New York State Becomes a National Leader in Providing Survivors of Trafficking Real Justice
[*Provided as a press release by Tanique Q. Williams]
Governor Hochul signs The START Act into law, which allows trafficking survivors to heal and rebuild their lives.
On November 19, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together (START) Act (S.674/A.459), providing greater protections for survivors of human trafficking by allowing them to clear their records of past convictions resulting from their exploitation. For years, survivors of trafficking could only petition the court to clear convictions for prostitution, but not other offenses their traffickers forced them to commit. The START Act will restore New York’s status as a leader in protecting survivors of trafficking and exploitation.
With the support of over 100 organizations and dozens of survivors across New York State, the signing of this legislation is a meaningful step toward justice for survivors, who will finally have the opportunity to achieve some safety and healing. Not only is the START Act critical to trafficking survivors, it is an important step in acknowledging how the criminal legal system punishes survivors of violence. Race, poverty, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status are all factors in who gets criminalized, and criminal records only exacerbate barriers to housing, education, employment, child care, and healthcare. Survivors of violence are frequently revictimized by the criminal legal system after harrowing experiences. Signing this bill into law is one tangible solution towards addressing a real problem, the criminalization of people who experience violence, especially those who are Black and Brown.
“I tried to use New York’s vacatur law to deal with my criminal record that resulted from having been trafficked. In the end, the judge found that I was a victim of trafficking by multiple traffickers and vacated most, but not all, of my convictions. The judge felt that even though all these convictions were tied to my being trafficked, only the prostitution related convictions could be vacated because of the way the law is written…My story was true and I do not understand the negative decision. The decision mentally destroyed me.” Lorena Borjas, a nationally recognized transgender leader who died from COVID-19 in 2020.
“I would like to thank everyone involved in this great victory today in allowing me to achieve a true ‘fresh Start’ by the signing of the START Act. I thank you all for your dedication to me and all the victims of trafficking, present and forever gone,” said Ricardo C., a survivor of human trafficking and advocate for the START Act. “The START Act gives me something the original law did not, the ability to vacate all my convictions related to my trafficking. The signing of the START Act, allows me to vacate my final conviction and gives me freedom from my captors and a fresh start for me in life, by allowing me to move on and be truly free and without bondage to a criminal record. I thank you for being the true super-heroes that have fought for our freedom and provided us the true escape from the emotional and physical trauma and reminders of those that at one time enslaved us. This day to me truly means a new beginning and a brighter future, an unimaginable future with no limitations or barriers that were once imposed on me. I am free of the worry and anxiousness, the constant reminder of what I had been exposed to, how I had been treated and forced to endure. This day forward I will no longer have that trauma present in my mind when I will apply for higher education, a new career path, new opportunities, or even places to live. I thank you all for your unwavering resolve today and I thank Governor Hochul for signing the START Act, which has truly set me free and will allow me to succeed in life.”
“I am a transgender immigrant woman and survivor of trafficking. Today, I am proud to be a citizen of the United States of America, and to be living a fulfilling life as an IT professional in the healthcare field. The day I took my citizenship oath was one of the most uplifting days of my life. Things weren’t always easy, however. I’m also a survivor of trafficking. Starting from the time I was a minor, a violent man sex trafficked me, and as a result I ended up with criminal convictions that were because of his crimes against me,” said Rosalinda, a survivor of human trafficking. “Because of New York’s vacatur law allowing people to vacate prostitution convictions, I was able to tell my story to law enforcement and get my record clean—except for one single conviction I still have today that remains. My lawyers told me that while I could have my other convictions vacated as a victim of trafficking under New York State law, because I had taken a different plea after one of my arrests to get out of jail as swiftly as possible, I was not eligible to have that conviction vacated. That meant that during my citizenship interview, I had to explain to the officer why I had this criminal conviction, re-living the humiliation and the trauma all over again. Even today as a U.S. citizen, I still feel that that one conviction is sort of a stain on my life, and a remnant of the violence and trauma I suffered in the past. To be able to vacate that conviction under the START Act would mean restoring a measure of dignity to my life and be my next step in the healing process.”
Pamela, a human trafficking survivor, said, “When I heard today that the START ACT was going to be signed into law, my body started shaking and I almost collapsed on the floor. I just couldn’t believe that my life could change for the better now, after 20 years of suffering. Twenty years ago, I was convicted of a drug crime for something I was forced to do while under the control of my trafficker. I thought it was going to be a one-time charge for which I completed my community service and 3 years of probation, and never missed an appointment. But I feel like I’ve been serving a 20 year sentence because when my T visa application was denied due to my criminal history, I felt like I was being punished all over again. I’ve been blocked from working legally, enrolling in school, paying taxes, and accompanying my mother when she wants to travel. I have continued to suffer for the crimes that were committed by someone else. It has been such a huge weight on me that has felt impossible to lift, and made me feel sad, depressed, and like I couldn’t move forward. Now I hope that I’ll be able to study and work and help give back to my LGBTQ community. I hope to be able to live a normal life with my husband and do regular things like travel or adopt an LGBTQ child. This change in the law is not only going to help me finally move forward, but will also help a lot of other people like me who were involved in things they didn’t want to do.”
