The National Catholic Review
Mary Ellen Dougherty

In the summer of 2004, when more than 60 victims of human trafficking were found in Long Island, local residents were shocked. Human trafficking had been going on in their backyards for two years, and they had not known it. Churches opened their doors; the local bishop provided temporary shelter in a nearby seminary. Under the care of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, these men, women and children—Peruvians being trafficked by Peruvians—are slowly recovering. They are survivors. As this has happened, more victims of the same trafficking ring, apparently watching to see what would happen to the known victims, have come forward. Three traffickers have pled guilty.

 

Similar cases have been seen in Texas with African choir boys, in Oklahoma with Indian factory workers, in California with Asian women and children sold into prostitution, in Maryland with African servants kept as slaves by medical doctors and members of foreign embassies, in New Jersey with Mexican children in a brothel, in Florida with Honduran migrant farm workers, in New York City with Mexican deaf-mutes forced to peddle trinkets. The number of known victims is escalating in proportion to the increase of public awareness. Pastors, emergency room personnel, neighbors, bartenders, firemen, workers in laundromats and corner stores, housing inspectors and people trained to recognize the invisible trade are all becoming more and more aware of its presence in their communities.

Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (T.V.P.A.) in 2000 and in doing so highlighted the issue. Those who have been certified as victims, like the Peruvians in Long Island, are eligible for benefits available to refugees, as well as for a so-called T-visa, which grants them legal status in the United States for three years and, after that, the right to apply for permanent legal immigration status. This certification occurs when there is clear evidence that human trafficking has taken place. Nor are victims held accountable for criminal activity that occurred as part of the trafficking, such as their illegal entry into the country. From an advocacy point of view, locating these victims can radically change their lives for the better. From a prosecutorial point of view, it can lead to the arrest of the traffickers and, it is hoped, progress toward the eventual elimination of human trafficking.

Severe forms of trafficking fall into two categories. The first concerns people who have been induced by force, fraud or coercion into sex acts for commercial purposes. It also includes children under the age of 18 who have been sexually exploited for similarly commercial purposes—with or without explicit force, since no minor can legally consent to such activity. The second form of trafficking refers to those who through the same means have been subjected to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

It is primarily the presence of force, fraud or coercion that distinguishes trafficking from smuggling, although it is true that human trafficking often begins with smuggling. The willing consent of a person to enter a country illegally often becomes trafficking when the person is subsequently forced into commercial sex or labor. For example, four Mexican girls discovered in New Jersey (U.S. v. Jimenez-Caldron) agreed to be smuggled into the United States. They believed the men smuggling them were going to marry them. Instead, these men and their sisters forced the minors into prostitution, threatened and beat them, took their money and virtually imprisoned them.

While there are peripheral activities—many of them criminal—that occur in these kinds of movement of people, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act limits its definition of human trafficking to sexual exploitation for commercial purposes and to forced labor. Mail-order brides, for example, are not by definition victims of human trafficking. Once transported, however, they sometimes become victims by being forced into prostitution or other work that was not part of their original understanding. Similarly, victims of smuggling who are sexually abused by their smugglers, although subjects of criminal activity, are not victims of human trafficking, strictly speaking, because there is no commercial aspect to the sexual exploitation.

In the United States, the numbers are fairly evenly divided between victims of commercial sex and victims of forced labor, although more traffickers have been prosecuted for sexual exploitation than for the latter crime. This is explained partly by the fact that one labor case involving a few traffickers can lead to dozens of victims, while one sexual exploitation case involving the same number of traffickers will usually yield fewer victims. The recent case on Long Island, for example, which resulted in the conviction of three traffickers, has already identified more than 60 certified victims. Others are still waiting for certification, and more are slowly coming forward. In the New Jersey case with four Mexican female minors, on the other hand, six defendants pled guilty to trafficking or related activities.

The good news is that the United States has a solid law and the Department of Justice is proactive in enforcing it. Also significant is the commitment of the Department of Health and Human Services, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, to procuring comprehensive services for victims and to creating national awareness. Both agencies, along with the Department of State, have aggressively worked against trafficking activity.

Unfortunately we are slow to discover victims. The State Department issues an annual report on trafficking. The last report, published in June 2005, states that anywhere from 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked around the world, and that approximately 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the United States annually. As of this past spring, the United States has certified approximately 800 victims. Approximately 10 percent are children. Of the adults, two-thirds are women.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of several nongovernmental organizations funded to work with trafficking victims, has served approximately 150 adults and 40 children from a wide range of countries, including Estonia, Zambia, Mongolia, Honduras, Chad, the Philippines and Indonesia. These victims were found in an equally wide range of U.S. cities, from Boise, Idaho, to Baltimore, Md.

