Imprisoned in the American Nightmare

     Like many before her, she immigrated to the United States filled with promise that she too would be part of the American dream.

     "When I arrived into the United States, I was happy," she recalls. "I think I'm coming to make friends, to have a good life and to make money."

     But her dreams vanished as she found herself living a nightmare — trapped in a house all day, barred from speaking to anyone, and expected to work grueling hours until she collapsed into bed at night.

     "When I'd complain, they'd threaten me … and I feel so sad … because when I was in my own country I used to work, I made friends," she says. "Now I come here, I'm locked in the house, not talking to anyone, not going anywhere … "

     Luckily this young woman didn't remain hidden in the shadows, though she speaks from them on the DVD "I Just Keep Quiet: The Voices of Human Trafficking." Her ordeal ended when her captors kicked her out of their home. In a strange land, unsure of exactly where she was, she contacted the only person she knew in this country for help. This individual rallied a victim organization, which was part of a State of Washington human trafficking task force, to intervene. Law enforcement investigated, and as a result of the task force's combined efforts, the criminal wardens received six months house arrest and were ordered to pay restitution.

     The scenario illustrates what can happen when a victim comes forth and law enforcement and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) know what to do. But all too often these investigations falter and the cases slither underground, keeping the victims' silence and trapping them in a life they cannot escape.

Not my town

     When the topic of human trafficking comes up, law enforcement officials often make some false assumptions, says Jack McDevitt, principal investigator at Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice in Boston, Massachusetts.

     The first assumption: Not in my community.

     The report, "Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking," released by the institute in June, identified that up to 77 percent of local, county and state law enforcement perceive human trafficking as rare or non-existent in their jurisdictions. However, the 2007 "Trafficking in Persons Report" from the U.S. Department of State, estimates 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders annually and coerced into prostitution or forced labor situations throughout the world. And, Marcy Forman, director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Investigations, calculates approximately 16,000 of these individuals wind up in the United States each year.

     "We used to think trafficking was only happening overseas," adds Teresa Flores, author of "The Sacred Bath: An American Teen's Story of Modern Day Slavery," an account of her own victimization as a domestic sex trafficking victim. "Then we noticed the United States was becoming a destination country and more traffickers were bringing people here."

     According to McDevitt, the institute's study, which surveyed 3,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies from both large (more than 75,000 population) and small communities (populations as small as 2,000), supports these beliefs. "Seven percent of the agencies we surveyed had identified a case of human trafficking — that translates to about 900 agencies nationwide," he says.

     The second assumption: Human trafficking is only a big-city problem.

     The institute's research also revealed trafficking cases originate in communities of all sizes. While large departments and agencies covering a diverse population were more likely to encounter human trafficking, the analysis found small communities, with populations as little as 2,000, also uncovered human enslavement, where victims were forced to work in small-town factories or farms.

     Other misconceptions surround the victims themselves.

     People often mistakenly believe human trafficking only involves immigrants. However, Flores stresses domestic teens are also being trafficked. "People look at teens and think they choose to be on the street, they choose to make money this way. But no child wants to be a prostitute or a trafficking victim," says Flores, whose traffickers forced her into the commercial sex trade at 15.

     "Traffickers prey on vulnerable populations," adds Jennifer Kimball, one of the founders of Stop Traffic Now, a student-led grassroots movement against human trafficking in Columbia, Missouri. "It is estimated that 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and girls, and 50 percent are minors." Northeastern University's study backs Kimball's statement, finding nearly 62 percent of all trafficking victims identified by law enforcement were younger than 25, 16 percent younger than 18, and nearly 80 percent were female.

Shed some light on the issue

     Northeastern University's examination also analyzed the factors associated with exposing human trafficking situations, considering things such as being located near U.S. borders and a community's size and diversity. But researchers learned the greatest influence lay within the police agency itself. Those agencies training officers about human trafficking, participating in a trafficking task force, and partnering with victim organizations were more likely to expose trafficking situations.

