died. The journalist booked a flight to Kenya to attend the funeral, and told Alice that she and her son would be gone for a month. Before she left, Alice claims, Njuguna-Githinji warned her that a friend would be checking in on her, and told her that there would be $8 in a drawer for the month's food.

After her boss left, Alice searched the house, but couldn't find any money. For weeks, Alice relied on a good Samaritan, one of Njuguna-Githinji's acquaintances who lived nearby, to buy her food. Later that month, Alice remembered a conversation she'd had with Njuguna-Githinji's friend, the Washington, D.C., reporter, who had come to visit Njuguna-Githinji when the journalist was not home.

"[He] asked me, 'What do you always do? What do [you] do during [your] free time?'" Alice says. "I told them I don't have any free time. I told them what Wanja was paying me, and [he] said it was too little. [He] says, 'If you have a child, how do you help your child and at the same time use the money?' I say, 'It's hard, but I don't know. I don't know anything about this country.'"

During that conversation, the reporter told Alice about a day laborer's center in Mountain View where she might be able to earn extra money. So on a Saturday a few days before Njuguna-Githinji was to return, Alice walked to the center, where a staffer introduced her to John Rinaldi, a pro bono labor attorney.

As she sat trembling across from Rinaldi, Alice tried to explain her situation. When he asked her if she wanted to escape, she told him that she was too afraid to leave. He gave her his cell phone number and told her to call him any time. After Alice left, Rinaldi consulted the notes he had taken during the conversation, and when he got back to his office, he called the acquaintance who had been bringing Alice food.

Rinaldi recalls, "I spoke with this fellow -- and he's not going to gain by talking about this -- [and] he said, 'You have no idea how powerful [Njuguna-Githinji] is.' He had visited the home and befriended Alice, and he said [to her], 'Look, you can't continue to live like this.' He corroborated what she had indicated to me. The way it came through, he was also fearful of the ramifications on him." (Repeated attempts to contact the neighbor, whose name SF Weeklyhas agreed not to publish, were unsuccessful.)

Rinaldi then did an Internet search on Wanja Njuguna-Githinji and came across the CNN Web site announcing her as the media organization's African Journalist of the Year.

"I thought about the ramifications of this for the lady -- and for Alice," he says. "Knowing what [Alice] is going up against, you weigh that. Why else would this person come here, to this humble place, and tell us what she's going through? The power difference between those two was not lost on me."

A few days later, Alice called Rinaldi. "She was concerned for herself and her family," he says. "I told her ... 'You can be protected here. We can acknowledge that [Njuguna-Githinji] has all this power and she is in a position of strength, but it doesn't mean that you have to suffer or continue to suffer. You don't have to endure this.'"

Rinaldi gave her a phone number for a local domestic violence shelter that had agreed to take Alice in. (There is only one shelter for trafficking victims in this country, recently opened in Los Angeles.)

"I had doubts about whether I'd hear from or see her again," Rinaldi says. "I didn't know that I had gotten through to her that she could be protected. I didn't know that she believed it."

Njuguna-Githinji returned a few days later, with even stricter rules. "I was thinking that when she came back she would change and be the way she was in Kenya," Alice says. "It wasn't. When she come from home, it got worse. She didn't even greet me, and she had been gone for one month. I thought it would be hard to stay there again."

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