Class of 2010 alumna wins first human trafficking case in detained setting; Experience confirms career path

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid attorney Karen Winston shouldn’t have been very confident, or excited, about representing a Mexican client in a human trafficking case. Jailed for an unrelated incident at a Baker County detention facility, her client’s odds for a successful trial were abysmal, to say the least.

Despite the odds, she gave the case her all, putting in late hours of intense legwork, research and study. Winston fought for her client’s rights. And she won.

Winston, an alumna from the Coastal Law Class of 2010, said the case was referred to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which asked her if she could represent the client. Originally, she intended to help get him back to Miami where he could be closer to his counsel, but the judge would not allow his transfer.

“Once you’ve taken on representation, you’re in it the whole way through — so I agreed to represent him up here,” said Winston, also a fellow at JALA.

Her client feared persecution at the hands of his human traffickers and was seeking asylum. Asylum cases can often be very labor intensive because of the large amounts of documentation that is required. Part of the research also includes detailing the conditions of a country and the person’s actual story. The burden of proof is often much higher than other types of cases.

The fact her client was from Mexico also made her case more difficult because corruption is countrywide. The immigration judge before whom Winston was to appear also had a high rate of denials in similar cases. In Winston’s case, there was a significant amount of legwork and research she had to do to show that her client would be persecuted if he was deported.

“That’s difficult to show,” she said, adding that her client also testified in a federal case against the traffickers. He was able to describe how he and others were kept in slave-like conditions, often locked in the back of trucks to ensure they would be there to do agricultural work the next day.

While Winston won the initial trial, there is still a long road ahead.

“It was the most challenging thing I’ve had to do so far as an attorney, but it was the most rewarding. Winning that for the client was fantastic,” she said. “Unfortunately, that is soured by the fact that the government is actually appealing the immigration judge — and the client is still being detained.”

Winston said her experiences at Coastal Law with the Immigrant Rights Clinic prepared her for the kind of work she now pursues — and loves with a passion.

“Although I hadn’t been to an asylum hearing, I had worked on a number of cases in the clinic and I felt like I could handle it,” she said. “Hands down, the clinic was my best experience in law school and most relevant to what I’m doing. It’s hands-on work.”

She said Coastal Law Professor Ericka Curran’s knowledge of the law helped prepare her in invaluable ways. And Curran continues to be available to Winston for questions and support, as are her students.

“After doing this, it’s hard work, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” Winston said. “Despite the economic sacrifices, I think it’s absolutely satisfying to do this kind of work.”