US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Hidden in plain sight

By Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint |
The shadow world of human trafficking

The beating was the final straw. The relentless daily psychological abuse had been bad enough; the endless days of work stretching into weeks and finally into months had been exhausting beyond endurance. Somehow she managed to get through.

“I always just told myself to just take it, to just bear it, just for a little longer,” remembers Lucy, a young Kenyan woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name. But now after being slapped into near unconsciousness by her employer, she realized she was in danger of real physical harm. She would have to plan an escape from this home in a quiet upper-class New York hamlet. She picked up the phone and dialed her only friend in North America, a Kenyan priest living in Toronto, to finally ask someone for help.

There are thousands of people like Lucy, held against their will, in the United States today. You may have passed them on the street, begging for small change, watched one working in a neighbor’s yard or behind a kitchen door, or passed one cleaning a room in a four-star hotel. Some have helped put food on your table or sewn the clothes you wear. A large number of them are trapped deeply underground but still, like their brothers and sisters, in plain sight behind the black-filtered facades of massage parlors and strip joints.

They are the community of America’s enslaved people, trafficked sometimes legally, most often clandestinely across the U.S. border. They are held by force and violence or by the cruelest forms of psychological coercion and persuasion by individuals or by organized crime networks that reach all the way back to the homelands of the trafficked in Africa, Mexico, Central America, Central Europe, and Southeast Asia.

Catholic Charities’s Sister Joann Marie Aumand, S.C.C. works with trafficking victims at the Archdiocese of Newark’s Bishop Francis Center for Immigration Services. “We think this is something that is happening in Burma or Thailand or someplace far away,” says Aumand, “but [it’s] happening right here; it could even be happening next door.”

According to the U.S. State Department, each year about 800,000 people worldwide are trafficked across national borders bound for what most of them believe are better opportunities in a neighboring nation, Europe, or the United States.(Other estimates place the number as high as 3 million.) But instead of that hoped-for better life, these migrants find themselves entrapped in a kind of modern slavery, forced to pay off their travel and associated debts under often horrendous working conditions or in demeaning labor and intimidated into silence and compliance. Trafficking victims are typically obscured from public view by a painstaking system of isolation and surveillance or the simple remoteness of barracks-style housing where they are often kept.

Those who have been rescued from the U.S. sex trade are perhaps best known, but thousands of others are enslaved in less notorious trades: apparel manufacturing, agriculture, even among maintenance and cleaning staff in America’s hotel and restaurant industry.

“We’ve had domestic laborers, sex workers, restaurant workers, victims who have worked in construction,” says Sehla Ashai, an Illinois-based legal advocate for trafficking victims. “We’ve had people in just about every low-paying service industry job.”

“Trafficking victims can be found in all walks of life. They’re not going to be found in some dark alley,” says Nyssa Mestas, associate director of anti-trafficking services at the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services. “You’ll find them working in nice homes or even for legitimate businesses.”

Aumand is currently working with a group of women and girls who were trafficked from Togo and Ghana in West Africa. They had been forced to work in two small Newark, New Jersey-area hair-braiding salons. Following a typical strategy to better control their victims, the traffickers took passports and other ID away from the women. They worked without pay.

Prosecutors allege that the 20 women and girls were beaten if they did not return to the two apartments they shared immediately after work, if they had the nerve to ask for spending money, or if they otherwise disobeyed their employers. The women saw customers six days a week, 14 hours a day, but it took more than a year for their plight to come to the attention of authorities.

Some trafficked laborers end up working for big agricultural processors well known to consumers, but their abuse is distanced from respectable food companies by a kind of bureaucratic plausible deniability. “We had [traffickers] harvesting for two big citrus processors that put the orange juice on your table,” says Brigitte Gynther, a member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida working with the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW).

“You often wonder how [growers] never seem to realize this is going on,” says Gynther, “but the citrus and tomato growers all use contractors. The workers never see the owners; there is a whole system in place of non-responsibility. . . . These guys are kept on isolated labor camps; nobody knows where they are.”

The invisible industry

The U.S. State Department estimates that there may be as many as 18,000 trafficked people living in some form of involuntary servitude in the United States, but few advocates of trafficking victims are confident that figure represents the extent of the problem.


“There’s no census that you can take,” says Mestas. “All I know is that the numbers we’re seeing grow every year, but we may not be identifying them as we should be.”

In modern-day America slavery is just “not on anyone’s radar,” says Mestas. Human trafficking victims often go unrecognized when they come into contact with law enforcement, local social services, or even emergency room doctors treating injured people quieted by the hovering presence of their “employers.”

A wide range of estimates exists on the scope and magnitude of modern-day slavery. The International Labor Organization estimates that globally there are 12.3 million people in forced labor and sexual servitude (other estimates range as high as 27 million) and reports that children represent between 40 and 50 percent of all forced labor.

How large this industry is in the United States is not completely understood, but trafficking victims have been identified in 90 U.S. cities. Worldwide human trafficking generates as much as $42.5 billion annually.

