Forced Sex and Labor Trafficking in the U.S.

This is an excerpt from a longer report in Ms. magazine. To get the whole story, pick up Ms. magazine on newsstands now.

LOS ANGELES -- We like to think of slavery in America as something consigned to history books, a dark chapter set in Southern cotton plantations and the hulls of ships set sail from Africa. Flor Molina wishes this were true.

For part of the year in 2003, Molina, a 29-year-old Mexican, was held against her will and forced to work in a factory in southern California, making dresses from 5:30 in the morning until 11 at night, seven days a week. She was not allowed to leave the factory or take a shower; she shared a small bed with another woman in the back of the shop. If she didn't sew fast enough, her boss would pull her hair, pinch and slap her.

"If we wouldn't do what she [her employer] said, she told us somebody who we love would pay the consequences," says Molina, a small woman with steady dark eyes and black hair that falls below her waist. "She told me she could kill me and no one would ask her for me. She told me dogs have more rights than I have in this country."

Molina is one of tens of thousands of people trafficked into the U.S. from other countries and forced to work against their will. They come here primarily from El Salvador, Mexico, Korea and China, but in any country where people are desperate for jobs they're prey to the allure of a mythic, prosperous U.S.

About 80 percent of those enslaved are women, pawns in the fastest-growing and one of the largest criminal industries in the world, second only to the drug trade and tied with the arms trade. With an estimated 800,000 people trafficked across all international borders each year, the shadow industry is estimated to generate $31.6 billion in profits annually.

There is a perception, propagated in large part by mainstream media, that slavery in the U.S. occurs mostly in the guise of forced prostitution. But the majority of trafficking victims are people who may be sewing our clothes, picking our crops, washing dishes in our restaurants, cleaning our motel rooms and building our homes and office buildings. They may be enslaved as domestic servants in our neighbors' homes.

Due in large part to the efforts of feminist groups, in 2000 Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which created a special "T-visa" that enables victims of sex and labor trafficking to remain temporarily in the United States -- if they agree to assist in the investigation or prosecution of their traffickers. After three years, the attorney general can admit them for permanent residency. The TVPA also made victims eligible for services such as housing, food stamps, cash assistance, health care and educational and job services.

But seven years after the passage of what was hailed as a very innovative law that created powerful new tools to prosecute and punish traffickers, the Bush administration has failed to fund and implement its provisions in a meaningful way. There has been a shocking lack of trafficking investigations -- just 639 were opened by the Department of Justice between fiscal years 2001 and 2006. Only 360 defendants have been charged, resulting in 238 convictions.

"Here we have this crime that is often rape plus torture plus assault, and yet we have virtually no enforcement," says Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. "Think of it this way: roughly 17,000 people were murdered in America last year -- about the same number as the Bush administration claims were trafficked. Imagine if we only prosecuted, as we do with slavery, a little over 100 of those cases. People would freak out; it would be on the cover of Time."

The regulations that the federal government was supposed to draft enabling victims of trafficking to gain permanent residency status have yet to be completed, so those who have been released from enslavement are left in limbo. And as of January, the federal government has provided refugee-type benefits to just over 1,100 people who had been trafficked. A group like CAST, a Los Angeles nonprofit that runs a shelter and provides other social services for trafficking victims, has seen its budget sliced 50 percent under a new system in which the federal money made available for victims under the Trafficking Act no longer goes directly to these nonprofit service providers. Instead, it is given to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration & Refugee Services, which then subcontracts with individual groups. Among other requirements, the Conference requires that service providers stipulate they won't hand out condoms or discuss abortion.

Furthermore, the requirement that trafficking victims must cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute their former traffickers in order to receive a T-visa puts women or their families at tremendous risk, says Kamala Harris, district attorney of San Francisco. "We have to do everything we can to make sure women and girls don't face retaliation, even death, for testifying," she says. "Then, if victims want to come forward and lend their voices, that's icing on the cake."

Within the next year, Congress will reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. It's an opportunity, say advocates, to reform the law. Ultimately, however, ending labor slavery will take more than good laws and trained law enforcement: Corporations that profit from cheap labor must be held accountable.

Today, Flor Molina works as a security guard in Los Angeles. She wants to become a sheriff to help other victims of trafficking.

"I want to be a voice for those who are in fear, who don't have the power or the courage to come forward," she says. "There were a lot of people who helped me; I call them my angels. I want to be one of them for someone else."

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