Law School News

Law Students Help Rescue Honduran Woman, Her Family from Extreme Human Trafficking Abuse

Law students in South Texas College of Law Houston’s (STCL Houston) Asylum & Human Trafficking Clinic recently played a vital role in rescuing a 37-year-old woman and her family from years of terror caused by a vicious perpetrator of human trafficking in Honduras.

Working alongside their professor, Kristin Zipple-Shedd, public interest attorney in the law school’s Asylum & Human Trafficking Clinic — one of 19 specialized clinics of STCL Houston’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics — the students utilized their classroom learning to combat a real-life threat, while honing their legal skills in the process.

Originally referred to STCL Houston’s Clinics in 2015 by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Maria* was enduring a forced marriage with a Honduran man who made her work at a cantina and then as a domestic servant — all against her will. After he forced her to work in a brothel, he beat up another man who had sexually assaulted her and then claimed that he “owned her” because of his action.

Shortly before Maria became a client of STCL Houston’s Clinics, a county prosecutor’s office identified her as a victim of domestic violence, and her abuser was deported to Honduras, where he began to terrorize her family. Upon interviewing her, the STCL Houston Clinics team quickly determined that Maria, herself, was a victim of human trafficking — and they immediately went to work to avail her of the rights and remedies owed survivors of human trafficking, and to help rescue her family.

At the time, students and staff in the law school’s Asylum & Human Trafficking Clinic were assisting Maria’s 12-year-old son Miguel* seek asylum following extreme violence and death threats by Maria’s abuser. Her trafficker routinely followed the children to school and stole their lunch money, destroyed their belongings, killed the family dogs, sexually assaulted Maria’s mother, and stabbed Miguel when he attempted to defend his grandmother during a physical assault.

“Several generations of South Texas Clinics students have worked hard on Maria’s case,” said Zipple-Shedd. “Bringing their burgeoning legal skills and a fierce determination to serve others, the students have helped save and radically improve the lives of a helpless mother, her young children, and her parents. Maria’s and her family’s rescue from the horror of human trafficking could not have happened without the tenacity and commitment of teams of students and legal and social service providers.”

Indeed, when the students and staff identified Maria as a human trafficking victim, they collaborated with federal law enforcement and social services programs to ensure she gained the benefits to which she was entitled. Her collaborative care team included representatives from KIND, the International Organization for Migration, and the YMCA, among others.

“Our success in this case is due solely to the availability of and opportunities provided by the Asylum & Human Trafficking and Immigration Clinics at South Texas College of Law Houston,” said Natalie Romero, a paralegal employed by the law school who first met Miguel and his twin sister while interning at KIND. “It took so long, with so many moving parts, but our team approach proved effective in removing Maria and her family from danger and a hopeless future.

“Doing this work can be dangerous, but it is worth it,” she said. “It’s extremely rewarding  to provide real help to trafficking victims who desperately need it.”

Maria’s legal team successfully won T Visas for Maria, her daughter, now 16, and her oldest son and parents, who were in Honduras and suffering at the hands of the perpetrator; and asylum for her son Miguel, who now enjoys full, permanent U.S. residency. 

“It is heartening to know that our collaborative legal services/efforts have the ability to give victims like Maria and her family a second chance in the United States, where they can rebuild their lives and live free from their tormentors,” said Cristina Gonzalez, an STCL Houston student who worked on Maria’s case. “Maria’s story is one of many that demands and deserves this freedom.”

Maria now lives outside of Houston and plans to visit South Texas’ Clinics classes each semester to share her story with students and emphasize the power law students wield as future attorneys.

“I believe South Texas College of Law Houston’s Clinics are a godsend,” said Maria. “Their pro bono work on my behalf has forever changed my life and the lives of my family. With the Clinics, I was able to come out of the black hole where I lived — and with access to an attorney, I was finally able to see the light. I finally had someone who had my back.”

With tears in her eyes, she said, “My family’s future has never looked so bright. I never imagined the possible future we have now. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my kids could go to college in the U.S. and have the life that I never had.”

* Client names have been changed to protect their identities.

Natalie Romero, a paralegal employed in South Texas College of Law Houston’s Asylum & Human Trafficking Clinic, interviews a 37-year-old Honduran woman and her daughter whom South Texas students and staff rescued from extreme human trafficking abuse.