     The Human Trafficking Rescue Project in western Missouri is a federally funded task force, formed in the latter part of 2006 with a $900,000 Department of Justice grant. This task force consists of a working group comprised of representatives from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and a coalition of service providers. As the Rescue Project's law enforcement liaison, Det. Jason Young specializes in training both groups to identify and investigate human trafficking. He underscores the schooling's importance by saying, "Officers who have not been trained on human trafficking don't recognize it when they come across it in the field."

     Seattle, Washington, has also experienced the value of human trafficking education. This coastal city has been dubbed the "gateway to Asia" because of its easy port and air access to the continent. Being just 2 hours south of the Canadian border also makes this city of 563,000 ripe for human trafficking. Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske reports just last summer officers found 12 Chinese people stowed away in a cargo container, being trafficked for the slave labor trade.

     Seattle city officials quickly discovered it pays to be vigilant when battling these types of concerns. When Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, it earmarked money for human trafficking education, and the Refugee Women's Alliance (ReWA) quickly applied for and received a grant to educate Seattle residents and law enforcement officials about this ever-growing trend. In 2004, the Seattle PD built upon this foundation and was awarded a $450,000 federal grant to become one of 12 U.S. cities to assemble a human trafficking task force. The subsidy enabled the department to employ Det. Harvey Sloan to investigate trafficking cases full-time and establish Wash ACT, the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking.

     Sloan has centered his attention on educating the public and officers about human trafficking — what it is and what it looks like — because as Kerlikowske says "it doesn't always look like a crime." Sloan teamed with ReWA to produce two DVDs: "The Invisible Victims: Human Trafficking Overview for Law Enforcement" and "I Just Keep Quiet: Voices of Human Trafficking." He's also conducted more than 200 presentations, touching more than 6,000 people. Seattle's efforts have paid off — since 2005, officers have identified more than 60 human trafficking victims.

     Most educational efforts also strive to refocus the law enforcement mindset; where officials have been taught to arrest those who have broken the law. Officers may be reluctant to intervene in sex trafficking situations, for example, believing subjects willingly participated. But while prostitution is a crime, McDevitt stresses authorities may need to reclassify some offenders as victims because someone else forced, threatened or coerced them into breaking the law. "Officers must look at things that indicate they are victims, and treat individuals as victims until they know better," he explains.

     Appropriately identifying victims begins with knowing what trafficking really is, says Young, who begins his courses by defining human trafficking, explaining that officers typically encounter two types: sex and labor trafficking. He also describes the difference between smuggling and trafficking because the two are not one in the same as some people believe. (See "Trafficking vs. Smuggling on Page 50.) Once officers understand the basics, Young launches into red flags that point to trafficking, including things such as living in squalid conditions (where multiple people are crammed into a tiny, substandard dwelling), deplorable working conditions and restricted movement. "The evidence we look for includes: Are these victims completely dependent on the trafficker to sustain life?" Young explains. "It can be as simple as missing documentation or as severe as actual cages or restraints to keep victims in a certain place." (See "Questions to ask" on Page 55.)

     Specific queries about victims' circumstances helps officers sum up a situation and bring aid to desperate sufferers, says Flores, who points to a recent case in Cleveland where a Mexican woman paid a trafficker to smuggle her into the country. Upon arrival, the trafficker informed her the deal had changed and she would need to prostitute herself to pay him back. This went on until a routine traffic stop where an officer found it strange that a woman traveled alone with five men. He took her aside and inquired about her situation, and quickly discovered her plight. The Ohio case is not unusual, notes McDevitt, who reports Northeastern University's study found 52 percent of the time law enforcement learns about human trafficking while investigating other crimes.

     A good community policing program also plays into law enforcement's awareness. A public that embraces the law enforcement function willingly acts as the eyes and ears of the police and calls in suspicious circumstances. Police recently cracked a Korean brothel case in Washington, D.C., because the public intervened. Residents reported that every Sunday taxis picked up and dropped off women at a neighboring home. It turns out the operation was moving women from brothel to brothel to avoid detection. "This is an excellent example of community policing," McDevitt says. "A good relationship with your community can be a wonderful way to get intelligence information."

