Of all the areas of human services I’ve been involved with over the years, few are as troubling as human trafficking, the modern-day equivalent of the slave trade.
Human trafficking targets vulnerable people of all ages. Traffickers take the wages of large numbers of victims in fields and factories and enslave workers in the hotels we stay in. Traffickers mislead skilled or educated adults facing chronic unemployment with the false lure of higher paying jobs. Traffickers buy or coerce children from families facing poverty and economic desperation. And traffickers abduct victims.
In Florida, where I was the secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, I co-chaired the Florida Statewide Task Force on Human Trafficking. Florida has the dubious distinction of ranking near the top in the nation in human trafficking victims because of its agriculture and hospitality industries.
The cases still stay with me. In one case, an Orlando man met a 17-year-old girl on MySpace and promised to make her a "star." Instead, he made her a prostitute in California and Las Vegas, advertising her availability on Craigslist. In other cases, young men were lured from other countries with the promise of high-paying jobs. When they arrived, they were threatened by their traffickers that they would be reported to authorities for illegal entry, and then pressed into forced labor in the hotel industry.
Since coming to Washington D.C. and working with sister agencies such as the Departments of Justice, State and Homeland Security, I’ve seen an even larger picture of human trafficking. Recently, I visited a center in Chicago where previously trafficked women were given a home and support. I listened as eight women told their stories.
These women--some of them girls, really—had been lured into situations with promises of a better life for them and their families. What struck me most in listening to them is how they had been robbed of their own sense of self worth. They had been treated as a commodity and, over time, came to question whether their value was only in terms of their bodies. It broke my heart to consider what was taken from them.
Today, February 1, is National Freedom Day and January was Human Trafficking Awareness month, during which I participated in numerous events to call attention to this issue.
Why is “awareness” so critical? Because it is very difficult for trafficking victims to come forward. They often find themselves physically and socially isolated in an unfamiliar culture, unable to speak or understand the language, without valid immigration papers and intimidated by their traffickers. For these reasons, they fear reaching out to law enforcement officers, health providers or others who would be in a position to help them.
In one recent case, traffickers paid the smuggling fee for undocumented young men from Mexico, and then required them to pay off their smuggling debt by selling pirated CDs and DVDs in apartment complexes in Texas. Through ACF’s Rescue and Restore partners, law enforcement and social service agencies worked together to rescue the victims and prosecute the traffickers. All three defendants pleaded guilty last April to conspiring to force labor.
As one ACF staffer said at a recent retreat: “ACF is all about hope – that’s what we do: provide hope.” And that’s true of our work with human trafficking victims. From our comprehensive case management services for victims, to our outreach programs to homeless and runaway youth, to critical resources for social service providers, we are reaching and helping human trafficking victims every day.
The women I met with in Chicago experienced horrific ordeals, but they are now in a place where they can write a new story about their lives. The men who were held and forced into labor in Texas were certified as trafficking victims, and are now receiving case management services and help in finding a job.
No matter how brutally their dreams were deferred, these former victims of human trafficking are now in a position to build a better life. Finally, they can start to reach for the opportunity that our country has always promised.