though Americans are increasingly aware that human trafficking
takes place, an array of circumstances conspire to protect the
trade, and a weak social response leaves freed victims in need.
Jul 5 -
Nearly sixty years
after the international community declared it a crime against
humanity, slavery today is far from banished. Involuntary
servitude persists in developed and underdeveloped regions, and
the United States remains one of the major destinations for
traffickers and their captives. But according to activists and
researchers, despite recent progress in anti-trafficking
policies and enforcement, what many consider the basest form of
human exploitation continues to thrive in the US.
to inadequate enforcement of human rights laws, lagging
community awareness, and a dearth of resources for victims,
anti-slavery advocates say that behind the crime of forced labor
is a societal failure to protect the most deeply subjugated.
to the research and advocacy group Free the Slaves, forced labor
is largely concentrated in illegal or minimally regulated
industries: nearly half of trafficking cases involve forced
prostitution, about 27 percent involve domestic service, and
manufacturing and farm work collectively account for
approximately 15 percent.
awareness of the issue has risen slowly with the landmark
federal anti-trafficking law, the Victims of Trafficking and
Violence Protection Act, passed in 2000. The act provides
funding for anti-trafficking programs and offers legal
protections for survivors, including legal resident status. The
legislation defines its target, "severe trafficking," as the
commercial trade of human beings for purposes of labor or sexual
services that involves "force, fraud or coercion."
grassroots advocates for forced labor victims have a simpler
definition. "We use the word ‘trafficking,’ but that’s really a
euphemism," said Bill Bernstein, deputy director of the
Texas-based social service group Mosaic Family Services. "What
we’re really talking about is modern-day slavery."
whose group handles a constant flow of slavery cases, listed
some typical scenarios: an offer to earn good wages and study
lures a teenage girl abroad, where she is forced to work
eighteen hours a day as a housekeeper. Aided by a smuggler, a
young man’s passage across the US-Mexico border ends with a
crushing debt, to be repaid through captive manual labor.
no such thing as a typical trafficking case," said Bernstein,
but he noted a common thread among victims: "They’ll be promised
something, which ends up being very different when they end up
where they’re going."
to government estimates, each year, 14,500 to 17,500 people are
trafficked into the US. Though more trafficking victims are
being uncovered each year, so far, only about 600 victims have
been officially "certified" under the statutes of the federal
public’s knowledge of the issue is still too weak to
inspire community vigilance.
anti-slavery activists, the gap between the official records and
the vague estimates reveals that the slave labor market
continues to defy both the law and efforts to quantify the
problem. According to Jolene Smith, executive director of Free
the Slaves, "We have failed miserably as a country in rooting
out trafficking victims and traffickers."
Intimidation, Lack of Awareness Keep Forced Labor Victims
release from captivity comes when a vigilant neighbor alerts a
social service organization. Or police might discover a victim
unexpectedly when they raid an underground operation, such as a
brothel. Service providers say that in any case, for victims who
are stifled by fear and overlooked by the public, the prospect
of escape depends largely on luck.
view, the public’s knowledge of the issue is still too weak to
inspire community vigilance. "We know that people … are not
asking hard questions of what’s going on in their own
communities," she said. "They’re not demanding that there be
investigations, because they don’t know that it could happen in
Miller-Muro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a
social service organization serving immigrant women, finds it
alarming that despite the group’s outreach campaigns in
immigrant communities, they currently serve only a few "lucky"
trafficking survivors. Organizations that offer assistance for
survivors, she said, are still unable "to reach the ones who
most need to be reached."
advocates say that in addition to a lack of public awareness and
outreach, walls of fear and cultural repression also stand
between service providers and people in captivity.
traffickers often enjoy high social status in their communities,
said Miller-Muro, victims may be "worried about how they will
look if they oppose this powerful person [or] this well-known
diplomat." Service providers have observed that even some
organizations embedded in local ethnic communities are afraid to
publicly advocate for victims, fearing public backlash.
