The New Slavery

Human trafficking flies below the radar of most people's consciousness, but it happens — even in New Orleans



The Capri Hotel on Tulane Avenue was no place for human inhabitants in November 2005. Floodwaters from the levee breaches had inundated the building and sat festering for two weeks, leaving mold-covered walls. The rank odor of death permeated the air, mingled with the smell of decay and the fetid stench of wet, moldy carpet.

Amid the flies and roaches that had taken up residence, Hector Linares found more than a half-dozen Thai workers living in the dark, narrow hallways. When he entered, the workers were huddled around a propane stove, trying to prepare a meager meal in a single pot using contaminated water. They weren't there by choice. They were imprisoned by human traffickers, who had taken them to New Orleans at gunpoint and forced them to gut buildings damaged in the storm.

Linares, who was working then for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Program, was appalled by what he found. Some of the workers were shirtless, and some had no shoes. They were speaking in Thai, their voices conveying equal measures of urgency and fear. They had a reason to be fearful: They had been watched by an armed guard almost constantly since arriving in the United States two-and-a-half months earlier. In New Orleans, they were told the National Guard would arrest them, or that criminals would attack them, if they attempted to escape. They also were told that any outsiders who came to the motel would be shot.

Linares became their rescuer after Lori Elmer, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina's Farm Worker Unit, asked him to track down the workers. They had disappeared from North Carolina a month earlier. She believed their employer had taken them to New Orleans.

'It took me a while to actually find them because at the stage where I got involved, they were moving around a lot," says Linares, now a public defender in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court. 'I heard they were at one hotel, and I went there and they weren't there. I heard that they were in another hotel, so I went there and they had just been kicked out earlier that morning. Finally, on the third try, I found them at the Capri Motel."

The workers tell a story that has become a familiar refrain across the Gulf Coast, from Pascagoula, Miss., to Westlake, La. " their employers confiscated their passports and forced them into a modern form of slavery. They were lured from their homes in Thailand by international human traffickers known to prey upon the young, the poor and the uneducated for the purposes of forced labor or exploitation within the commercial sex trade.

Most Americans are unaware of it, but human trafficking for slavery occurs in every country in the world, including the United States. Last year, the federal government spent more than $102 million on 224 projects under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). There is even an annual national convention for organizations participating in the 'New Abolitionist Movement."

Considered by social workers and other advocacy groups to be one of the most progressive laws in securing aid to trafficking victims, the TVPA has set in motion the formation of 43 anti-trafficking task forces, including one in Louisiana. The movement is still in its infancy. Most people have never heard of it, and it has yet to produce tangible results in New Orleans, despite what advocates characterize as the city's propensity for trafficking activity.

Many people confuse human trafficking with alien smuggling, says Elmer, the legal aid attorney in North Carolina. Truth is, trafficking doesn't necessarily have anything to do with immigration; it can happen to U.S. citizens as well as foreigners.

'Human trafficking is modern-day slavery," says Tracey Rubenstein, assistant director of the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in New Orleans. 'It means using a human being as a slave, whether it's for forced labor or for sexual exploitation. Labor can include anything like construction, working at a restaurant, working in a hotel or a laundry, or domestic help like maids and nannies. Commercial sex could mean anything from being a street-level prostitute to pornography or any form of commercial sexual exploitation."

In Louisiana, interest in combating human trafficking is on the rise. The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association, the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement (LCLE) and the Metropolitan Center recently formed an anti-trafficking task force with a grant under the TVPA. The Act makes human trafficking a federal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The Sheriff's Association administers the task force, and the Metropolitan Center assists victims located by law enforcement.

'We saw the announcement for the human trafficking program, and knowing the devastation caused by Katrina and Rita, [we believe] that the destruction below the I-10 corridor [is] ripe for opportunists that may want to bring in human trafficking victims for forced labor and other activities," says Robert Mehrtens, an official for the LCLE, which administers funds from the grant. Then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales personally awarded the grant at an annual human trafficking task force conference in New Orleans in October 2006.

