Imprisoned in the American Nightmare

Freeing the silent sufferers of human trafficking and bringing their captors to justice


     Like many before her, she immigrated to the United States filled with promise that she too would be part of the American dream.

     "When I arrived into the United States, I was happy," she recalls. "I think I'm coming to make friends, to have a good life and to make money."

     But her dreams vanished as she found herself living a nightmare — trapped in a house all day, barred from speaking to anyone, and expected to work grueling hours until she collapsed into bed at night.

     "When I'd complain, they'd threaten me … and I feel so sad … because when I was in my own country I used to work, I made friends," she says. "Now I come here, I'm locked in the house, not talking to anyone, not going anywhere … "

     Luckily this young woman didn't remain hidden in the shadows, though she speaks from them on the DVD "I Just Keep Quiet: The Voices of Human Trafficking." Her ordeal ended when her captors kicked her out of their home. In a strange land, unsure of exactly where she was, she contacted the only person she knew in this country for help. This individual rallied a victim organization, which was part of a State of Washington human trafficking task force, to intervene. Law enforcement investigated, and as a result of the task force's combined efforts, the criminal wardens received six months house arrest and were ordered to pay restitution.

     The scenario illustrates what can happen when a victim comes forth and law enforcement and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) know what to do. But all too often these investigations falter and the cases slither underground, keeping the victims' silence and trapping them in a life they cannot escape.

Not my town

     When the topic of human trafficking comes up, law enforcement officials often make some false assumptions, says Jack McDevitt, principal investigator at Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice in Boston, Massachusetts.

     The first assumption: Not in my community.

     The report, "Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement Responses to Human Trafficking," released by the institute in June, identified that up to 77 percent of local, county and state law enforcement perceive human trafficking as rare or non-existent in their jurisdictions. However, the 2007 "Trafficking in Persons Report" from the U.S. Department of State, estimates 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders annually and coerced into prostitution or forced labor situations throughout the world. And, Marcy Forman, director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Investigations, calculates approximately 16,000 of these individuals wind up in the United States each year.

     "We used to think trafficking was only happening overseas," adds Teresa Flores, author of "The Sacred Bath: An American Teen's Story of Modern Day Slavery," an account of her own victimization as a domestic sex trafficking victim. "Then we noticed the United States was becoming a destination country and more traffickers were bringing people here."

     According to McDevitt, the institute's study, which surveyed 3,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies from both large (more than 75,000 population) and small communities (populations as small as 2,000), supports these beliefs. "Seven percent of the agencies we surveyed had identified a case of human trafficking — that translates to about 900 agencies nationwide," he says.

     The second assumption: Human trafficking is only a big-city problem.

     The institute's research also revealed trafficking cases originate in communities of all sizes. While large departments and agencies covering a diverse population were more likely to encounter human trafficking, the analysis found small communities, with populations as little as 2,000, also uncovered human enslavement, where victims were forced to work in small-town factories or farms.

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