Labor trafficking? Immigration reform’s the thing

Modesto Hernandez sits in his apartment on Feb. 26, 2013. Credit: Photo by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News

Last week, the FBI rescued 105 sexually exploited children — some as young as thirteen — and arrested 150 alleged perpetrators of human trafficking crimes during Operation Cross Country. Three of those young women and nine of the 150 were local, according to the Seattle Times.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice has estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year. Washington's many ports and its international border make it a particular hotspot for trafficking: The Washington Task Force against Trafficking of Persons reports that there have been human trafficking cases in 18 of Washington’s 39 counties.

Still, the state has also been an early adopter of anti-trafficking legislation. In 2003, Washington became the first state in the nation to criminalize human trafficking as a felony.

Of course, not all trafficking victims are alike. “We often think of trafficking as the horrific situations of trafficking women for prostitution, but there is labor trafficking, in all manner of low-wage and not-low wage work, against workers who are here with every different kind of visa or no visa,” explained Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project, at a Human Trafficking and Immigration Reform conference earlier this year. 

Her organization works with community groups and unions on behalf of low-wage workers, including the estimated eight million undocumented workers in the country.

Victims are often placed by their handlers in domestic labor jobs in fields like agriculture, landscaping, housekeeping and construction. But for many, “their jobs do not turn out as advertised,’’ Smith explained. Labor and sex trafficking victims fall under the command of their handlers, often because they are threatened, or because they fear the law and do not speak the language.

At the same conference, Mike Gempler, Executive Director of the Washington Growers League, shared a story about a group of 46 employees on H-2 work visas (given only to temporary and seasonal workers) traveling by bus to the United States. The bus driver, Gempler said, stopped the bus in the middle of the night and “shook people down for extra money.”

“The driver told them he won’t go any further before they pay.”

Temporary visas are usually contract based, allowing individuals to work for only one employer for a particular period of time. The problem is that if a worker experiences abuse or witnesses wrongdoing at the workplace, he or she has only two choices: report the problem and risk being sent home or put up with the injustice.

Many victims, said King County Sheriff John Urquhart, don’t understand the difference between police and deportation officers. “We cannot have people that are afraid to call the police and report a crime because they think they are going to be deported.”

In one case investigated earlier this year, a group of Thai women paid their handlers $60,000 dollars to come to the U.S. Once they arrived in Bellevue, the women worked as prostitutes. Their handlers, Urquhart said, “set them up in very nice apartments – somewhere around Bellevue Square – in the high rise apartments, and the customers would come to these apartments.”

The women's apartments were robbed twice, but — due to fear of deportation — no one reported the robberies or came forward with any information. The investigation, which included teams from Homeland Security and the police departments of Bellevue, Kirkland and Seattle, ended with the arrests of the women's handlers. 

Urquhart is committed to making the distinction as clear as possible among the community. “As long as I have been in the Sheriff’s Office, we have had a section in our policy procedure that was very, very, very clear. It said that we are not allowed to ask about someone’s immigration status, under any circumstances. We cannot ask for a green card, we cannot ask for someone’s papers. We are not allowed to do that,” he said.

Smith and Urquhart believe that pending national immigration legislation is the key to preventing human trafficking and the labor and sex trade. They hope that the new Immigration Reform bill, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., will allow foreign workers to feel secure enough to report crimes, such as labor, physical or emotional abuse, and that citizenship requirements like English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history will help them learn about their human and constitutional rights.

The National Immigration Law Center reports that Title III of the pending legislation would also expand the eligibility for U visas (meant for crime victims) to include victims of labor law violations and would prohibit the denial of backpay to an employee based on their immigration status. "This would allow workers to stand up for their labor and civil rights free from fear of deportation," their site explains.

In his June 2013 immigration reform speech, President Obama was careful to note that the bill isn’t perfect. However, he said, “this bill will continue to straighten security at our borders, increase criminal penalties against smuggles and traffickers, and hold employers more accountable if they knowingly hire undocumented workers.”

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