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Human trafficking in U.S. an elusive target

Federal officials say 14,500 to 17,500 of them are trafficked to the United States, where the myriad forms of modern-day slavery present an elusive target for those trying to eradicate it.
Florencia Molina summoned the courage to go to the authorities after being enslaved as a dressmaker in Los Angeles.
Florencia Molina summoned the courage to go to the authorities after being enslaved as a dressmaker in Los Angeles.Kevork Djansezian / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Florencia Molina’s personal hellhole was a dressmaking shop on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She worked there up to 17 hours a day, seven days a week, and lived there, too, without the option of showering or washing her clothes.

Other victims of American-style human trafficking have had very different venues for ordeals just as bad or worse — brothels in San Francisco, bars in New Jersey, slave-labor farm camps in Florida, a small-town tree-cutting business owned by a New Hampshire couple.

Trafficking is a stubborn problem and a staggering one worldwide, affecting an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 victims a year. Federal officials say 14,500 to 17,500 of them are trafficked to the United States, where the myriad forms of modern-day slavery present an elusive target for those trying to eradicate it.

Hidden crime
Victims have come from at least 50 countries in almost every part of the world and are trafficked to virtually every state — to clandestine factories, restaurants, farms, massage parlors, even private homes where women and girls are kept in servitude.

“Human trafficking is so hidden you don’t know who you’re fighting — the victims are so scared, they’re not going to tell you what’s happening to them,” said Given Kachepa, himself a former victim of a scam that exploited Zambian orphans touring the United States in a boys’ choir.

Aligned against the traffickers is an array of federal, state and local government agencies, teamed up with an odd coalition of private groups that include Christian conservatives and left-of-center immigrant-rights advocates. The result is perhaps the most far-reaching anti-trafficking campaign of any nation, yet some victim support groups are questioning its effectiveness.

They contend that federal criteria offering assistance to victims only if they help prosecute their traffickers deters some from seeking help. Others say the government has placed too much emphasis on sex trafficking and too little on workplace abuses at sweatshops, farms and elsewhere.

“We see sex cases being prioritized (by federal prosecutors), but other cases we’re having a hard time getting looked at,” said Elissa Steglich, an attorney for the Chicago-based Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center. “Whatever type of slavery you’re dealing with, they’re horrors all the same.”

From slave to cashier
Molina was the beneficiary of one case in which the anti-trafficking campaign worked as intended. Her helpers — as she escaped from the dress shop, learned English and gained legal U.S. residence — included the FBI and the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, which provides victims with shelter, legal aid, self-help workshops and other services.

Now a cashier at a discount store and an anti-trafficking advocate, Molina was enticed to California by a woman back home in Mexico’s Puebla state, who promised a job and free accommodations.

“I came to the United States with lots of dreams, but when I got here, my dreams were stolen,” said Molina, 33, who left three children behind in Mexico.

On Jan. 1, 2002, she worked her first shift at the dressmaker’s, sewing roughly 200 party dresses over 12 hours.

Later, the shifts often stretched to 17 hours a day. Molina was locked into the shop at night — sleeping with a co-worker in a small storage room. The shop manager paid Molina roughly $100 a week, confiscated her identify documents, and told her she would be arrested if she went to the authorities.

The courage to flee
“For me, it was completely dark, without money, without English, no papers, nothing,” Molina said in an interview. “The owner told me, ’You can try to do whatever you want. Dogs in this country have more rights than you.”’

After working 40 days, Molina summoned up the nerve to flee, and soon encountered FBI agents who were investigating the dress shop. They sought her cooperation in prosecuting the owner, and Molina — after difficult deliberations — agreed to help.

“It was really a hard decision,” she said. “The owner had always told me I would pay the consequences — or my family in Mexico would suffer — if I went to the authorities. But I thought to myself, ’I don’t want one more person to be in the situation I was in.”’

In exchange for her cooperation, Molina received a T-visa — a special status created by Congress in 2000 that allows trafficking victims who assist prosecutors to remain in the United States for three years and then apply for permanent residence. Under the visa provisions, Molina’s three children — 14, 12 and 9 — have received permission to join her in California.

Victims must help prosecutors
Though Congress authorized up to 5,000 T-visas per year, fewer than 700 had been issued overall as of September. Some victim-support experts say the relatively low numbers result from overly strict criteria, notably the requirement that victims assist prosecutors.

“It can be a very difficult decision to come forward and begin a criminal complaint when a victim has every reason to believe a trafficker can make good on a threat against family members,” said Steglich, the Chicago immigrant rights attorney.

“There are concerns we’re not able to do all we can for those victims who don’t want to come forward. We’d like to see more flexibility.”

Federal officials defend the rules as necessary to separate fraudulent claims from genuine trafficking cases and to put traffickers out of business.

“The cooperation requirement is essential,” said Bradley Schlozman, the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. “These traffickers are extraordinarily evil — if a victim doesn’t come forward, that trafficker is going to turn around and exploit other individuals.”

