Raids conducted last week on 20 Northeast brothels uncovered more than 70 suspected sex slaves, exposing a long-ignored national problem found in towns large and small, with immigrants and U.S. citizens alike as victims, experts say.
“It’s a very overwhelming subject for a lot of people to recognize that there is slavery at this time in our country,” said Carole Angel, staff attorney with the Immigrant Women Program of the women’s rights advocacy group Legal Momentum in Washington. “It’s hard for us as humans to contemplate what this means.”
Jolene Smith, executive director of Free The Slaves, a Washington-based organization dedicated to ending slavery worldwide, agreed that the idea of 21st century slavery was foreign to most people.
“Americans are conditioned to believe that slavery was a thing of the past,” Smith said. “We have to reeducate ourselves about this reality.”
According to Angel, victims such as prostitutes are often handcuffed and hauled off along with the traffickers who coerced them into the sex trade.
That was not the case Tuesday when federal and local law enforcement raided brothels disguised as massage parlors, health spas and acupuncture clinics in six states and Washington D.C., arresting 31 people on trafficking charges.
‘Dreams into nightmares’
They took more than 70 sex workers to undisclosed locations for questioning, and to provide basic services such as health care and food. Authorities said it might take weeks to get the Korean immigrants to trust them enough to discuss their ordeal.
“Human traffickers profit by turning dreams into nightmares,” said Michael Garcia, U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where the majority of the traffickers face prosecution. “These women sought a better life in America and found instead forced prostitution and misery.”
Yet Angel said the raids should not give the impression that trafficking is limited to immigrants, who are often coaxed to come to America for legitimate jobs only to be forced to work in brothels, sweatshops and restaurants to pay off debts of up to $30,000 to their traffickers.
“There are so many faces on this,” she said. “It happens in rural communities, big cities. It spans all education levels, different countries, different races.”
Laurel Fletcher, law professor at the University of California at Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic, said it’s a misconception if Americans think this is not happening at home.
She said many people also err by assuming all forced labor involves prostitution. It also thrives in agricultural and domestic work, as well as in sweatshops or unregulated industries.
Tens of thousands
In 2004, Fletcher was one of several authors on a report believed to be the first comprehensive study of forced labor in the United States.
The study, by Free The Slaves and the Human Rights Center of the University of California at Berkeley, concluded that at least 10,000 people and possibly tens of thousands of people are forced laborers at any time across the United States. The State Department estimates there are among up to 800,000 trafficking victims worldwide.
The Berkeley study based its conclusions on its effort to document the nature and scope of forced labor in the United States between 1998-2003. It included interviews of 49 service providers in forced labor cases, a press survey of 131 incidents of forced labor, and eight case studies of forced labor throughout the country.
The study concluded that forced labor victims came from more than 35 countries, with the most from China, followed by Mexico and Vietnam. There were reports of forced labor in at least 90 U.S. cities, most often in areas with large immigrant populations. Fletcher cautioned that the trafficking in smaller communities is likely harder to detect.
The study concluded prostitution and sex services accounted for 46 percent of the documented forced labor. Domestic service made up 27 percent, agriculture 10 percent, sweatshop-factory 5 percent and restaurant and hotel work 4 percent.
More law enforcement
To attack the problem, the United States boosted law enforcement and passed a law that criminalized subjecting another human being to peonage, involuntary sex trafficking, slavery, involuntary servitude or forced labor. Under the law, victims can receive benefits and services.
Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the government has begun numerous investigations and seized tens of millions of dollars in an area where it had previously done little.
Increased investigations led to the number of arrests rising more than 400 percent in recent years, she said. And the amount of assets seized from human smugglers and human trafficking organizations have gone from almost nothing in 2003 to nearly $27 million in 2005, Myers noted.
She said the criminals look at the slaves as a commodity.
“But we know that the victims of trafficking and smuggling are not cargo,” Myers said. They are human beings who often have been mentally and physically broken down in every way possible.”