In North Carolina, authorities have identified a motel that serves as a 'migrant Mecca" " housing workers who are brought there from all over the world for farm work, Elmer says. Legal aid outreach workers routinely visit labor camps and motels known to house immigrant workers to make sure they're informed of their legal rights.

'For a variety of reasons, farm workers don't have access to telephones or transportation into the city and would often not know that we exist," she says. 'It was decided that legal services has to conduct outreach by making initial contact, so if they have problems they can get back in touch with us."

During one motel visit, legal aid workers encountered a group of 22 Thai workers, none of whom speak English, and communicated with them through an interpreter. When they returned a few weeks later, the workers had disappeared. The next time Elmer heard from them, they had been transported to New Orleans and were held in a series of storm-damaged hotels. Periodically they were able to slip away from their armed guards and update Elmer. She relayed the information to Linares in New Orleans.

Elmer's group learned that the Thai workers, who arrived at Howell Farms in North Carolina on Aug. 25, 2005, originally were recruited by a labor contracting company called Million Express Manpower Ltd., in Bangkok, Thailand. They were told that if they enrolled in an 'H2A" agricultural visa program they would be provided with work for three years in the United States, free housing and 40 hours of work per week at $8.24 per hour. In addition, they would be reimbursed for travel to and from the United States, transportation to and from work, daily meals and cooking facilities.

The workers say the company recruited them in collaboration with its U.S. office, Million Express Manpower Inc., and together the groups helped them apply for the H2A program and to obtain visas. What the recruiters failed to tell them, however, is that the United States issues H2A visas only for seasonal agriculture labor, and the visas are only good for nine months to a year. The workers say the recruiters misrepresented the terms of the contract, and several pertinent clauses were not translated from English into Thai.

The workers, who came from villages where poverty and illiteracy are prevalent, were each charged $11,000 in recruitment fees. At the urging of their recruiters, the workers told Elmer's group, many took out high-interest loans to pay the fees, using their homes as collateral. The workers also were told to lie to U.S. representatives when asked how much they were required to pay in fees.

When the workers were ready to leave for the United States, the recruiters tacked on additional fees to ensure they would not leave their employers. The recruiters then denied their requests to cancel the contracts, and said the employers would hold the workers' passports in lieu of the additional fees " and deduct $100 from their monthly pay. In addition, the traffickers threatened to charge workers $2,000 if they 'escaped." When the workers arrived in North Carolina, their employers confiscated their passports and return tickets.

The steady work they were promised did not materialize, and the workers were periodically moved to increasingly cramped housing, the last an outbuilding on their employer's property, with 25 people sharing one bathroom. The workers say armed guards threatened to have them arrested and deported if they tried to leave, according to the civil complaint they filed with help from Elmer's office against Million Thailand, Million USA, Howell Farms, and their owners and operators.

In mid-October 2005, Million USA moved the workers to New Orleans and forced them to gut flooded restaurants and motels, the workers told Elmer. They were kept in a series of storm-damaged motels, each worse than the one before, until most of the workers were taken back to North Carolina, ostensibly to speak with someone from the Thai Embassy. Linares later rescued the remaining seven at the Capri Motel.

'The hotel was pretty horrendous," Linares recalls. 'There was no power, no running water, it smelled, there were flies " pretty horrible conditions. All of the motel stuff was still there, the windows were broken and mold from the bottom floor had risen up near to where they were on the second floor, which had damage and water and so forth coming in the windows."

Linares brought them food and water and used an AT&T translator service over the speaker on his cell phone to convey who he was, and that Elmer would get them to Washington, D.C.

'That's a pretty sophisticated conversation to be having over one shared cell phone," Linares says. 'They were really scared. There was a division among the group, and they went back and forth [about leaving], the disagreement being, "Well, we're really scared, we don't trust you, our employer has our passports, he knows our families, we need to go back with him and not with you' " that kind of thing."

