Xiomara Benitez Blanco: Chapel Hill, NC

Woman who exposed sexual harassment and blackmail by immigration officer

Xiomara Benitez Blanco was 19 years old with little formal education when she came alone to the United States from El Salvador to find work. She made her way to Durham, North Carolina, and by 2009 had worked in a series of service jobs that gave her hope for a better life. She led a peaceful and quiet existence in America for four years. That was until she met Bedri Kulla.

Kulla met Blanco through an on-line social networking website, and quickly manipulated her into talking about her background. Soon the 50-year-old man was pressuring her to sleep with him, and when she refused, he showed her a badge and informed her that he had the power to deport her.

Kulla had, in fact, worked as an Immigration Services Officer for the Durham branch of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security that helps people who want to legally immigrate to the U.S. He did not, however, work for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which has the authority to deport. But having little knowledge of U.S. immigrations systems, Blanco was petrified.

She refused his increasingly direct sexual advances, despite the potentially devastating consequences. And Kulla did not take “no” for an answer.

The day after their very first meeting in Durham, he showed up at the restaurant where she worked with a bouquet of flowers in one hand and, in the other, a piece of paper with her name on it—a deportation order from December 2005.

There was, indeed, a deportation order previously issued for Blanco and she had come close to being deported in 2008. But police had released her then after ICE issued an Order of Supervision that allowed her to temporarily stay in the U.S. and work legally while she was being treated for a very serious kidney ailment.

That kidney ailment, which had been causing Blanco an immense amount of pain and forced her to wear a drainage bag, was getting significantly worse just as Kulla began harassing her, and she needed to have surgery.

He sent her a barrage of alternately cajoling and threatening texts. She was so fearful of institutions, she believed she would be arrested if she went into the hospital for the surgery she required. But she told a social worker at Duke Hospital about Kulla’s threats, who put her in touch with Marty Rosenbluth, now a staff attorney with the North Carolina ImmigrantRights Project. Rosenbluth helped her understand both her rights and the very real risks of taking a stand.

Despite the potential peril and ongoing medical challenges, she filed a complaint against Kulla with the police and cooperated with ICE and USCIS in their investigation, including wearing a wire in a meeting with him in which he continued to harass and blackmail her. She later testified against him in court.

She bravely stood up against him and pursued justice to the end. He is now in jail in Texas serving a 12-month sentence. She knew she was risking being deported, and exposed herself to further harassment from him during the investigation.

Her public resistance inspired other woman to come forward. After her case received media coverage, other women came forward either directly or through their attorneys and reported that Kulla had victimized them as well.

It was scary for Blanco to work with ICE agents during the investigation. But she overcame her fears to make sure that what happened to her never happened to another woman. And while undocumented workers across America continue to be vulnerable, at least one victimizer is behind bars.

Also see:

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The Freedom From Fear Awards are produced by Public Interest Projects, (PIP).  PIP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that brings together and strengthens the work of philanthropic institutions, donors, nonprofit groups and other public interest organizations sharing a vision of a society that ensures justice, dignity and opportunity for all people.   Statements and activities of Freedom from Fear Award winners do not necessarily reflect the views of PIP.

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