“During National Transgender Awareness week, the notion of building visibility around the structural challenges experienced by trans and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers has to be more than a gesture. We have to legislate in a way that honors and protects their rights as members of our community,” said New York State Senator Jessica Ramos. “The START Act gives survivors of trafficking the fresh start they deserve–lessening the barriers to employment, improving access to appropriate immigration legal remedies, and helping break cycles of trauma for thousands of survivors across our state.
“Trafficking survivors are not criminals. People enslaved by traffickers should not suffer the burden of convictions for crimes they were forced to commit,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair and bill sponsor Richard Gottfried. “New York’s 2010 law was the first in the country and became a national model. Now, thanks to Governor Hochul, more trafficking survivors can build productive lives, and be protected from being deported for their earlier convictions. Thank you to Senate sponsor Jessica Ramos, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and the many advocates for helping to get this important human rights bill signed into law.”
“Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program applauds Governor Hochul for signing the START Act into law. This bill is a tangible manifestation of the years of advocacy that survivors and advocates have invested in securing a more just legal system. Even post-trafficking, our clients have remained haunted by their lingering criminal records and cannot move forward in any meaningful way to secure immigration relief, employment, housing or other opportunities. The ability of human trafficking survivors to clear their criminal histories of crimes they were forced to commit provides a life-changing opportunity to reclaim their dignity and agency, and move forward with new hope and resilience. We thank Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Senator Jessica Ramos for their thoughtful leadership and unwavering support of this critical legislation.”
“International Institute of Buffalo’s Survivor Support Program is grateful to Governor Houchul for signing legislation that will have life-changing effects for survivors of sex and labor trafficking within New York State. Many survivors have been moved by the trafficker from county to county throughout their exploitation and forced to commit various types of crimes along the way. This law will allow equal access to justice no matter what type of exploitation a survivor has experienced or where they were exploited, thereby having more equal access to justice.”
“Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island (ECLI/VIBES) is grateful to Governor Hochul for signing the START Act into law. This support is essential to not only uphold the rights of survivors to live and thrive despite their past experiences of human trafficking, but it also demonstrates that New York is again standing beside survivors of human trafficking. Thank you to all of the survivors who bravely spoke out in support of this legislation.”
“With Governor Hochul’s signature on the START Act, The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center sends its deepest thanks to the Governor, along with sponsors Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, for giving so many of our clients past and present greater hope for the future,” said Andy Bowen, Associate Director, Government Affairs for Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center. “We honor the survivors and steadfast supporters who pushed for so many years to expand the protections brought about by the START Act. Now we can begin the work of vacating many more criminal records for human trafficking survivors across New York who were forced or coerced to engage in criminalized conduct beyond just sex work related charges, which were the only convictions eligible for vacatur prior to passage of the START Act. With START’s enactment, we will see many kinds of healing.”
“Brooklyn Defender Services is grateful to Governor Hochul for signing the START Act into law today. With this legislation, New York has taken a critical step in undoing the harm of criminalizing survivors of human trafficking,” said Jillian Modzeleski, Senior Trial Attorney in the Women’s Defense Project at Brooklyn Defender Services. “As public defenders, we are acutely aware of how damaging the financial, educational, housing, and immigration consequences of a criminal record are, and we are proud to stand beside survivors in this campaign. The enactment of this critical legislation would not be possible without the leadership of survivors of trafficking who have fought for decades to clear their criminal records and create pathways for others to do the same. We thank Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Richard Gottfreid for being steadfast champions of the Survivors of Trafficking Attaining Relief Together Act.”
“The Exploitation Intervention Project of The Legal Aid Society eagerly awaits the START Act’s implementation, as we have numerous clients who have been waiting decades for this critical relief. We stand with them in celebrating this bill and thank them for their determination and courage to speak out about its importance,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “On behalf of our clients we thank Governor Hochul for signing the START Act into law today.”
“We thank Governor Hochul for supporting survivors of human trafficking today. The START Act ensures that all survivors who were forced to commit crimes against their will have a chance to move forward with their lives without the burden of a criminal record. It also reaffirms NY as a leader for survivors of exploitation,” said Melissa Broudo,co-founder and co-executive director of The SOAR Institute, who filed and won the first ever vacatur case in the country and also represented Lorena Borjas in her vacatur motion.
“Survivors of sex and labor trafficking can be supported, not criminalized. Yet for the past decade, our state has left some survivors enmeshed in our criminal legal system for offenses they were compelled to commit by their traffickers. That is neither dignity nor justice,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “With the START Act signed into law, our state can now allow survivors to dismantle barriers to employment, housing, and education that remain for a lifetime, and protect non-citizen survivors, for whom a criminal conviction can have devastating immigration consequences, including deportation and family separation. Now, New York can prioritize stability over stigma.”
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*Tanique Q. Williams
Citizen Action of New York &
Public Policy and Education Fund
94 Central Ave., Albany, NY 12206
Note: Photos of Woman in jail, women with papers and woman in bed by Felipe Vallin, Karolina Grabowska and Ron Lach from Pexels. The photos or images are not of the survivors mentioned in this press release.