Rathish Pandian grew up in Tamil Nadu, Southern India, but fled to the U.S. as an adult after being threatened by government authorities for his political views. Upon arrival here, he was offered a job by another immigrant from his country at a Subway restaurant, but his trafficker took his documents, and threatened to call immigration officials at the Department of Homeland Security if Rathish complained. “I didn’t know I’d be in the same situation of exploitation in the United States as the one I left India,” he said. For nearly five years, Rathish was not compensated for the work that he did, and was subjected to long hours and harsh working conditions. Finally, he persuaded a friend to help him escape his trafficker.
Years later, in Seattle, his undocumented status caught up with him, and he was sent to the Northwest Detention Center run by GEO, a private prison company with a documented history of human rights abuses. In the Northwest Detention Center, Rathish struggled to access legal services. He went to the law library every day and sought information that could help him. “I learned the laws, and got myself out.”
Rathish advocated for himself and obtained a T-Visa, which allows victims of human trafficking to remain in the United States if they testify against their perpetrators. Unfortunately, because there is a statute of limitations in Florida, Rathish’s trafficker was able to get away with the suffering he caused. Now, Rathish uses his voice to educate others about the need for immigration reform, the conditions he faced in immigrant detention, and the existence of human trafficking in the United States.
Rathish Pandian’s story of exploitation and trafficking is not unlike the story of many others who have come to the United States. Except Rathish is one of the lucky foreign national trafficking survivors- he received protection and recognition from the United States.
What the Multifaith Coalition is Doing
Rathish’s story came to light thanks to the work of the Multifaith Coalition to Address Human Trafficking. This organization, based in Seattle was able to work to promote awareness of human trafficking and help Rathish to use his voice to empower others. Recently, the Multifaith Coalition to Address Human Trafficking through the Lens of Compassion, invited Rathish, in addition to local experts, to share stories and information that would inspire our communities to take action. Each presenter fleshed out the complexities of identifying trafficking victims detained at the detention center, from the perspective of a trafficking survivor, and from the perspectives of two organizations working to identify and represent trafficking victims.
The Multifaith Coalition includes Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders in its mission to “raise awareness and inspire action in faith communities in Western Washington to address human trafficking through the lens of compassion,” and has been doing so since 2013. Labor trafficking, specifically, is the Coalition’s current focus, in part as a response to Rathish’s powerful story. Both English language skills and legal help are necessary to obtain a T-Visa, which many of the people in immigrant detention may qualify for. It is the hope of the Coalition to address this very specific issue amid the myriad of complexities surrounding human trafficking.
The Coalition hopes to recruit legal professionals in the area surrounding the Northwest Detention Center and equip them with the knowledge necessary to identify and assist potential trafficking victims through Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Pro-Bono lawyer program. Our November 16th recruitment event taking place in Tacoma, WA is inviting lawyers and concerned community members who live and work in the city where the Northwest Detention Center is located to join us in this effort. We are inspired by our unique faiths to walk with those who suffer injustice, and are united through this moral call. Are you in the Northwest and interested in participating? Please contact us!
Rathish Pandian is a human trafficking survivor living in Seattle, WA. He is currently perusing higher education. Elizabeth Murphy works at the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center and is a member of the Multifaith Coalition. Kelly Hickman is the Assistant Director for the Missions Office of the Archdiocese of Seattle and is a member of the Multifaith Coalition.