In the past most U.S. trafficking victims worked in the sex-for-hire industry, but according to the latest numbers, victims of trafficking are now almost evenly split between the sex trade and all other labor sectors.

But the lines often blur, advocates say. The commodification of the victim can be complete. Women brought into the United States for domestic service or sweatshop labor are frequently further victimized through sexual assault by their “hosts” or rented out or sold to agents within the sex industry.

As much as 80 percent of the contemporary victims of trafficking and slavery are, like Lucy, women and girls from poor communities in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and Central Europe; 50 percent of trafficking victims are minors. They have few educational or career opportunities. Their status as women in traditional societies is so low they are often already treated like chattel. The poverty they and their families experience is so crushing that otherwise cruel alternatives come to seem acceptable.

The girls and their parents are susceptible to the cajoling and appeals of the itinerant brokers, who represent the trafficking networks in developing countries. Those job recruiters are often women. Claiming to have been placed in jobs overseas themselves, the female recruiters are less threatening to the girls and their families alike, their recruitment success rates higher.

The women hear of the good jobs they can get in America, the chance to go on to a better education and to meet real Americans, perhaps build a future and escape once and for all the poverty that surrounds them. Often, families will sell a daughter to pay off a family debt, send a more valued male sibling to school, or manage a minor and temporary respite from their poverty.

Lucy, in 2003 a single mother of a 5-year-old boy, worked as a housekeeper in the small community of Meru in central Kenya when she heard of what to her seemed an “unbelievable opportunity.”

A Kenyan family living in the United States, acquainted with her employers, was looking for a young Kenyan woman to help them in their home. They were willing to provide transportation and pay what to Lucy seemed the exorbitant amount of $200 a month.

“I didn’t know what $200 was in America. I was thinking that was 16,000 Kenyan shillings, and it seemed like a great deal of money to me,” she says. Lucy signed a two-year work contract.

The American nightmare

At the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) in Los Angeles, women from all over the world are attempting to rebuild lives sidetracked by human trafficking and involuntary servitude. Its director, Lisette Arsuaga, says many of the women seeking assistance at CAST have escaped from California’s sex industry, but many others have also been victims of violence and sexual abuse including rape at the more traditional labor sites where they found themselves.


“Fifty percent of the women we work with are Hispanic,” she says, “but we also see a lot of women from Indonesia and other parts of Asia.” The kind of work-slavery they’ve escaped, she says, varies with little rhyme or reason. In the past more may have come from massage parlors or light industry. “Right now we’re mostly seeing women from domestic servitude.”

Like many victims of trafficking, most of the women CAST works with came to the United States willingly and, as they believed at the time, legally. Only after their arrival and at rendezvous with the local agents of their trafficking operations did they discover that the promised opportunity as a student, an au pair, or with a great job in the tourist or travel industry, did not really exist. Instead they were en route to work in a brothel, bar, or sweatshop. That is only the beginning of the bad news.

They also may only learn upon arrival how much they owe their job recruiters for travel expenses—a debt that somehow only grows more unapproachable as new costs for food, housing, clothing, and upkeep are added each week. In a strange land, unable to speak the language, cut off from friends or family, subject to sexual and physical assault, sometimes placated with drugs, these victims of trafficking begin an American nightmare that may take years to escape.

The experience of male agriculture workers recruited in border areas to work American harvests is similar: a seductive pitch followed by a hasty journey then a rude awakening to debt bondage in Florida, a modern underground railroad in reverse.

The isolation of such workers and their reliance on their “contractors” for food, shelter, even liquor and drugs, is often complete. After deductions for supplies and “housing” from their traffickers, these victims often find a weeks’ hard work in America’s growing fields only got them deeper in debt.

Lucy thought she was on her way to an American paradise. “I was so excited,” she says, remembering her arrival. Her employer worked for the United Nations, his wife for a local bank. She didn’t question them when they locked her visa and passport and later her Social Security card away for “safekeeping.”

Lucy had come a long way to seek a different future than the bitter road that lay ahead for a poor and uneducated woman in Kenya, but her dream of a new life in the United States quickly dissolved. “I worked every day from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. They said I came to America to work, I didn’t come to America to talk to Americans. I didn’t come to America to watch TV. I never rested. If I had finished all my work, then I should be looking around for something else to do.

“I was just like a stupid person,” Lucy says, remembering that other person with a sudden bitterness, “believing whatever they told me, doing whatever they told me. I was trying to please them, but I never could.”

Not only was she not allowed to watch television or use the phone, she was essentially never allowed out of the home. Lucy knew no one in America and nothing about U.S. life except what her employers told her. What they told her was consistently frightening.

Lucy’s employers were verbally abusive to her from the beginning, she says, and each week they found a reason to dock her meager pay for meals or performance they deemed substandard. When the family’s old electric dryer breathed its last, Lucy was accused of breaking the machine and had an entire month’s salary and then some deducted from the savings account her mistress was keeping for her. In addition to her housekeeping duties, Lucy was supposed to care for the couple’s 8-year-old child. One afternoon the girl burned herself on a hot iron playing “laundry.” The blame for the injury fell on Lucy.

