Slavery Slips Through Cracks in U.S. Policy
Date: Wednesday, January 04 @ 08:59:07 EST
Topic: Human Trafficking

(part one of two)

by Michelle Chen

Jul 5, 2005 - Nearly sixty years after the international community declared it a crime against humanity, slavery today is far from banished. Involuntary servitude persists in developed and underdeveloped regions, and the United States remains one of the major destinations for traffickers and their captives. But according to activists and researchers, despite recent progress in anti-trafficking policies and enforcement, what many consider the basest form of human exploitation continues to thrive in the US. Pointing to inadequate enforcement of human rights laws, lagging community awareness, and a dearth of resources for victims, anti-slavery advocates say that behind the crime of forced labor is a societal failure to protect the most deeply subjugated. According to the research and advocacy group Free the Slaves, forced labor is largely concentrated in illegal or minimally regulated industries: nearly half of trafficking cases involve forced prostitution, about 27 percent involve domestic service, and manufacturing and farm work collectively account for approximately 15 percent.
Public awareness of the issue has risen slowly with the landmark federal anti-trafficking law, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, passed in 2000. The act provides funding for anti-trafficking programs and offers legal protections for survivors, including legal resident status. The legislation defines its target, "severe trafficking," as the commercial trade of human beings for purposes of labor or sexual services that involves "force, fraud or coercion." But grassroots advocates for forced labor victims have a simpler definition. "We use the word ‘trafficking,’ but that’s really a euphemism," said Bill Bernstein, deputy director of the Texas-based social service group Mosaic Family Services. "What we’re really talking about is modern-day slavery."

Bernstein, whose group handles a constant flow of slavery cases, listed some typical scenarios: an offer to earn good wages and study lures a teenage girl abroad, where she is forced to work eighteen hours a day as a housekeeper. Aided by a smuggler, a young man’s passage across the US-Mexico border ends with a crushing debt, to be repaid through captive manual labor. "There is no such thing as a typical trafficking case," said Bernstein, but he noted a common thread among victims: "They’ll be promised something, which ends up being very different when they end up where they’re going." According to government estimates, each year, 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the US. Though more trafficking victims are being uncovered each year, so far, only about 600 victims have been officially "certified" under the statutes of the federal anti-trafficking law. The public’s knowledge of the issue is still too weak to inspire community vigilance.To anti-slavery activists, the gap between the official records and the vague estimates reveals that the slave labor market continues to defy both the law and efforts to quantify the problem. According to Jolene Smith, executive director of Free the Slaves, "We have failed miserably as a country in rooting out trafficking victims and traffickers." Intimidation, Lack of Awareness Keep Forced Labor Victims Shackled Sometimes, release from captivity comes when a vigilant neighbor alerts a social service organization. Or police might discover a victim unexpectedly when they raid an underground operation, such as a brothel. Service providers say that in any case, for victims who are stifled by fear and overlooked by the public, the prospect of escape depends largely on luck. In Smith’s view, the public’s knowledge of the issue is still too weak to inspire community vigilance. "We know that people … are not asking hard questions of what’s going on in their own communities," she said. "They’re not demanding that there be investigations, because they don’t know that it could happen in their community." Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, a social service organization serving immigrant women, finds it alarming that despite the group’s outreach campaigns in immigrant communities, they currently serve only a few "lucky" trafficking survivors. Organizations that offer assistance for survivors, she said, are still unable "to reach the ones who most need to be reached." Yet advocates say that in addition to a lack of public awareness and outreach, walls of fear and cultural repression also stand between service providers and people in captivity. Since traffickers often enjoy high social status in their communities, said Miller-Muro, victims may be "worried about how they will look if they oppose this powerful person [or] this well-known diplomat." Service providers have observed that even some organizations embedded in local ethnic communities are afraid to publicly advocate for victims, fearing public backlash. Class lines have run through several high-profile cases involving foreign dignitaries or businesspeople charged with abusing workers they brought into the country. In the case of Lakireddy Bali Reddy, for example, a wealthy California businessman was charged in 2000 with importing young girls from his home village in India, forcing them to work in the buildings and restaurants he owned, and repeatedly sexually abusing them. Reddy ultimately received a plea bargain involving $2 million in restitution and an eight-year prison term. Although activists decried the sentence as too lenient, the millionaire’s public image had nearly enabled him to elude law enforcement completely. The Immigration and Naturalization Service investigated Reddy’s immigration record in 1997, but, as an immigration official told reporters after the allegations finally surfaced, the agency determined only that he was a "professionally educated gentleman, with widespread corporate interests, financial interests. There was nothing to indicate any criminal conduct."

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