New York Daily News: By Molly Crane-Newman – Amber came to New York in 2012 to escape an abusive relationship and find work to support her young daughter. Not long after arriving, she was turning tricks for a trafficker who wouldn’t let her come home from work each day until she’d made him $1,000 — of which she’d never see a dime.
Maria, rejected by her family at 17 when she told them she was transgender, ran away from her Long Island home. Her full-time work as an escort earned her a place to sleep in an uptown brothel for eight years, more than a dozen convictions, and an HIV diagnosis.
After Ramona came to the US from Venezuela in 1992 at age 25 with her two daughters, she was repeatedly hospitalized for injuries inflicted by the violent husband who lured her here, who she said routinely sexually abused her. She spent 20 years living in the shadows hiding from a conviction for participating in lottery ticket scams he forced her into.
Like countless other human trafficking victims in New York, these women’s experiences are unique. They asked the Daily News to identify them by their middle names so they would feel comfortable speaking candidly.
What they have in common are tragically similar circumstances that primed them for victimization: They were vulnerable, desperate, andfellunder the control and manipulation of human traffickers who held them in a form of psychological captivity. Beaten, broken, and justly afraid of being deported if they tried to break away, there was no family and no safety net to catch them.
So they stayed, stole, and did whatever else they needed to survive and put food on the table.
Whatever chance they might have had to escape their abusers was thwarted by criminal convictions that prevented them from finding housing, a job, or even enrolling in college, trapping them in a life of crime and cycles of abuse.
“I couldn’t call the police,” Ramona told the Daily News during a recent interview, speaking in Spanish. “Today, I say I would have made a different decision, but I was too afraid because a warrant for my arrest had already been issued.”
Photo: Human Trafficking UN Office on Drugs & Crime
The complicated realities faced by women like Ramona, Maria, and Amber — long discussed but often overlooked in criminal justice — are at the center of an effort to recognize what trafficking victims go through and the importance of clearing their names so they can move on.
All three of them have had their Manhattan convictions wiped clean by a new law, the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together (START) Act, or are in the process of negotiating them. The legislation gave trafficking victims an avenue to get their convictions vacated for crimes committed while they were being abused.
“A lot of our clients spent years and sometimes decades suppressing the memories of those experiences and trying to put them behind them, but this criminal record would then keep popping up and bringing it back,“ said Leigh Latimer, a veteran public defender and the supervising attorney of Legal Aid’s Exploitation Intervention Project. “Being able to vacate someone’s convictions removes those barriers that help people move forward emotionally and psychologically from really traumatic experiences.”
Ramona, now 56, can’t talk about her life without crying.
Even when she legally separated from her husband, who would ultimately be murdered, she was dependent on him to survive. Ramona said her husband sometimes threatened to report her to police or immigration authorities, separating her from their children, if she didn’t submit to the various underground schemes he operated in New York and New Jersey with labor trafficking victims.
“He would come and go and force me to have sex with him. I got pregnant and had another daughter. I was about 35 years old,” she said. “I was subjected to a lot of rapes.”
In Amber’s case, she saw anywhere between one and 10 customers a night.
“He’d either tell you to come home early or stay out longer and see what else you can get,” she told The News of her sex trafficker. “Usually, it was the second,” she added. “They know they can find a girl on the next block.”
During a four-year period that saw Amber acquire over a dozen convictions in Manhattan — primarily for prostitution or loitering for the purposes of prostitution — she was held at knifepoint on the street, robbed in elevators, and arrested for assault after a john trapped her in his hotel room.
“A guy wanted to take back the money he had given me, and I sprayed him with some pepper spray and ended up grabbing a fork or something from the counter. I ended up stabbing him with it,” she said. “I was just trying to get out the door because I knew I couldn’t go home with no money.”
Maria’s abuser, whom she met while staying in the city’s shelter system when she was around 18, offered her a false sense of safety and community. Alone, rejected by her family, her vulnerability made her an easy mark.
“[They] made me feel comfortable, like in a family sense of things,” she said. “When you’re on the streets, and you have nowhere to say, and someone shows you something like that, you run to it. You grab on to it. You don’t want to let it go.”
Maria was 5 years old when she came to the U.S. from Peru and is still working on obtaining residency. As an undocumented trans woman of color, the deck was stacked against her before criminal convictions for shoplifting and prostitution — and an HIV diagnosis — were added to the mix.
While forcing her into sex work, Amber’s abuser promised her they would eventually get married. They’d open a business together and he’d get her out of “the game.”
She believed him.
“I saw myself as being very weak, and I didn’t have very high self-esteem. I didn’t think much of myself. I felt like I was doing more to try to make him happy, but I didn’t care about myself — or my child, for that matter,” she said. “He was really good at lying to keep me there.”
At one point, Amber’s sex trafficker impregnated her and forced her to get an abortion.
After a lifetime of abuse, Maria, Ramona, and Amber found a way to break free from their traffickers. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has consented to vacate all of their convictions. Amber’s lawyers are still negotiating one remaining conviction she has outside of the city.
They are among 2,000 New Yorkers whose convictions the Legal Aid Society has helped vacate since 2011.
But their escapes didn’t come without personal sacrifice.
Amber’s trafficker’s arrest on unrelated charges ultimately afforded her the reprieve she needed to escape his clutches. She’s since left New York and is now in school and running her own business. Among Amber’s 10 vacated convictions were prostitution charges, trespassing for going back with clients to hotels from which she’d been banned, and violations for turnstile jumping when her trafficker wouldn’t give her money for the train.
The catalyst for Maria’s escape was a health scare that nearly cost her life. She was hospitalized with pneumonia and HIV, eventually getting down to 90 pounds. She could barely recognize herself in the mirror.
Maria’s 14 convictions were mainly for prostitution charges and loitering for prostitution. She said her shoplifting charges resulted when she didn’t have money to buy food.
“I could see all my ribcage. I could see all my bones. At that moment, I decided to put everything I had into making myself better,” she said. “If you don’t take care of yourself with this type of disease, it eats you alive.”
Ramona, who works full time to put her daughter through college, was long denied the ability to pursue her dreams. But she doesn’t believe it’s too late for her to do so.
With little English, it took Ramona years to find the correct information about vacating her felony convictions in New York and New Jersey. That included painful trial and error. Before connecting with the Legal Aid Society in 2021, she and her daughter worked round-the-clock to pay a private lawyer almost $4,000.
Now, she wants to teach kindergarten — an endeavor she started in her native country more than 30 years ago — and advocate for those who haven’t yet made it out of the shadows.
“A lot of women are in jail doing these sentences that they’re not to blame for. A lot of women have died — from misinformation or because of fear,” she said.
“Now that the cases have been thrown out, my life has changed … Someday soon, perhaps I can do what I wanted to do originally.”
Top Feature Photo: Ramona was convicted of her violent husband’s crimes – Molly Crane-Newman