Finally, Linares was able to convince the workers he was sincere. He put them all on a bus to Washington, D.C., where they were met by Elmer's contacts.

Meanwhile, the other Thai workers in North Carolina escaped when their guard temporarily left the premises. They contacted Elmer, who reunited them with the ones who had returned from New Orleans. The workers were unavailable for comment at press time, saying their recruiters had threatened violence against their families.

The workers later filed a civil lawsuit against their employer and the recruiters; they also have received 'trafficking" visas that allow them to remain and work in the United States after the trial ends. The visas also enabled the victims' families to relocate to North Carolina for the duration of the workers' stay. The civil case is still pending due to difficulty locating some of the recruiters who worked for the Thailand branch of the trafficking operation. So far the federal government has taken no criminal action against the employers.

'We had a sheriff's office inform us that there's not a magistrate in North Carolina who's going to prosecute that," Elmer says. 'Well, at first glance it may not seem like a big deal because it's just a [passport] that can be replaced for little money. But [taking the passports] is an initiative of human trafficking, and it is used to control people, to force them to work and prevent their ability to escape."

The State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons is required to submit a report each year to Congress detailing what progress America and 150 other countries have made against human trafficking. In 2006, the latest report states, the feds used the TVPA to fund 154 international anti-trafficking projects in more than 70 countries, at a total cost of $74 million. It also spent $28.5 million to fund 70 projects in the United States.

The State Department estimates that 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, and that doesn't include victims forced into labor within their own countries. Internationally, about 80 percent of the victims are women and girls, and almost half of all trafficking victims are minors. Within the United States, the 234 certified international trafficking victims rescued in 2006 came primarily from El Salvador, Mexico, the Republic of Korea and Honduras.

International victims often are lured by the belief that their quality of life can be improved in another country through educational, employment or marriage opportunities. They often respond to advertisements for jobs in the United States and are subsequently enslaved by their recruiters. In other cases, the recruiters are legitimate " but once the workers get a job, their new employers take their papers to prevent them from leaving the workplace.

'The Trafficking Victims Protection Act says at least one of three things has to happen [for a situation to qualify as human trafficking," explains Metropolitan Center's Rubenstein. 'Force, fraud or coercion. Force is obvious if you take somebody against their will or hold them against their will. Fraud is when you say, "We're going to teach your daughter to be a seamstress,' and you're really not. Or, "Yeah there's this great job in the U.S.,' but there really isn't. Coercion would be if there's this job but they say, "Hey we're going to hold your travel papers so you can't leave.'"

Women in particular are likely to respond to ads for babysitters, housekeepers, waitresses or models and are later forced into prostitution or domestic servitude. Forced servitude often includes contract abuse or fraud, inadequate monitoring of the recruitment and employment of migrant workers, and exploitative or illegal costs and debts imposed on workers by recruiters or employers.

The one exception to the force, fraud or coercion rule extends to anyone younger than 18 who is involved in the commercial sex industry. Child labor, the recruitment of child soldiers and child sex tourism " in which people travel to other countries to engage in sex with children " also qualify as human trafficking.

'The TVPA is actually one of the most progressive laws our country has ever come up with," Rubenstein says, 'because it actually allows force, fraud or coercion to be defined by the victim's experience of it. Meaning, if the victim felt coerced and felt forced, then that counts, which is very different from our regular criminal justice system laws that are [based] strictly [on] behavior " did the perpetrator do X, Y or Z to the victim?"

Techniques employed by traffickers to ensnare and control victims can range from lies, elaborate deceptions and psychological manipulation to confinement, physical abuse and torture " often in front of other victims to scare them into submission. Traffickers also will threaten to kill the victims' families or shame them by revealing they're involved in prostitution, Rubenstein says.