“Now my husband will beat you when he comes home,” her mistress coolly assured her. It was not an empty threat. The man forced himself into Lucy’s basement room and beat her senseless. She had been essentially a slave for more than a year by the time of this attack. “At this time I realized I was in trouble; I can’t do this anymore, but I thought, if I escape, where do I go? If I call the police, where do I go? They were the only people I knew.”

Stopping traffick

Sehla Ashai is a counter-trafficking attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. She says law enforcement agencies across the United States have been working harder at recognizing trafficking cases, but there is still a long way to go to raise the profile of this crime.


But the primary obstacle to more prosecutions of traffickers could be the victims themselves. They are frequently unable or unwilling to come forward. Silenced by language or isolation, sometimes by shame, victims of human trafficking often don’t understand that their treatment is illegal in the United States or that in the United States the police can be trusted to save them from their plight.

Victims also often hesitate to seek help because of communal, even familial, connections to the people who are victimizing them. They may identify more with their traffickers—who often come from their home nations or villages—than with the people attempting to assist them. Geoff Scowcroft, a legal advocate for Catholic Charities in Portland, Oregon, describes the phenomenon as “trauma bonding.”

Ashai says trafficking victims are often unable to come forward because they simply don’t have freedom of movement or are simply too afraid to surface to save themselves—afraid not only what the traffickers might do to them but to their families back home. “It’s a really effective way of scaring people into doing what you want,” says Ashai, “when you say you know where their family lives—and you really do.”

In an attempt to encourage prosecution of traffickers by protecting victims and their families both in the United States and their home countries, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 created the T-visa with an annual quota of 5,000. The T-visa allows trafficking victims to stay in the United States working toward permanent residence as long as they cooperate with law enforcement against their traffickers, and it includes visa opportunities for immediate family members of victims, so their safety can likewise be assured.

The T-visa initiative has had mixed success. Since its inception fewer than 1,000 trafficking victims have made their way through federal paperwork to a T-visa, and although it reports record numbers of investigations and prosecutions, the Department of Justice has managed only 77 convictions nationwide for human trafficking in 2008.

After her beating, Lucy says, the last thing on her mind was calling the police. Her employers had often warned her to stay away from the police since they were likely to deport her, and civic life in Kenya had taught her that police officers were not to be trusted. “In Kenya, you could beat someone up right in front of the police, and they would do nothing,” she says.

The new abolition

Finding ways to encourage trafficking victims to come forward is only part of a stronger overall strategy to fight trafficking and modern slavery. A more powerful approach, says CAST’s Arsuaga is to “abolish slavery by fighting it at its roots.”


Families often don’t understand what they are getting their daughters into when they make deals with traffickers who are promising the good life. Arsuaga advocates more aggressive efforts to publicize the unpleasant outcomes of trafficking in developing countries before girls fall for the recruiters’ pitch.

“The problem is you’re appealing to people who often don’t know how to read and they listen to the radio for entertainment, for music,” says Arsuaga. “But they do watch telenovelas.” CAST is helping to produce a telenovela­—a kind of Spanish language soap opera—for Latin American television. The show will dramatize the experience of a trafficked girl, hoping to get a warning out about the dangers of “job brokers” who come to Central American and Mexican villages.

Raising awareness in the developing world must be accompanied by better attention to the problem in the United States, say victim advocates, and a recognition that rescuing trafficked people is only the beginning of a lengthy process of restoration. Catholic Charities human trafficking outreach programs in Newark and Portland deploy a full gamut of medical, social, and psychological services when a trafficking victim is delivered to them.

“This is a real violation of human dignity,” says the USCCB’s Mestas. “They need our help to be healed; they need our help to be rescued and restored. This isn’t like a robbery; your whole body has been violated. You as a person are a commodity to traffickers. That takes a while to heal.”

Lucy’s priest friend in Toronto was eventually able to connect her with the Newark archdiocese’s Catholic Charities office. After a few days of planning with federal agents, they made a final call. “They asked me: ‘Are you ready to get out of that place?’ ” Lucy says.

“I said, ‘I’m ready.’ ” Catholic Charities staff and agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency descended on Lucy’s home and pulled her out. That afternoon she was in a shelter. Her escape had been shockingly simple to her.

“I was so happy. Even though I was in a shelter, I was free. I could get up and take a walk. I could talk to people.”

Four years after she made her escape, Lucy seems well on her way to healing. Catholic Charities helped her get a T-visa and a job and arranged for her first-born son to immigrate to the United States to be with her after years of separation. “They started the life that was taken away from me,” she says.

Now Lucy has an American husband and two new American-born babies. She has hope for her future and a warning for young girls like her wondering how to escape.

“Don’t be afraid like I was. Call the police. Don’t go through what I went through.”

This article appeared in the January 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 1, pages 12-17).