March 29, 2007
Freeing the slaves—in Los Angeles
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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.