Slavery in our own backyard
A young mother from Mexico, Sandra, came to the United States for work in August 2009 in order to provide a better life for her family. She paid what is known as a “coyote” to help her cross the border into Texas. Sandra’s ultimate destination was South Carolina, but the coyote insisted on stopping in Houston first. Sandra arrived at what she thought was a safe house in Spring Branch. She later discovered it was not a safe house at all; it was a living hell: the home of a leader of a human trafficking ring.
Sandra soon realized she was not alone. 13 males arrived at the same house that night. She grew fearful when the traffickers, who had blood stained clothing and who kept bragging about a murder, ordered everyone into the same large, empty room. Sandra, another woman and the 13 men were told to strip down. Their clothing and whatever belongings they had were taken. At gunpoint, Sandra and the others, all frightened, were ordered to provide the names and phone numbers of their family members. They had no choice but to give this information.
The traffickers made ransom calls to each of their families, demanding additional money. The ringleader then ordered Sandra to an upstairs bedroom. Terrified and crying, a gun was placed to her temple, and she was sodomized repeatedly. While he raped Sandra, the man told her that if her family failed to pay the ransom, she would never see her children in Mexico again and that she would have to work her “debt” off to him as a prostitute at a local cantina in Houston. He then spit on her, showing her who was in control. Over the next 12 days, the traffickers called Sandra’s family repeatedly. But, Sandra’s family did not have the money to pay and they knew not to call the cops for fear of retaliation. Because the money never came, the traffickers took turns raping Sandra. Sandra thought she was coming to the US for a better life. Instead, she became a slave.
A police raid freed Sandra shortly thereafter after a busted coyote tipped the cops off. Sandra was arrested, too, and was actually relieved, knowing that absent police intervention, she would have either been killed or further abused. This is not a story from a TV show or a book. Sandra’s story is real. Believe it or not, this type of unspeakable activity happens right here in the United States. Unlike Sandra, many victims are not rescued as quickly and face daily rapes and violence by their traffickers.
The victims are typically women, both adult and children, but sometimes include men. They include those that are brought here from another country in hope of finding work or American children whose vulnerabilities are taken advantage of, and they are forced into sex and/or labor trafficking to try to repay a debt. Human trafficking is modern day slavery. It is complex and often confused with other crimes, like prostitution. Therefore, the data is a work in progress, but a 2009 Department of Justice report states that at least 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked in the U.S. each year. 2007 statistics show that 30 percent of the calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline came from Texas. Houston in particular is a hub for human trafficking because of the many interstates, airports and ports. Thankfully, Texas has some of the most pro-active law enforcement agencies and public officials who are committed to ending human trafficking through tough penalties for traffickers and increased protections for victims.
The Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus, which i founded and co-chair with Congressman Jim Costa (D-CA), works with victim advocates and service providers to find federal avenues to counter human trafficking, including the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The Caucus also works to educate Members of Congress on the many facets of human trafficking, most recently hosting a Congressional briefing that addressed child trafficking on the internet, an unfortunately widespread problem.
The biggest hurdle to combating human trafficking is the endless demand. As we continue our joint efforts to educate the nation on this insidious crime, we all must work together to support law enforcement training, to strengthen the penalties for traffickers and buyers and to provide specific services to victims. We must end the slavery in our own back yard. And that’s just the way it is.