March 29, 2007
Freeing the slaves—in Los Angeles
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.