Jewish Journal

Freeing the slaves—in Los Angeles

by Amy Klein

Posted on Mar. 29, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Flor, brought to the U.S. from Mexico under false pretenses, was held captive, beaten and terrorized by her employer.  She now speaks publicly about human trafficking. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Flor, brought to the U.S. from Mexico under false pretenses, was held captive, beaten and terrorized by her employer. She now speaks publicly about human trafficking. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

"Slaves we were in a land not our own...."

Flor was 29 years old and living with her four children in a small town in Mexico when her newborn became ill.

"She died because I didn't have money to save her," Flor, who asked that her last name not be used, remembered in an interview last week as she spoke to a reporter in somewhat broken English. "After she pass away, I feel so guilty. I felt it was my fault. I felt I didn't do enough to save her. I could [have] begged on the streets for money, but I didn't."

After her child's death, Flor decided to take a sewing class. And one day, she casually mentioned to the sewing teacher that she had dreams of going to America.

The teacher later came to Flor's house to tell her there was sewing work in America, with free transportation across the border and good pay and good housing -- but together they had to leave in just three days.

"For me, it was hard to decide to come. I had my mother and my brother, my children," Flor said, but thoughts of her baby's death encouraged her to agree to go. Besides, she thought, she knew and trusted her teacher, so what could go wrong?

"It was a dream," Flor said.

Flor and the teacher flew from Mexico City to Tijuana, where a "coyote" transported them into the United States. There they met the woman whom Flor calls, "my trafficker." "She said for safety reasons, she had to keep my Mexican birth certificate and my I.D., and even though it was the only I.D. I had with me, since it was my first time coming to the U.S. I thought it was OK ... it was strange."

Things got even more strange when the woman woke the pair the next morning -- Jan. 1, 2002 -- at 4 a.m. They were made to clean the woman's house for four hours, and then they were taken to a shop where they worked until midnight. For three days they slept at the woman's house, but then the woman said they would have to sleep in the shop, because transporting them was a waste of time.

For the next 40 days, Flor and her former teacher worked 16-hour days and were beaten, terrorized, threatened and humiliated by the woman. They were given two 10-minute breaks per day to eat meals of just rice and beans; they had to wash themselves in the bathroom sink, and they were kept under watch at all times, forbidden to talk to anyone.

Flor and her sewing teacher were victims of human trafficking. They had become slaves.

When we hear the word "slave" it generally conjures images of pre-Civil War America, of the mid-16th century African slave trade that formed the basis of the sugar economy. As Jews, particularly at Passover time, we remember our history in ancient Egypt, Avadim hayinu le'Paroah b'Mitzrayim -- "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt" -- and of our emancipation, that we celebrate each year.

But for thousands of people like Flor, slavery is not a thing of the past. Slavery is, in fact, very much alive in the world today. Twenty-seven million people are working as indentured slaves in the world today, according to Kevin Bales, author of "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy" (University of California Press, 2000), the first worldwide study of human slavery. Bales is also president of the organization Free the Slaves, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to ending slavery around the world.

"Today there are more slaves alive than any other time in human history," said Jolene Smith, executive director of Free the Slaves.

The victims of slavery come from the poorest sectors of society in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union -- they are often women and are always lured in through false promises of a better life.

These are not usually migrants, who have paid human smugglers to transport them across borders. The definition of slaves today is that trafficking victims who are subjected to "force, fraud or coercion," according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, P.L. 106-386, §103(8).

Some are abducted, while others are lured by the false promise of a good job and a better life, often through job advertisements in newspapers or bogus travel, modeling and matchmaking agencies. They are taken from their homes to other countries, only to be forced into the sex trade, indentured servitude or sweatshop labor. Traffickers worldwide earn $7 billion to $10 billion each year, according to a 2003 State Department report ("Trafficking in Persons Report"), thereby making human trafficking one of the three largest criminal enterprises, together with drug and arms dealing.

In fiscal year 2003, the U.S. government spent about $91 million on international anti-trafficking programs, according to a 2004 Department of Justice Report.

Traffickers sell slaves to Europe, Israel and, increasingly, to North America. In the United States, human trafficking is a growing problem. In 1999, a report issued by the CIA estimated that 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States a year. But in 2004, when the Department of Justice put that number at between 14,000 and 17,000 a year.

Like Flor, many -- although it's hard to get an exact figure --end up in Los Angeles.

"And the Egyptians made evil of us and they tormented us and laid hard labor upon us."

Slavery first came to light in Los Angeles 10 years ago on Aug. 2, 1995, when state and federal agents raided a garment factory in El Monte, where 72 Thai nationals were being held against their wills, without contact with the outside world -- working and living in a squalid apartment complex surrounded by barbed wire. They were made to work 16 to 18 hour days and weren't allowed to leave; they were beaten, threatened, starved and humiliated.

