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Jewish Journal

Freeing the slaves—in Los Angeles

by Amy Klein

March 29, 2007 | 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.

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