Melanie Orhant
Washington College of Law at American University
EJA Fellowship Recipient, Fall 2001 and Summer 2002
Director of Pro Bono Services, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

“Some don’t even know what state they’re in. They are told to sleep in unheated, unfurnished basements, and were even, in one case she knows of, fed rice teeming with maggots.”

This very day, across the United States, thousands of foreign workers endure an existence akin to slavery. How can it be that they’re kept prisoner in American sweatshops, homes, fields and brothels?
Easily, says Melanie Orhant. She’s seen it all.

Traffickers bring foreign workers here, usually after lying to them to about the nature of the work they’ll be doing. Their passports are taken away and, Orhant says, in the case of people kept in domestic servitude “they’re told not to leave the house because -- you can fill in the blank.” Americans hate Muslims and they’ll attack you, the trafficked persons are told. Or, we’ll have your daughter killed. Or, you’ll be arrested.

Bewildered and terrified, those kept in domestic servitude are forced to labor 14- to 20-hour days, denied wages, food, house keys and the use of the telephone. “Some don’t even know what state they’re in,” Orhant says. They are told to sleep in unheated, unfurnished basements, and were even, in one case she knows of, fed rice teeming with maggots.

Thus they live until one day they can no longer tolerate it. “Something snaps,” she says. A worker may fall ill and go seek medical care, or get a chance to escape, or be freed when authorities find out what’s going on.

That’s when they come to Orhant. “I help as best I can,” she says.

Orhant, the recipient of two Equal Justice America fellowships, works at the Washington, D.C. nonprofit Ayuda, Inc., an agency that provides legal services and human rights advocacy for immigrants. She assists trafficked people, mostly domestic workers. When traffickers are prosecuted, it’s a federal crime. “I escort my clients through the criminal process,” Orhant says, by explaining what’s going on, helping them with paperwork and advising them on their legal options.

Orhant never intended to become a lawyer, she said. For 10 years she worked in national advocacy for victims of human trafficking, and was “one of the little cogs” in creating the recent federal legislation that brought the problem of trafficking into the spotlight.

But after a while, Orhant says, she realized she would need to go to law school to further her career. “I looked at everyone who had cool jobs that I wanted, and they all had law degrees.”

She enrolled in the Washington College of Law at American University, and there decided she wanted to shift her focus from large-scale policy to working directly with indigent people in need. For that, she needed to become familiar with labor, immigration and criminal law—and EJA provided two opportunities for Orhant to do just that.

Her first EJA fellowship, at the D.C. Employment Justice Center in the fall of 2001, assigned her to a weekly employment clinic. As many as 50 people per week would show up who had been fired wrongfully or denied workers’ compensation or unemployment benefits. Orhant obtained legal advice for them from staff attorneys and sometimes wrote letters on their behalf to help them get the pay or benefits they’d lost.

In the spring of 2002, EJA sponsored Orhant for a second fellowship at the Capitol Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, where she worked with immigrants who had been detained by the federal agency that was then called Immigration and Naturalization Services. She worked with individuals who were being held in INS detention facilities. These detainees may have been seeking asylum in the U.S., or have been caught without papers and picked up at worksites, and were waiting to be deported. She would visit them in jail, sometimes traveling as far as five hours from Washington, D.C.

“They work with a group of people who are really forgotten,” Orhant says of the CAIR Coalition. Detainees can live imprisoned in legal limbo for years. Orhant investigated detainees’ options for repatriation, asylum or legal hearings and kept a database so none would be forgotten.

Her experiences as an EJA fellowship recipient continue to help Orhant in her work with trafficked people at Ayuda, Inc. “Because I did such a good job with my fellowships in law school,” she says, people at CAIR and the D.C. Employment Justice Center remember her name and continue to refer clients to her.

Orhant’s happy with her work, but admits it can be tough for a recent law school graduate to pay the bills while working in legal aid.

“I just think more people should donate money to EJA,” she says, so the organization can provide more fellowships to encourage young attorneys to go into public service. “A call to arms. A call to checkbooks,” she says with a laugh. “So more of us can go into public interest and stay in public interest for a longer time.”

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