lines have run through several high-profile cases involving
foreign dignitaries or businesspeople charged with abusing
workers they brought into the country. In the case of Lakireddy
Bali Reddy, for example, a wealthy California businessman was
charged in 2000 with importing young girls from his home village
in India, forcing them to work in the buildings and restaurants
he owned, and repeatedly sexually abusing them.
ultimately received a plea bargain involving $2 million in
restitution and an eight-year prison term. Although activists
decried the sentence as too lenient, the millionaire’s public
image had nearly enabled him to elude law enforcement
completely. The Immigration and Naturalization Service
investigated Reddy’s immigration record in 1997, but, as an
immigration official told reporters after the allegations
finally surfaced, the agency determined only that he was a
"professionally educated gentleman, with widespread corporate
interests, financial interests. There was nothing to indicate
any criminal conduct."
psychological grip of enslavement is typically
compounded by a terror of government authority that
traffickers seed in their captives.
providers point to retaliation, against a survivor or family
members, as one of the major threats that silences victims.
According to Florrie Burke, senior director of international
programs at the New York-based victims’ services group Safe
Horizon, among the cases tracked by the organization, "We have
had family members kidnapped, threatened, harassed, in many
could easily outlive a prison term; the Department of Justice
reports that sentences for convicted traffickers in 2003 ranged
from 33 to 270 months.
Authority Strengthens Slavery’s Grip
to researchers and advocates, the psychological grip of
enslavement is typically compounded by a terror of government
authority that traffickers seed in their captives, convincing
them that any attempt to escape would lead to jail or
afraid of police," recalled "Kim," who was forced to work in
captivity in a sweatshop in American Samoa (see
Sidebar: "Captive Workforce"). She thought she might
be arrested if she left the factory, she said, because "I don’t
have my passport, I don’t have my work permit. … He keep
everything." Her boss, like many other traffickers, had deterred
escape by confiscating the immigration documents of the more
than 250 Vietnamese and Chinese workers enslaved in the
local officials helped stoke the workers’ fear of government,
according to an investigation by the advocacy group Vietnam
Labor Watch. The organization reported that the American Samoan
government detained and deported employees who tried to seek
help. Furthermore, during the period of enslavement from 1999 to
2001, government authorities took little action to enforce labor
laws against the factory, even when investigations by the US
Department of Labor uncovered severe mistreatment.
in general, government authority might not directly abet
traffickers, as it reportedly did the American Samoa case,
victims’ advocates say that immigrant survivors do face a very
real danger of being treated as criminals by law enforcement.
Amid increasingly aggressive policies against undocumented
immigration, they argue, fear of the law is not unjustified.
federal law entitles trafficking victims to special immigration
status, bureaucratic missteps could be leaving an untold number
of victims overlooked. Given the high possibility that an
immigration official could take notice of a victim’s
undocumented status but not the underlying forced labor
situation, Smith speculated that in all likelihood, "there are
trafficking victims being deported every day."
with Law Enforcement
of distrust and uncertainty between government institutions and
people in forced labor situations poses an obstacle both for law
enforcement -- which requires cooperation from witnesses in
order to prosecute traffickers -- and for survivors -- who must
commit to cooperating in order to obtain their entitlements as
victims’ advocates express concern that in the criminal process,
repeated interrogations could be extremely stressful for
victims, who frequently suffer deep psychological scars.
Sreeharsha, a staff attorney with the advocacy group Asian
Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, said that for many survivors,
the investigation process could be "revictimizing … many of them
find it very hard to recount what has happened to them."
increasingly aggressive policies against undocumented
immigration, fear of the law is not unjustified.
providers have also complained that investigators are at times
reluctant to communicate with advocates about developments in a
case, for fear of disclosing legally sensitive information.
advocates are urging a more "victim-centered" approach to
anti-trafficking police work, helping train local officers to be
more sensitive to victims’ needs -- for instance, by delaying
the interrogation process to allow survivors time to recover.
officers more readily identify and help provide assistance to
victims, the Department of Health and Human Services has
administered trainings in various communities under the
"Operation Rescue and Restore" anti-trafficking program.
in the trafficking program," said Program Director Steven
Wagner, "is to get any law enforcement official, at the federal
and the local level, to be aware of the phenomenon of
trafficking and to screen for victims." But he conceded:
"Training federal and local law enforcement is not like throwing
on a light switch. … We’re in a long term project, here."