Hot line set up
Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families with the Department of Health and Human Services, said reaching victims and getting them to speak up is a key goal of a new federal program. A national hot line has been set up, fielding more than 2,500 calls to date; the hot line is being advertised in ethnic newspapers and printed on matchbooks distributed in places where victims might find them, such as ladies’ rooms in bars and fast-food restaurants.

“The problem is the traffickers are very good at controlling their victims,” Horn said. “They don’t have access to TV, their ability to learn English is restricted, so getting the message directly to the victims is difficult.”

Anti-trafficking task forces have been established in 22 areas nationwide, and training sessions are being held for social workers, health care workers and police officers to educate them about trafficking.

“A cop arrests some street prostitutes, puts them in jail and tries to get someone to deport them — that’s exactly what traffickers say to their victims,” Horn said. “The cops think they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. ... We’re training them to know what to look for, what to ask.”

The case of a sex slave
Some victims are forcibly abducted to the United States by criminal gangs, but many come willingly, swayed by promises of good jobs or marriage that turn out to be false. Their documents are confiscated by their traffickers, and they are forced into slave labor or prostitution.

Maria Suarez, for example, came from Mexico to Los Angeles legally in 1976, a naive 16-year-old with sixth-grade education and no English, hoping to find work. She was offered a housecleaning job at the home of a 68-year-old man who instead converted her into a virtual slave — threatening her and her family if she told anyone of the rapes and beatings that ensued over the next five years.

In 1981, the man was killed by a neighbor; Suarez agreed to hide the weapon, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Officials later confirmed Suarez’s claim of being a battered woman; she was paroled in 2003 and subsequently certified as a trafficking victim eligible for a T-visa. She can stay in the United States at least though next year.

Now 45, Suarez attends Pasadena City College, hoping to gain U.S. citizenship and become a social worker. She urges authorities to be understanding of sex-trafficking victims who are reluctant to speak out.

“It was a disgrace,” she said. “How was I going to confront my family and tell them what was happening to me?”

Had the neighbor not killed her abuser, “I would have died there,” Suarez said. “I was too scared to tell anyone what was happening. You’re overwhelmed by threats of harm to you or your family.”

Prior to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, no comprehensive federal law existed to prosecute traffickers. Since 2001, the Justice Department says it has prosecuted 277 traffickers — a threefold increase over the previous four years — and has obtained convictions in every case.

Critics say bias toward sex abuse
Schlozman said the Justice Department is intent on combatting all types of trafficking, but estimated that about 75 percent of the prosecutions involved sex trafficking.

Some victims’ advocates say the government stresses the sex cases because they generate more news coverage or because they are the priority of conservative Christian groups that form an important part of the Bush administration’s political base.

“Christian evangelicals see this as an important mission — rescuing women from sex trafficking,” said New York University law professor Michael Wishnie, a specialist in immigrant labor issues. “There’s a risk of distracting attention from much more common situations (in sweatshops) that many more people find themselves in.”

Wing Lam, head of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York City’s Chinatown, tries to assist low-paid workers who are abused by their employers but may not qualify as trafficking victims.

Many pay to be smuggled into the United States, then take grueling jobs paying under minimum wage. Because of their illegal status, they hesitate to complain to authorities; the employers are rarely punished.

“The authorities think the workers are colluding with the bosses — that they’re not victims because they don’t complain,” Lam said.

Workplace exploitation blamed
Laura Germino, who combats slave labor on farms as a leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said federal agencies could undermine trafficking by cracking down on all types of workplace exploitation.

“You can’t view trafficking in a vacuum,” she said. “It takes root in industries that already have a range of labor violations — subpoverty wages, no benefits, no labor relations.”

Traditionally, law enforcement agencies were unsympathetic to undocumented immigrants, regardless of their situation. However, the recent anti-trafficking initiatives have changed the equation, both for the authorities and the private groups they now rely on to win the confidence of victims.

“Federal prosecutors are not used to dealing with immigrant victims of crime from a positive perspective, so there’s been a very difficult, steep learning curve,” said immigration law expert Gail Pendleton “It takes time to build trust with immigrant communities. You can’t just put up a sign saying ’We help trafficking victims’ and expect people to come.”

In their own backyard
An estimated 40 percent of trafficking victims are under 18, most of them girls. Susan Krehbiel of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service said many of these children are sexually exploited in the United States after travelling here with the consent of relatives who were told genuine opportunities awaited.

Krehbiel conducts workshops with child welfare workers who are unfamiliar with trafficking. “A lot of people thought we were going to talk about the problem overseas — they didn’t realize it’s a problem in their own backyard,” she said.

Given Kachepa was one such young victim; as an 11-year-old orphan in his homeland of Zambia he was recruited into a boys choir that toured the United States for 18 months. Promises of education, free clothes and money for his family proved false, and the boys — constantly threatened by their handlers — were forced through an arduous concert schedule until authorities finally intervened.

Kachepa was taken in by a Colleyville, Texas, couple who became his guardians. Now 19, he obtained a T-visa and entered college in August; he also has become a spokesman on behalf of trafficking victims.

“The most important thing is constant educating of people,” he said in a telephone interview. “There’s help out there — but victims don’t know it.”