Kathleen Kim’s parents immigrated from South Korea. So the 39-year-old professor at Loyola Law School — who Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, last year — grew up with a bedrock family immigrant identity.

“They always felt very fortunate to have been able to immigrate here and then later naturalized,” said the legal scholar, teacher and advocate. “But they knew that they were just lucky. And so I know that I was just lucky that I was born here.

“They always kind of promoted the idea of freedom of self-determination. The idea that, you know, individuals who really want to contribute something to society as our immigrant populations have always done, which has made our society more vibrant and economically productive, that those individuals should be able to stay.”

While still a student at the University of Michigan, she started teaching English to farm workers in the fields around Blissfield, Mich., and continued that grassroots effort after graduation.

Kim, in turn, listened to their stories and was struck by how many of these mostly undocumented migrants were being blatantly exploited by their employers. Many weren’t paid even the minimum wages they were promised, or developed serious health problems because of their back-breaking labor. And when any dared to complain, he or she faced the life-intimidating immigrant threat: “You’ll be deported.”

So after an eight-month stint teaching English in China, the enlightened student started classes at Stanford Law School.

Focusing on civil issues

"That’s why I went to law school — to pursue immigrants’ rights issues, but more specifically immigrants workers’ rights,” she explained. “When the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act was passed in 2000, it was a unique opportunity for advocates like me to access immigration relief for immigrant workers who had either precarious immigration status or undocumented status. It would allow them to then pursue their civil rights case of action against employers who might have exploited them. Before, it was really hard to do that.”

While at Stanford, where she edited the Stanford Law Review, Kim developed a legal services project to implement the new national law from a workers’ rights perspective. She also helped undocumented laborers who were victims of human trafficking file civil lawsuits against their traffickers.

Right after finishing law school, she got a scholarship from a public interest foundation to really implement the project with the host organization Lawyers Community for Civil Rights in San Francisco. The neophyte attorney provided direct legal services for trafficked workers from any industry: restaurants, hotels, domestic workers in homes as well as sex industry workers. She also helped her clients obtain immigration relief and represented those who participated in a criminal investigation or prosecution against their traffickers.

Kim was, in fact, the first attorney in the Bay Area — and one of the first in the whole nation — to use the new trafficking law to focus on civil issues. She represented workers seeking compensation for unpaid wages and other monetary loses due to injuries on the job as well as potential punitive damages.

She also managed to find time to do outreach education on the new law, plus engage in policy reform to expand rights and protections service for trafficked victims. And in 2005, she coauthored the first Trafficking Victims Protection Act of California.

“All of my clients were trafficked, so they fit into the legal definition of human trafficking,” she pointed out. “But most of them were undocumented. And what I saw was that my clients’ undocumented status made them far more vulnerable to trafficking than workers with legal status.”

Next Kim returned to her law school alma mater to do clinical teaching. She was the first immigrants’ rights teaching fellow at Stanford. “I continued doing immigrants’ rights work, but in a law school clinical setting,” she said. “And then after that I came here to Loyola.”

Global labor migration

“I think that our law has always generally moved in the right direction about human trafficking and undocumented worker exploitation,” she said. “Every time the federal law has been amended, we have seen improvements in the definition of trafficking and then also additional protection and services for victims. What I mean by advancements in the law is a better understanding of how broad this category of exploited workers are that ought to be considered trafficked or forced.”

She says passage of the law was an important recognition by Congress that human trafficking was a “phenomenon of global labor migration.” Individuals were, indeed, being coerced into forced labor situations in the United States along with many other countries. And while Americans were protected by virtually being citizens, foreign trafficked workers also needed protection from being trafficked.

With regard to children (especially concerning sex trafficking), according to the law, if someone is under the age of 18, she or he are de facto trafficking victims, notes Kim. Because under the law, minors can’t legally consent to sexual exploitation the way adults can who voluntarily work in the sex industry.

The law professor says many police departments and prosecutors are still grappling with trying to distinguish the difference between street prostitution with consenting adults versus human trafficking with non-consenting victims who are often exploited migrants. As a police commissioner, however, she’s been impressed by the sensitivity of LAPD detectives to locally trafficked victims.  

“Sexual trafficking and exploitation of undocumented workers overlap a lot,” she said. “So I would say, if there is a line, it’s very blurry. It’s a very blurry line.

“And so the only specific question that needs to be asked and answered is ‘Did this worker feel like they could leave the situation?’ If he or she didn’t, ‘Then why?’ Because it’s certainly conceivable that an undocumented worker, if they’re experiencing wage and hour violations, they can still freely leave.

“But once that worker who is experiencing those workplace violations tries to object and the employer says, ‘Well, you take it or I’m going to report you to Immigration Customs Enforcement,’ then that becomes a trafficking situation.”

With its booming immigrant communities, the world’s ninth-largest economy and extensive international border, California is one of the top four U.S. destinations for human trafficking, according to the Center for Public Policy Studies. The center also estimates that at least one in three undocumented immigrants in Southern California are victims of labor or other kinds of trafficking. The Golden State passed its first anti-trafficking bill, thanks to Kim and a coauthor, in Sept. 2005, making human trafficking a felony.

T visas and ed

When asked what else really needs to be done, Kim has two ready suggestions.

The first concerns so-called T visas, which allow certain human trafficking victims and their immediate family members to stay and work temporarily in the U.S. if they assist in an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking.

“I would like to see more consistency in who gets a T visa,” she said. “Right now there’s lots of discretion on adjudicators about who should be granted T visas. It’s an onerous process that’s problematic.”

And then there’s the whole matter of comprehending the true scope and nature of the social, political and legal problem. The U.S. State Department reports that between 600,000 to 800,000 individuals are trafficked across international borders every year.

“I would really like to see more education about the laws,” said the daughter of immigrants. “It’s really important for people to understand this phenomenon and to understand that this issue is another chapter in the evolution of slavery. It has to do with freedom of labor and the basic notion that workers should not be exploited.

“So the issue needs to be seen holistically. And people need to understand that it’s not just children who are sexually exploited who might be trafficking victims. But it’s men, women, boys and girls from all over the world in many, many different industries.”

Editor’s Note: Part II of the interview with Kathleen Kim will focus on her work as a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission.