Advocates urge State Senate to pass criminal record relief for trafficking victims

State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried have sponsored a bill that would enable survivors of human trafficking to get their criminal records cleared. Photo by Danielle Blunt.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried have sponsored a bill that would enable survivors of human trafficking to get their criminal records cleared. Photo by Danielle Blunt.

By David Brand

Advocates continue to urge the state Senate to pass a bill that could protect survivors of human trafficking from deportation by vacating their criminal records, building on an existing a law that allows for the clearance of prostitution-related offenses.

The state Assembly passed the vacature bill on Thursday and it will undergo a third reading in the Senate. The bill has widespread support in the legal and immigrants’ rights community.

Various public defender and immigrants’ rights organizations signed onto a letter Wednesday asking Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to bring the bill to the floor before the session ends June 19.

 “These convictions serve as a barrier for victims of human trafficking to access employment and crucial public benefits, and present real risks for immigration detention and deportation,” said Abigail Swenstein, staff attorney with the Exploitation Intervention Project at The Legal Aid Society. “Our clients and others who have been forced by their abusers to commit crimes should not have to shoulder the heavy burdens that these convictions bear or live in daily fear of the possible collateral consequences.”

”The New York State Assembly has acted, and now we are calling on New York State Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and her conference to pass this legislation immediately,” Sweinstein added.

The New York City Bar Association also supports the measure and has called for passage of the bill, which is sponsored by State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried.

“This bill is supported by the City Bar's #Criminal Courts, Sex & Law, #Immigration and Corrections & Community Reentry Committees as a significant step forward in making post-conviction relief broadly available to victims of sex & labor trafficking,” the NYC Bar wrote on Twitter in response to the Eagle’s June 12 story on the advocates’ letter to state leaders.

A 2010 state law was the first in the country to enable trafficking victims to get their prostitution-related convictions vacated. Attorneys for survivors of trafficking say district attorneys have been willing to clear those offenses in the majority of case, though it may take a while.

Advocates and attorneys now recognize that traffickers force their immigrant victims to perform various crimes in addition to sex work, such theft and drug offenses. Those charges have a number of collateral consequences, such as exposing people to the possibility of deportation and ruining their chances of securing jobs or housing.

“Not removing the charges that are given to survivors of human trafficking — as a result of the coercive environment — specifically for undocumented folks means that they will face a lot more challenges in trying to adjust their immigration status, and therefore drive them more into the shadows and expose them to more danger,” said Make the Road New York TGNCIQ Justice Lead Organizer Mateo Guerrero-Tabares. TGNCIQ stands for transgender, gender nonconforming, intersex. and queer.

“For folks who are adjusting through asylum or other forms of relief it can become a road block that can stop them from adjusting and applying for citizenship,” Guerrero-Tabares said.

Make the Road signed onto the advocates’ letter to support immigrant justice, he said.

“If we are unable to expunge additional charges and convictions that have been given as a result of coercion and force, survivors would still be at risk of deportation or be denied their adjustment of status,” Guerrero-Tabares said.