Their travails didn't end when they were liberated from the complex: From there, because they were in the country illegally, they were taken to prisons, where they were threatened with deportation, treated as criminals and not as people who had been smuggled here and tricked into slavery, then kept against their will for years. It was a revelation for the American judicial system, which had no mechanism for dealing with human trafficking on American soil. Neither immigration officials nor law enforcement officers had the legal tools to deal with this group. But in the wake of the outcry over this notorious El Monte case, local activists formed the Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking (CAST))in 1998. Since 2003 (when they began keeping databases), CAST has helped rescue more than 300 victims of human trafficking in Los Angeles. The group helps to free victims, as well as prosecute and litigate their captors, and it helps those victims adjust to a normal life. It also operates a safe haven, where victims can live and learn English, take classes, work in a garden, as well as participate in activities like dancing, performing and forming a new community.

Human trafficking in Los Angeles has "tripled over the last year alone," according to Kay Buck, executive director of CAST. "And the reason we don't know [the exact number] is because the crime itself is so hard to detect and often goes undetected by law enforcement."

Although media attention has focused on some cases of sex slavery, Buck said that those that have been revealed account for only about 34 percent of her cases. She also works with victims of slavery who labor in sweatshops, as domestic workers and, increasingly, in the restaurant and construction industries.

Make no mistake about it. When people like Buck talk about slavery and human trafficking, they're not referring to low-wage earners working in sweatshops and the hotel industry. She is referring to people who, though they may also earn subpar wages -- if they earn anything -- are not allowed any freedom to leave. Their passports have been confiscated, and they are sometimes kept behind barbed wire or are guarded and often threatened physically and psychologically.

Flor worked alongside some 50 voluntary workers, most of whom worked on shifts and who were able to leave, while she was forced to stay at the workshop all of the time. Her trafficker wrote up her pay stub for only a few hours' work and made Flor sign it.

"She pinch me, she pull my hair, she threaten me, she said if I didn't do what she wanted me to do, someone would pay the consequences. She knew where my mother and children are," Flor said the trafficker told her. She was told, "You don't want someone to pay the consequences because you are not obeying me."

Buck said that it is the threat that often keeps women like Flor bound to their traffickers. "There may have been an opportunity for a victim to escape, but because of the psychological coercion that is really so extreme, they stay under the control of the traffickers," Buck said. "The traffickers threaten the victims by saying, 'If you try to run away I will find you, I will hunt you down and I will kill you.'"

They also tell the victims that the police will arrest them and deport them, making it further unlikely the victims will seek outside help.

"Imagine what that might feel like if you don't know anything about the laws of the United States," Buck said, "about the people of the United States, if they're going to help you or not, and to have the only person that you know in this country say that 'dogs have more rights than you do,' what are you to think?"

Which is what Flor was told. "You are here illegally, and nobody can trust you, and if you go to the police, they can arrest you because you have no papers, and if you do something, I will call to the INS, and they will send you back, and not only send you back, they might put you in jail."

Most victims of human trafficking, no matter how desperate their situation, don't want to return to their home country. For one, the trafficker -- often a powerful, respected person in the community -- could simply get them back. (Flor's trafficker is a cousin of the mayor of her hometown.). But they have also come to America for a reason: To pay back debt, support impoverished families, flee abusive marriages -- usually to make a better life for themselves.

"Remember the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Following the El Monte raids, CAST and other human trafficking organizations helped lobby for freed victims to have rights to stay in this country. Many victims of trafficking at that time were treated like criminals, even after their release -- strip-searched, detained, deported -- without sympathy for the plight they'd undergone.

Today, the "T" visa, created under the Trafficking Victims Protection Authorization Act of 2000 (TVPA), allows survivors to stay in the country for four years, extended from the original three. As the first comprehensive federal law to protect victims of trafficking and to prosecute the perpetrators, it was meant to eventually allow for permanent residency -- but the regulations to provide that have not yet been written.

"We have more than 20 survivors whose lives are in limbo, because they're sitting here waiting for a green card," Buck said. Members of CAST and other anti-trafficking organizations are petitioning the government to issue regulations to allow for the "T" visa to transition to legal residency.

In January 2006, California passed one of the strictest laws against human trafficking, AB22, the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which made trafficking a felony and established a special task force to fight it, with some 60 members from the FBI, the Sheriff's Department, the district attorney's office and police, whose job it is to track down and prosecute traffickers. Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti is a member of the task force. "It's fitting right now that we remember the story when we were slaves, that we always talk about it in past tense. Today it exists in present tense. Today it exists in Los Angeles," Garcetti said. "We want to send a message that this is an unacceptable violation of human rights."

The task force has also started a campaign called Know Human Trafficking to publicize the fact that modern-day slavery exists.

On Jan. 11, Garcetti, Councilman Tony Cardenas and LAPD Chief William Bratton gathered with other officials to announce the declaration of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

This cause is particularly close to Garcetti's heart. "For me, as a Jew of Mexican background, seeing the trafficking on our border and knowing the Jewish story, I couldn't turn my back," he said. He suggests that organizations, synagogues and individuals invite a survivor of slavery into their community "to hear their journey of freedom in our time and support CAST's work to end slavery in our backyard," he said. "As Jews we have a special obligation to make sure that our history of slavery is not relived in modern times."