Shattering the silence

     After escaping the commercial sex trade, Flores kept quiet for 20 years. "I didn't know what had happened to me was called human trafficking," she explains. "I knew it was rape. I knew it was gang rape. But I also knew it was way more than that. Those things happen one time; they don't last for two years." It wasn't until the mother of three attended a human trafficking conference in Columbus, Ohio, as a social worker, that she finally learned the term for her victimization.

     Victims often fail to realize that what is happening to them is a crime, states Young. Traffickers tell individuals from Day One they are not victims and they got themselves into this mess. Captives begin to believe they are at fault and there is no way out. "One of our main responsibilities as law enforcers is to get trafficking victims to self-identify," he says. "They need to understand this wasn't right, and it is a crime."

     It can take dogged persistence to scale the barriers victims erect and get them to a point where they want to cooperate, not only with law enforcement but in their own rehabilitation. Northeastern University found 70 percent of agencies surveyed reported lack of victim cooperation as the primary reason these crimes remain underground. Victims fear retaliation toward themselves and their families, and lack trust in the criminal justice system — all of which can hinder investigations.

     Getting victims to disclose facts about their victimization can be an "arduous process," admits Young, who notes he starts slowly and shows compassion toward their predicament in interviews. Keeping his goals in check and realizing things may proceed more slowly than in other cases also helps. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, human trafficking victims don't share what they've experienced in the first interview," he says. "Sometimes it takes three to four interviews before victims come forth with the conditions they've suffered through."

Putting victims first

     Bringing violators to justice hinges on the trust law enforcement builds with victims. Here, agencies have found partnering with NGOs and other social service organizations helps break victim silence by getting critical care to them when they need it the most.

     Kerlikowske points out opening lines of communication with NGOs can help partnerships take shape. Seattle fosters meaningful exchanges by meeting with NGOs every six weeks to discuss cases and human trafficking trends.

     Carrie Buchmann, human trafficking case manager for Hope House, a domestic violence shelter for the Rescue Project, stresses the organization's 25 years as a shelter for domestic violence victims helped its advocates see the virtue of teaming with police in trafficking cases. "We've seen the positive effects of having law enforcement involved with helping men, women and children escape violence," she says. "We learned we had the same objective — to help victims — and to provide better accountability for offenders."

     Buchmann adds some police agencies harbor reservations about pairing with NGOs. Fortunately, this is no longer an issue in Missouri. While law enforcement once felt apprehensive about sharing investigative facts, they now willingly offer up basic information about upcoming raids to help social service organizations arrange victim services. Buchmann receives details such as the approximate time and day police plan to remove victims; the suspected age, gender and race of the individuals; and expected language barriers, then organizes services around identified needs.

     Hope House can call on assistance from more than 60 organizations, offering everything from mental health services to legal assistance. Formal memorandums of understanding with such organizations guarantees the victim-centered approach that is essential for human trafficking victims, who often have multiple acute needs including sexual trauma and illness, malnourishment, infectious diseases or substance abuse issues. Victims cannot fully participate in investigations or their own recovery unless their basic needs are met, Buchmann explains.

     Law enforcement begins interviews with an eye toward sensitivity after Missouri NGOs address victim needs. This helps undo the many factors that can hinder police interviews. Language barriers often compound the experiences victims had before, during and after their rescue. Captors may have tortured, isolated or raped them repeatedly. In their countries of origin, police may have been corrupt and feared. If in this country illegally, individuals may fear deportation. It takes time to undo these kinds of traumas, she stresses.

     It helps when law enforcers put victim welfare first. It also helps when NGOs show outward faith in law enforcement. "If victim advocates trust law enforcement, they can relay that trust to victims," she explains. "Victims see their safety is the most important thing and that it's their choice [to cooperate]. Slowly, after you develop this rapport, they will share their story."

There's 'ICE' in team

     Though working with NGOs frees officers to investigate, successful law enforcement efforts typically include teaming with federal agencies. "No one agency can do it all," Buchmann explains. "It does take the help of everyone."