Many victims are held in captivity. In other situations, victims may be allowed to come and go on their own, but because of severe psychological and physical trauma, they rarely attempt to escape and are unaware that there are people who can help them.

The feds are channeling a lot of money to victims' services, and the government is trying to educate law enforcement agencies to recognize what trafficking is and to rescue victims, Rubenstein says. 'On the law enforcement side, they're trying to do training and awareness, to go out and find victims and rescue them," she says. 'On the victims' services side, once a victim is rescued, you have to help that human being. They need everything. They need food, clothing, shelter, transportation and safety. They need medical services, dental care and psychiatric care. Hook them up with legal services, and immigration and refugees services.

'We are waiting for law enforcement to bring us victims, but we're also going out into the community to try to raise awareness just in case there are community members who may come across victims as well."

So far, Metropolitan Center has received no international victims from law enforcement, but that may be due in part to NOPD's decision not to participate in the task force. When Gambit Weekly requested an interview with one NOPD lieutenant " who was recommended by Metropolitan Center for his knowledge of human trafficking " public information officer Jonette Williams denied the request, saying, '[Human trafficking] is nothing significant. It is not typically seen in New Orleans. When we interview offenders, they don't admit to being involved and we don't see any evidence to suggest otherwise." By offenders, Williams said she was referring to prostitutes, not pimps, johns or potential traffickers.

'My perception is that, particularly in the NOPD, they're pretty overwhelmed," says Rubenstein. 'I'm not sure that they're eager to take on the whole concept of trafficking, but we really need them to."

Other law enforcement agencies throughout Louisiana, such as the Sheriffs' Association and the LCLE, reportedly are taking on the issue, as are U.S. Attorneys offices in Louisiana's three federal districts, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI.

'Law enforcement's first objective is to identify [the victims] and rescue them," says Mehrtens. 'Then get them to our victims' services provider and identify, arrest and prosecute the individuals involved in the human trafficking. We've received great support from the U.S. Attorneys offices. They've pledged their support for the program and they are participating every step of the way."

'It's a priority of the Department of Justice, to focus on and prioritize any types of human trafficking," says Jan Maselli Mann, an assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans. 'They've really stressed that to us " that any time we come across any evidence of that, to take it extremely seriously. The hardest part is finding out about it and going and finding the victims, because they're probably not going to come to you."

Metropolitan Center's federal grant covers services for international victims and cannot be used to help domestic victims, which could be impeding the task force's ability to rescue and aid those in need. It's a contradiction that some see as a flaw in the TVPA's goals " and perhaps the task force model itself. Because political conflict, corruption, poverty and unemployment produce an environment in which traffickers thrive, the task force feels New Orleans could become a primary target for traffickers.

'Trafficking is a form of organized crime," Rubenstein says. 'This is not something we want moving into our backyard. It's probably already here."

There appears to be some friction within the task force itself, however. 'It would be easy for the victims' service component of the trafficking task force to take a reactive role and wait for law enforcement to bring [us] victims," say Kelley Lockhart-Delaune Coordinator of Programs, and Natalie Dolci, a Survivor Advocate with the Metropolitan Center. 'However, we believe that we are in a unique position to initiate grass-roots outreach to at-risk populations. This will involve making contact with sex workers and laborers in the Greater New Orleans area." Since joining the task force, Metropolitan Center has adopted a more proactive approach to combating trafficking instead of waiting for law enforcement to deliver victims.

Identifying victims and getting them the help they need is a difficult and time-consuming operation, says federal prosecutor Ed Gallagher, coordinator of Houston's Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (HTRA), one of the most active task forces in the country. 'If you have a good investigator who says there's something more to this and we need to follow up, it takes a lot of work and a lot of time," Gallagher says. 'But we've got people in Houston willing to put in that time who have the passion for it, and that's why we have the cases."

