Sandra Mendoza (her name has been changed for her protection), is 50 years old, but she still has chilling memories of her first months in the US.

That was over three decades ago, when she was only 18.

Her point of entry was the Rio Grande Valley, on the Texas border with Mexico. Her hope was to get a job and earn money to help her family in Guadalajara.

But that hope turned into a nightmare. Within months of her arrival, Sandra was little more than a slave, unable to see or talk to her family, and reduced to bare survival.

At first things had seemed fine. During her job search, Sandra was interviewed by a school receptionist looking for a live-in nanny for her two young daughters. The work sounded good, and Sandra arranged with her new boss to be picked up that night.

She started to feel anxious when she saw where the family lived. It was “a very isolated area,” she remembers. “It was surrounded by agricultural fields, with a long, dirt road that looked like it had no way out. There were no neighbors nearby.”

Stuck in this non-neighborhood, Sandra soon learned that she was banned from using the phone. She couldn’t leave the house. She had to watch what she ate; her employer kept track of the groceries. She was allowed to shower once a day; any more often and her boss complained about using too much water. She lived in a tiny room with almost nothing in it except for a mattress. Soon she was spending most nights in the little girls’ room, to protect herself from her employer’s husband. He’d tried several times to sneak into her room.

“I was in a bad situation,” Sandra says, with tears in her eyes. “But one day, I found the courage to do something.”

That was the day she was dropped off at her employer’s mother’s home, to help iron clothes. She took a chance and asked to borrow the phone. With one call, she reached her sister, who had been looking for her. Both sisters cried when they heard each other’s voices. Sandra explained her predicament. Her sister instructed her tell her employer that she’d contacted her family, and they were expecting Sandra to be taken to her sister’s home or they would call the police.

Sandra conveyed that message.

Several days later, her employer dropped her off at a bus station in San Juan, TX. She warned Sandra that if she ever complained to the authorities, she would suffer severe consequences. Sandra was never paid for her work.

As awful as her experience was, it’s not unusual.

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, more than 1.6 million domestic workers in this country clean houses, cook meals, and care for children and elders.

“Domestic workers are vital to our economy,” says Rosa San Luis, a community organizer with FUERZA del Valle. “Yet they are the most exploited, devalued and unprotected workers.”

In 2013, the Domesticas del Valle Campaign was formed to educate people in the Rio Grande Valley about the labor laws that exist to protect domestic workers. Today, the Campaign has 60 active domestic-worker members. They organize and give educational workshops on domestic worker rights.

Recently they obtained a grant from the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA), the nation’s leading domestic worker organization, to launch the first study of domestic workers in Texas. In addition to the Rio Grande Valley area, El Paso, Houston and Austin are participating in the study.

“There is a lack of understanding of the overall domestic-worker industry in Texas. The study will do an in-depth analysis of the conditions domestic workers face statewide,” San Luis says.

Domesticas del Valle has surveyed 200 domestic workers in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.

“It is important that we keep educating domestic workers about their rights. And to keep doing this work, we need to collaborate with other groups, more so now, with the hostile climate towards our immigrant communities” Rosa said.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric by the new administration has heightened fear for many immigrants. That fear is putting many migrant domestic workers at risk for the kind of labor exploitation and abuse that Sandra suffered.

Despite the hostile climate, Domestics del Valle continues locally to organize, including providing know-your-rights presentations. The group partners with other Valley organizations that offer legal and advocacy assistance to domestic workers. These include Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc., Mano a Mano, and La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE).

Sandra, now an active member of Domesticas del Valle, says she supports the campaign “because I want other domestic workers to know their rights. If I’d had the resources that exist today, maybe I would have obtained some justice.”

Domesticas del Valle celebrated International Domestic Worker’s Day on June 16. It’s an important date because it marks when the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the first treaty guaranteeing the rights of domestic workers in 2011. Twenty-five countries have ratified the treaty. But much work still needs to be done, to ensure rights for domestic workers.

Sandra’s goal for domestic workers in the Valley is simple. “We are women,” she says. “People, not animals. We deserve to be treated fairly.”

For more information about Domesticas del Valle or existing resources for domestic workers, contact their direct line at (956) 433-3523.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows members of the Domestics del Valle campaign.