     While ICE works closely with task forces, such as those in Missouri and Washington, Forman advises any agency investigating a human trafficking case to involve the feds immediately. "ICE has primary jurisdiction in human trafficking cases," she says. Thus, ICE brings a lot of law enforcement muscle to the table. The organization's global footprint includes 26 Special Agent-In-Charge (SAC) offices, 50 attaché bureaus and foreign law enforcement partnerships, important in these transnational, organized crimes where traffickers often identify and recruit potential victims overseas.

     Money laundering is one crime associated with human trafficking, adds Forman, who points out federal agencies are well poised to help investigate varied types of crime. ICE aids agencies by working with financial institutions to confiscate the money traffickers bring in. "This crime is a type of terrorism and it's all about the money," she explains. "The lifeblood of any organization is the money that allows them to do what they do. We target those assets."

     Working federally also secures access to needed money and services for victims, adds Kimball. "The federal government is ahead of the curve in terms of what state and local governments are able to do right now," she says.

     Forman states ICE rates victim rights and needs as high as going after the subjects of the investigation. The organization offers more than 300 victim-witness coordinators, who've received specialized training to deal with human trafficking victims. ICE also arranges T-Visas for international victims.

     When traffickers coerce or force modern day slaves to work in inhumane conditions, perform unspeakable acts, and isolate their victims both physically and psychologically to keep them from escaping, law enforcement officers must step in. Local law enforcement is in a unique position to shatter the silence these victims keep — if they ask the right questions and partner with local, state and federal agencies to bring these perpetrators to justice.

     In the words of the moderator on "I Just Keep Quiet," "Victims of trafficking cannot reach out to us, we must reach out to them." Working these cases the right way can give these silent sufferers back their voices.

Trafficking vs. Smuggling

     U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) defines the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling as follows:

  • Human trafficking: Sex trafficking victims are induced into commercial sex acts by force, fraud or coercion. Victims under age 18, who are induced to perform such acts, also fall under the human trafficking umbrella. Labor trafficking involves recruiting, harboring, transporting or obtaining a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion. This person is then subjected to involuntary servitude, debt bondage or slavery.
  • Human smuggling: Importing people into the United States by deliberately evading immigration laws. This offense includes bringing illegal aliens into the United States as well as unlawfully transporting and harboring aliens already here.

     ICE offers agencies a Tip Identifying card to help distinguish the difference between trafficking and smuggling victims. Agencies also can produce a public service announcement in English or Spanish. Both can be requested through ICE at ICE also has introduced the public service announcement campaign: "Hidden In Plain Sight' across the United States. The advertisements can be seen on buses and billboards in Washington, D.C., and other cities.

Questions to ask

     What appears to be a run-of-the-mill traffic stop, domestic abuse situation, or child neglect case may be far more — it may be human trafficking, says Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske of Seattle, Washington. Properly identifying these cases requires officers to ask the right questions at these calls, adds Det. Jason Young, law enforcement liaison for western Missouri's Human Trafficking Rescue Project. Among the things to consider are:

  • Are the victims nervous or uncooperative? Human traffickers often threaten to kill victims or their families, if they speak to police.
  • Do subjects have free access to where they live? Traffickers may lock victims inside a home, chain them up or put them in cages at night. Look for signs on victims themselves, such as marks on their wrist or ankles.
  • What are the conditions of the home? Are many individuals living in small cramped quarters?
  • Do subjects have access to their paperwork? Traffickers confiscate victims' passports or green cards so they cannot leave. With domestic victims, traffickers may seize their birth certificate and driver's license.
  • How long have they been in the jurisdiction? Traffickers may frequently move victims, particularly in the sex trade where they may transport them to new locations weekly.
  • What type of work were they doing and were they getting paid for their work?
  • How old are they? Kids on the street may answer 18, but make the inquiry in a number of different ways, i.e. What year were you born? What is your birth date?

     Trafficking victim Teresa Flores emphasizes that it's critical to allow victims to speak for themselves. "Many times a language barrier exists, and traffickers, who are often bilingual, will offer to interpret for you," she explains. "That's a big no-no. Get an interpreter and separate the suspected victim from the trafficker."