advocates, the rate of progress seems glacial compared to the
urgency of the problem. "There is still a huge gap in
education," said Smith. "Most local law enforcement officials
have no idea what watch signs to look for, for trafficking
federal aid for trafficking survivors under the anti-trafficking
act is contingent on cooperation with a criminal investigation,
a stark legal reality is that the vast majority of cases never
enter a courtroom.
fiscal years 2001 to 2004, the federal government launched 340
investigations and charged 162 defendants under federal
trafficking statutes. The State Department reported 32 formal
charges under the anti-trafficking act in 2004.
policy and communications director of the California-based
social service group Coalition to Abolish Slavery and
Trafficking (CAST), said that after going through the rigors of
a criminal investigation only to have their cases rejected by
prosecutors, "the clients are sometimes devastated. … They’re
wondering what they did wrong."
argue that prosecutors are biased in selecting cases to
prosecute, focusing primarily on cases involving large groups of
victims, or sex trafficking crimes, which tend to capture
greater public attention.
"Prosecutors have a lot on their plate," remarked Miller-Muro of
Tahirih. "And unfortunately they haven’t been considering
trafficking cases that are not as sexy as mass raids on
of the informal economy could also undercut the legal grounding
of a trafficking case. Anti-trafficking activists point out that
enslaved domestic workers, like workers in unregulated
industries in general, have difficulty accessing the legal
system because they are not covered by the protections of the
National Labor Relations Act.
said Cho, since domestic labor conditions are largely shielded
from public view, "It’s their word against the trafficker’s word
… There are no witnesses."
full-fledged trial and criminal conviction, recourse can still
be pursued through out-of-court settlements, or plea-bargains.
In addition, the 2003 reauthorization of the anti-trafficking
law established a civil right of action, so victims whose cases
are not heard in criminal court can sue for monetary restitution
and back wages.
Nonetheless, formal compensation does not factor heavily into
the recovery process for many victims: CAST, which has served
hundreds of survivors, has reported that about half of clients
choose not to pursue legal action. Often, said Smith, survivors
"may just want help getting home, or just maybe want some
counseling … And then they move on."
to Restore Survivors
policy straddles the two pillars of anti-trafficking work:
restitution and relief, and critics cite shortcomings in both
federal funding, organizations are challenged by basic capacity
issues, such as providing clients with appropriate language
services or shelters that can accommodate the needs of people
who have endured the trauma and isolation of slavery.
which is unique among service providers in its exclusive focus
on forced labor situations, each caseworker juggles about twenty
clients, and the group’s all-female shelter is consistently
getting calls almost on a daily basis to receive more clients,"
said Cho, "and we’re just not able to."
Miller-Muro said that assistance for victims is often
"unnecessarily delayed or sometimes denied," because the
certification process entangles the work of service providers
with the law enforcement system. According to Free the Slaves,
the certification from law enforcement that is required for
official victim status may take months. The application process
for the T-visa, a special immigration document granted to
trafficking survivors, may take up to a year.
Department recently reported that of the 520 T-visa applications
the federal government received in fiscal year 2004, it approved
just 136. Another 92 are still pending, but the rest were
advocates are frustrated with the legal conditions attached to
federal assistance under the anti-trafficking law, arguing that
policies against forced labor should not muddle the goal of
punishing traffickers with the relief of victims.
providers report that given few other options, many trafficking
survivors eventually agree to endure the criminal investigation
process in order to obtain federal assistance. However, noting
that under the Violence Against Women Act, immigrant domestic
abuse survivors receive immigration relief with no such
restrictions, Cho argued, "We don’t agree that victims of
trafficking should be held at a higher standard than any other
kinds of victims of crime are."
perspective of grassroots anti-slavery activists, justice for
those who have endured forced labor and captivity is not limited
to prosecuting wrongdoers; they say survivors need more than a
court verdict to begin to heal.
need services," said Burke. "And not just to make them good
witnesses, but because they’re human beings, and they’ve had
their human rights violated."