Home » Our People » Missioners » Profile – Heidi Cerneka

Heidi Cerneka

Year Joined MKLM: 1996

Country: U.S.-Mexico Border

Cities: El Paso, Texas; São Paulo, Brazil

Ministry: Migration, Women and Human Trafficking Project – Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, El Paso; and Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania (ITTC), São Paulo

Ministry Area: Justice and Peace – Immigration advocacy and intervention

Goal of Ministry: Fighting trafficking against migrant women at the country of origin, passage, and destination by direct advocacy and support of migrant women victimized by human trafficking as well as by exposing the global (and specifically Americas) reality through on-the-ground interventions at diverse locations in order to provoke a reframing of trafficking through policy reconsiderations and community advocacy.

Nonviolence Focus:

Prevention and Intervention. Through workshops with migrants and shelter staff, our goal is to reduce human trafficking of people in vulnerable situations. We also address the harms of human trafficking for people who have already been victimized through education and legal representation. We work to educate the general public and local community around these issues too.

Intervention: In Brazil, we are calling the judicial system to recognize victims of human trafficking in criminal cases, when the trafficking led to the criminal act. In the US and Mexico, this will be intervention in the form of T-visas and protection for victims of trafficking where applicable. We will also advocate for a broader understanding of human trafficking in relation to migrants, since the U.S. signed the Palermo Protocol, but the US definition is much more restricted.


Ministry Context:

COVID vulnerabilities, stalled economies, closed borders and an increase in the control of organized crime have contributed to also increase the likelihood of human trafficking victimizing the migrant population, and migrants’ vulnerability to human trafficking.

Prevention of human trafficking requires changes in global economic policies, environmental protections and countries’ commitments to vulnerable populations. It also requires a clearer understanding of the issue and the factors contributing to it on the part of faith communities, civil society and the general population, and governmental actors.

Both ITTC and Las Americas have detected gaps in all of the above, whether it be policy in relation to the victims of forced criminal activity or consideration of a person’s immigration status and the legal implications of any criminal complaint they file against perpetrators or any request for immigration relief. On top of that, over 40% of trafficking victims have sought help on their own, rather than being detected by communities or state officials. Thus, if people are not aware of the elements and risks of human trafficking, they are more likely to be victimized by it and unlikely to receive assistance or protection.

Border restrictions increase migrants’ and asylum-seekers’ vulnerability to human trafficking. COVID and the economic crises that resulted from COVID also increase vulnerability to trafficking as people flee their homeland in search of physical safety or economic security.

Today, criminal organizations have a big hand in human smuggling and human trafficking, and the UN Global TIP Report (2022) states that they “exploit more victims with more violence for longer periods of time.”

An increasing number of people victimized by human trafficking from Central America arrive in North America (11% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. in 2020 came from northern Central America).

As economies struggle, especially in the pandemic and post-pandemic times, and borders remain de facto closed to immigrants and asylum seekers, desperate people turn to guides, or smugglers, that pose as labor recruiters and don’t question their practices, thus increasing their vulnerability to human trafficking.


Current Ministry:

Over the next three years, this ministry will work with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez) and with the Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania (Institute for Land, Work, and Citizenship, São Paulo) to address human trafficking of migrant women in diverse forms. Over time, I will also work occasionally with partners in other locations, including but not limited to Guatemala and Monterrey, Mexico, to train shelter staff and migrants on issues related to human trafficking.

At Las Americas, the ministry involves advocating as legal representative for migrants who have suffered human trafficking and could benefit from relief from deportation or from U.S. laws designed to protect victims of crimes, as well as education and advocacy around human trafficking policies and issues. Additionally, I will work with our team in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which has direct contact with the migrants in shelters there, offering “know your rights” training, including on human trafficking, for both staff and migrants.

At ITTC, the ministry leads and participates in a project to provoke changes in the judiciary, to consider migrants who have been victims of human trafficking through forced crime, and who have been arrested and charged. Fifteen young professionals, with participation from women victimized by human trafficking, work through legal treatise, research, advocacy and education, intervening in the judiciary.

Finally, this ministry also seeks to advocate through “reverse mission”, speaking and writing on these issues through Maryknoll Lay Missioners publications, other publications, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, in the larger U.S. church and US society, and by participating in UN NGO committees on migration and human trafficking.


Personal Data:

Having worked as a Maryknoll lay missioner with advocacy for incarcerated women for over 20 years, hearing their stories, and then spending the last four years working with migrants seeking protection at the U.S. border, Heidi says she wants to connect these vulnerable populations and also dig deep into the systemic causes of human trafficking, criminal justice and migration.

In Brazil, for example, for over 20 years she and others have raised the question of women who were arrested for drug crimes but in fact tell stories of being tricked, threatened and forced into carrying drugs. The team at ITTC felt it was way past time to address these questions and push the judiciary to consider elements of human trafficking when judging the criminal cases. The UN also talks about more cases of “forced crime” as a means of human trafficking, and criminal organizations and the internet make this even more common.

In El Paso, while diverse organizations work with human trafficking, none of the immigrant legal advocacy organizations has taken this focus. As part of her new project, she will be able to train Las Americas staff and work with the local community so that this is an issue seen with a migrant face.

Finally, the global advocacy through UN participation (in the NGO Committee on Migration and the NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons) and the “reverse mission” through writing and speaking in the U.S. are ways to try to change this at the root causes and also to connect with the same reality across the globe. “It just made sense to start putting these pieces together,” Heidi says.

Heidi claims both St. Louis and Chicago as home. Before joining Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 1996, she worked in campus ministry at Loyola University Chicago. She also has experience working with women in situations of substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, Heidi spent two years in Belize working with the Jesuit Volunteers. Heidi received her degrees at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana (a bachelor’s degree in religious studies), and Loyola University Chicago (a master’s degree in pastoral studies and juris doctor).

After earning her law degree in 2017, Heidi served in Kenya, engaging with local organizations in Mombasa and Nairobi. She worked with pastoral and legal projects to help women involved in the criminal justice system, especially with paralegal and self-representation programs that train them to be their own advocates in their criminal cases.

From 1996 to 2014, Heidi lived and worked in São Paulo, Brazil, where she served with both the National Prison Pastoral Ministry — associated with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference — as well as with ITTC. Heidi has participated in United Nations expert working groups to develop Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Women (Bangkok Rules), and the revision of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of All Prisoners (Mandela Rules).