In only five years of legal practice, UC Hastings alumna Leah Chen Price ’10 has made quite a name for herself in the field of social justice and immigration rights in the Greater Bay Area. She wears many hats for many organizations from her membership in the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission, to chairing the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Young Professional Committee for Human Rights, to even acting on the board of directors of Pangea Legal Services. Her numerous roles and efforts have made an impact within the immigration legal community throughout her native San Francisco.
Leah’s “day job” is the Director of the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach’s (APILO) Anti-Human Trafficking Project. The APILO has been supporting victims of human trafficking for over 16 years and remains the only organization in the Bay Area that focuses on providing legal services to victims of human trafficking. As Director, Leah works to ensure survivors of human trafficking obtain immigration relief, emergency and long-term housing, access to civil litigation, advocacy for restitution in the criminal proceedings, medical services, therapy, and/or other social services. The world of anti-human trafficking is a relatively new field and federal laws protecting against trafficking only date back to the year 2000. Not only does Leah work to enforce these protections, she also spends much of her time educating organizations and the public on what human trafficking is.
To the misinformed, human trafficking seems like a surreal issue reserved for an overdramatized television series, but it has actually become a big problem in San Francisco. Many people enter the U.S. through port cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, so those places have the most concentration of trafficking cases. Some estimates have determined that about 15 to 20 thousand people are being trafficked into California every year. In fact, the United States has become the number one destination for victims of trafficking who are brought across borders. Around the globe, human trafficking has become a $150 billion industry with approximately 30 million people presently being trafficked for services.
Victims of human trafficking can suffer from both labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Leah clarifies that “if someone is forced or coerced to do any type of work they do not want to do, any type of labor or commercial sex, it can be considered human trafficking.” This forced servitude can happen anywhere and does not require a foreign national to be brought across an international boundary. “This is a misconception we are trying to correct. You can be born in the U.S. and never leave your hometown once in your life, if you were exploited or forced to work against your will that may be human trafficking. There are people being victimized in San Francisco today, probably very close to the UC Hastings campus. That is what we’re fighting against.”
Leah’s passion for helping the disenfranchised and those seeking protection from oppression comes from both her upbringing and her legal education at UC Hastings. Her mother, who is also a UC Hastings graduate (Christina Y. Chen ’78), fled China in 1949 before the Communist regime took over the country.
“My mother’s family has a dramatic story of fleeing in the night to Macau with only the belongings they could carry. They lived there for a time, but were forced to leave and eventually made it to the U.S. in the early 60s as refugees. It’s a pretty incredible story -having to rebuild their lives from the ground up two times.” Leah admits that this is one of the driving factors that made her pursue higher education. “I think their experience of adversity and having to make it again and again has been really impactful. I have six aunts and uncles and they are all well-educated and successful here in the U.S. My family’s experiences and perseverance has inspired me to go to law school and pursue a career in social justice work.”
Before attending UC Hastings, Leah studied in various countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. She also worked at a couple different corporate and business law firms as an assistant and a paralegal. “Traveling and living abroad was completely life-changing and opened my eyes to the rest of the world. I needed those years of work, study, and travel to really figure out what I wanted to do and also what I didn’t want to do with my future. It also directly influenced my passion for human rights.”
Equipped with a purpose and a worldly perspective, Leah focused her studies at UC Hastings on international human rights and refugee law. “I was particularly interested in the works of Professors Naomi Roght-Arriaza and Karen Musalo. I sought them both out when I was a 1L because their work really spoke to me and I tried to take all of their classes.”
Leah felt that as a student at UC Hastings she was able to take advantage of experiential opportunities, like Professor Musalo’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, to figure out the things that she liked and what she did not like about being a lawyer. “The most important part about learning to be an attorney is getting a sense of what the work is really like instead of relying on your preconceived ideas about legal practice.”
Now as an established attorney, Leah is not short of opportunities to help those who are escaping oppression and victimization. Recently, there has been a surge of Central American children coming into the U.S. as refugees escaping gang recruitment and gang violence. Many of these teenagers are pressured to join gangs through threats and violent scare tactics. “One of my clients was pressured so hard that gang members actually followed him home and shot him in the leg for not joining them.”
The families of these children scrounge together all of their money and savings to help them escape the growing violence in their countries. Unfortunately, many children have to make their trip to seek asylum in the U.S. by themselves and are extremely susceptible to becoming victims of human trafficking. “I have a client who was 15 when he fled Guatemala because of gang violence. He attempted to come to the U.S. to stay with an aunt in Oakland and he was exploited as he was crossing the border. He ended up housed in various stash houses along the U.S.-Mexico border. Because of his youth and small stature, he essentially became a slave for the “coyotes” or border smugglers. Under threats of violence and death, they forced him to cook and clean for them and was only fed the bare minimum for weeks until the stash house was raided by border patrol.”
“He came to us and we identified him as a victim of trafficking. We helped him obtain immigration relief through a TVisa and his life is a lot more stable now. He is reunited with his aunt and is now enrolled in Oakland International High School.”
So what’s next for Leah who has been busy helping others? “I’m actually in a period of streamlining right now. I just stepped down from my volunteer role at the San Francisco Immigrant’s Rights Commitment. I’m trying to do a little less, mostly because I’m pregnant. So I guess motherhood is my next big adventure, but I still have a lot work to do for my clients.” Even if we believe Leah’s pledge to slow down (not quite sure we do), she will never stop.