The Houston HTRA has prosecuted four trafficking cases since it was formed in 2004. Gallagher attributes Houston's success to the relationships between non-government organizations and law enforcement. 'We can't have just the FBI look at these cases as civil rights violations and then ICE look at them as smuggling incidents, and the local police look at it as, "Well, I don't want to deal with this, call ICE or domestic violence,'" Gallagher adds. 'We need a trained person from each of these three entities " FBI, ICE and the local police " working with [non-government agencies], knowing the agents and the police officers so that when we do rescue a victim we get those necessary services to them to preserve their testimony and restore their dignity."

The HTRA has not yet come across trafficking like that of the Thai workers in New Orleans, but Gallagher says he has heard complaints from the Mexican Consul General about the fate of Mexican workers in New Orleans. Some had their documentation confiscated by employers to force them to work for lower wages and to deter them from seeking other employment, he says.

'We do have some investigations currently active, but we haven't prosecuted anyone yet," Mann says of the local U.S. Attorney's role in the task force. 'The challenge of prosecuting a case like a trafficking case is that it's hidden. It may be going on and people just are not aware of it. It's set up to be a hidden type of a crime " by the very nature of threatening someone, they're not going to want to go to law enforcement because they're afraid that the threat will be carried out."

To address that problem, the Louisiana task force plans to enlist organizations and companies that routinely enter areas where law enforcement officers can't go without warrants or probable cause. They hope that if people like health inspectors, cable installers, meter readers or other repairmen have been trained to recognize human trafficking, they might be able to identify victims.

Other than Metro, however, no New Orleans-based non-governmental organizations participate in the task force " yet. 'We wanted the police department to join us in the first year," Mehrtens says, 'but with their restructuring and responses to the effects of Katrina and the publicized crime problems that they have, we're going to bring them on board in the second year.

'What initially peaked our interest was forced labor. Given the massive rebuilding effort that's needed from Katrina and Rita, the opportunists " the traffickers " are going to bring in individuals as laborers, promising them a good job and good pay. But once they get here [the traffickers] are known to take the documentation from these people."

In addition to the initial focus on forced labor, the task force also will look for victims trafficked into the commercial sex trades in places like underground brothels and massage parlors.

The TVPA originally focused on international trafficking, but the Act was amended in 2003 and 2005. Larger appropriations enabled the federal government to increase research on human trafficking and to step up efforts to combat the problem domestically.

'For a while, we neglected to some extent women and girls who may be involved in prostitution here in the United States but who are in reality trafficking victims " modern-day slavery victims," says Katherine Green, an attorney from Baton Rouge who worked on anti-trafficking legislation for the 2007 TVPA reauthorization. 'Just like people who are brought here from other countries to work as sex slaves, we have our own women and children here who are brought across state borders or lured away from their homes and forced into prostitution and sex trafficking.

'I think it's important that we do lead by example because number one, we were behind the creation of this Trafficking in Victims Protection Act. We created it and we hold other countries accountable as far as how we'll interact with them. They're going to look to us and see what we are doing, and if we're not taking action, well, why should they?"

Green and others working on the reauthorization of the Act this year hope it will help states be more proactive in reducing the domestic demand for trafficking victims. Greene's goal is to draft a model law that would allow states to prosecute criminals without requiring proof of force, fraud or coercion, as required by the federal statute.

'I think Louisianans need to be more aware of the fact that trafficking does exist," Green says. 'Louisiana's gone through some really tough times with Katrina but trafficking existed before that. In New Orleans now, there's a lot of focus on rebuilding and making the city better. And this is one way that we'll make the city better, by focusing on domestic trafficking in New Orleans. That's a great building block for a city."

The bottom line, Green says, is that law enforcement needs to change its perspective " to handle prostitutes and migrant workers as potential victims rather than as criminals, and the public needs to recognize that the problem is real, as illustrated by the case of the Thai workers.

'It's a hard thing to really confront and face because it is so painful," Green says. 'You don't want to think it's happening next door, but it may very well be happening next door, especially in New Orleans. It could be happening in the next street."

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