The disparity between projected numbers and actual cases that have been discovered remains a major concern. Trafficking is hidden. In many cases, victims do not even realize they are victims. Just as often, they are afraid to come forward. Discovery can be perilous. Traffickers have been violent, with both victims here and their families elsewhere.

Human trafficking, moreover, is a manifestation of deeper political disorders. Upheaval in other countries generates vulnerability. People are desperate to flee and thus become prey for profiteers. Poverty can also make people vulnerable to trafficking. Patriarchy, which devalues women and thus keeps them uneducated, subservient and compliant, is yet another contributor to the situation. Cultural norms that tend to classism also make natural victims of some, especially for domestic servitude.

By the same token, populations in technologically underdeveloped regions are doomed to a state of increased vulnerability, while traffickers, savvy and sophisticated, capitalize on that vulnerability. Thus trafficking grows, abetted by increasingly tight immigration controls that prevail in many countries.

As important as supply is the question of demand. If there were no demand, there would be no trafficking. The question of demand, what creates it and what will eliminate it, is a global one. The T.V.P.A. is twofold: victims of trafficking have suffered coercion, force or fraud in the areas of commercial sex and forced labor. If, when addressing demand, we take commercial sex to its logical conclusion, we arrive at the doorstep of the consumer. There is clarity about the demand and about possible alternatives, like shifting the burden for illegal activity from the prostitute to the customer. There is also the need for a greater exercise of political will on the issue. Labor trafficking, on the other hand, is not so clear. A case of domestic servitude is fairly straightforward: the demand is connected to a specific household that wants and expects services for little or nothing in the way of remuneration.

On the other hand, the case of migrant farm workers employed by subcontractors of big growers who disavow the subcontractors when trafficking is discovered, but never demand that their hiring practices must preclude such activity, is complex. The recent victory of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers over Taco Bell is a testament to the promise and the peril of addressing labor issues. So far there has not been the same demonstration of political will regarding labor as there has been about prostitution.

There is danger that an examination of demand will focus only on the commercial sex clause of the law. This would reinforce the popular misunderstanding that human trafficking is about sexual exploitation alone and that the T.V.P.A. is a law about morality, not about human rights. Zealots here are inclined to use trafficking as another way to address prostitution, arguing that all prostitution is trafficking and implying that trafficking is just about prostitution. To be credible and effective, any formal attempt at analysis must be comprehensive, dealing with both aspects of trafficking.

The prevention of trafficking, especially the trafficking of children, continues to be an urgent concern of the governments involved. This could not have been said five years ago. Across the world, and especially in the United States, awareness about human trafficking has been heightened. Awareness, however, is only as meaningful as the action it engenders. Much more needs to be done.

Mary Ellen Dougherty, S.S.N.D., is on the staff of the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Comments

Dr. M. J. Doherty | 2/1/2006 - 7:42pm
Editors: I was very pleased to see Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty's article, "Preying on the Margins," in your January 30, 2006 magazine. Sister Mary Ellen is quietly the mover and shaker getting the word out about trafficking in this country and bringing the message of the bishops on justice to Catholics who are unaware of the international scope of this problem. We at Regis College in Weston, MA were happy to be a part of this consciousness-raising last year as Sister Mary Ellen went on the road to several Catholic colleges to provide an educational forum for professionals in social work, education and law enforcement. Here in the Boston area several Sisters of the Good Shepherd, notably Sister Helene Hayes, who is currently writing a book about trafficking, and who are involved in ministry to those who are displaced or trafficked, worked with Sister Mary Ellen to produce the local conference in October, 2004. All members of the human family suffer through the violence of trafficking, but women and children forced into labor or sex trades suffer the most. Thank you for helping to keep the issue in the light so injustice can be found out and addressed.

Dr. M. J. Doherty | 2/1/2006 - 7:42pm
Editors: I was very pleased to see Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty's article, "Preying on the Margins," in your January 30, 2006 magazine. Sister Mary Ellen is quietly the mover and shaker getting the word out about trafficking in this country and bringing the message of the bishops on justice to Catholics who are unaware of the international scope of this problem. We at Regis College in Weston, MA were happy to be a part of this consciousness-raising last year as Sister Mary Ellen went on the road to several Catholic colleges to provide an educational forum for professionals in social work, education and law enforcement. Here in the Boston area several Sisters of the Good Shepherd, notably Sister Helene Hayes, who is currently writing a book about trafficking, and who are involved in ministry to those who are displaced or trafficked, worked with Sister Mary Ellen to produce the local conference in October, 2004. All members of the human family suffer through the violence of trafficking, but women and children forced into labor or sex trades suffer the most. Thank you for helping to keep the issue in the light so injustice can be found out and addressed.