"We were slaves, but now we are free."

In the end, Flor's rescue was brought about by one of her co-workers -- a voluntary worker who noticed Flor was there all the time but didn't know exactly what was going on. She slipped Flor a piece of paper with her phone number on it.

One day, Flor started asking her trafficker if she could go to church. "What do you want to do in church, you are a bad person, you are not allowed to go," the woman told her. But Flor persisted, and the woman said if she worked extra hard, she'd consider it. Flor began working until 1 a.m. and 2.a.m., and finally told her captor, "If you want me to do more work for you, I will, but please let me go to church." The woman relented, and one day let Flor and her sewing teacher go out alone, after a stern warning to return immediately after Mass.

It was their first time outside their confinement in America. Flor went to a pay phone to call her co-worker, and after some help from a stranger, got through. The co-worker came to pick them up and took them to a restaurant.

It was Flor's first real meal since Mexico and the first time the co-worker heard their story. She invited them to stay with her, but after pressure from the trafficker, the two fled to a relative in San Diego. There, a group of officials came to ask them questions -- among them a woman from the shop. Flor was scared; she was sure the woman was a stool for the trafficker, until the woman presented her badge: FBI. She'd been on a sting operation to bust the trafficker and save Flor.

Flor and her sewing teacher spent 40 days in captivity and finally, although it took them a while to understand, they were free.

Many victims are held even longer. CAST has freed people who have been enslaved for as long as three years, and even when freed, they often become listless, despairing, hopeless, with no thoughts of escape. But not Flor. "I'm Catholic. I have faith in God. One thing I did every day, I ask God to help me escape. I told him no one knew I was there and only he knew my whole condition.... I asked God to help me escape from her." She considers her escape a miracle.

In the four years since Flor's release, she has learned English, taken classes, worked at various jobs and tried to make a life for herself in America. She is hoping her children will come here under a "T" visa provision extended to the immediate family of the victims.

"So many times people only see the trauma, that this terrible human rights violation has occurred," Buck said. "What they don't see is the other side of it -- that's the courage to recover, to be members of the community."

"It's pretty rewarding to represent someone who has the courage to stand up and say, 'You can't do this to me anymore.' I can't imagine how tough it would be in this situation when you come here -- you don't speak the language, you're intimidated daily, then you have the strength to recognize that someone can't treat you that way, and either try to escape or report it," said Becky Monroe, director of Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek-The House of Justice, a legal services organization providing free assistance to more than 10,000 people in the Los Angeles area. They have recently become involved in a human trafficking case.

Monroe said the organization has had to turn away a number of cases because it doesn't have the resources to pursue them.

Bet Tzedek has worked with organizations like CAST on a handful of cases, and although she cannot divulge their specific nature because they are currently in litigation, Monroe said, "I'm just so proud this person is my client ...[showing] what it means to really stand up for what you believe when everything's at stake. That's why I became a lawyer, to try and support people like that. It's humbling."

"In every generation, we are commanded to view ourselves as if each one of us was personally brought forth out of Egypt."

There is more that can be done to fight slavery and human trafficking locally, too. "One thing that we've really noticed a big change in -- and that speaks to why outreach is so critical -- Good Samaritans," said Buck, referring to people who notice something that looks awry and report it to CAST. Although many of CAST's cases come through their network of victims and through community-based organizations, as well as law enforcement, as the public has become aware of the problem, they have been helpful, too.

One high school student noticed a neighbor who was only outside when she took out the garbage. She told her mother; they approached the woman and eventually got the person out. Buck advises anyone wanting to help to approach victims slowly and to attempt to build rapport with them before taking action.

"A good sign or indicator [is] when there's mattresses in the back of a place of business," Buck said. "That's not normal." One tip came from a neighbor who saw a woman cutting the grass with scissors -- behind a fence. "If people see a suspicious factory or massage parlor where children may be working in factory-like conditions" or a place where people enter but never leave, they should notify authorities, Garcetti said.

"I was surprised by how helpful the average citizen was to helping slaves," slavery expert Bales said in the documentary "Dreams Die Hard." "This could be the generation that says, 'Enough, we've had 5,000 years of slavery, we're going to bring it to an end.'"

But Flor's story hasn't yet come to an end. Her trafficker served only six months in prison, because she was convicted before the new laws were enacted. Now, Flor said, she's out and looking for Flor again. She went to Flor's mother in Mexico and demanded to know where Flor was, and when Flor went to visit her children, some of the town's men demanded her American address.

Flor still fears her trafficker, but that does not stop her from speaking out and serving on CAST's caucus. She talks to the press, to religious groups and she even was nominated to serve on the state's task force. "I want to tell law enforcement how to recognize victims; I want to tell victims that there's hope for them. I also want to tell my trafficker that it's not true what she said, what she have done to me is not right. Because no human is created to be in slavery. I want to tell her and all traffickers around the world, is not nice because we are created equals, and we have the right to be free."

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