This story was produced by El Tiempo Latino. La puedes leer en español aquí.
In 2021, there were just over 300 proven cases of human trafficking reported in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. But experts consulted by El Tiempo Latino say that’s a drastic undercount.
Among Hispanic communities, labor and sex traffickers tend to be family members, neighbors, or friends of their victims. This makes quantifying and preventing the problem particularly challenging.
“It’s a drama playing out in the shadows. You don’t know who is experiencing this situation until they seek help,” says Heidi Álvarez, director of the SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors at the University of Maryland. The center provides services for survivors of human trafficking and advocates for resources and legislative intervention in the state of Maryland.
“For those affected, it is difficult to know where the employment or romantic relationship boundary ends and that of exploitation begins,” Álvarez says.
One local woman, Blanca, was a university student and had a job in a supervisory rolein her home country. But raising her family as a single mother was an uphill battle. And a friend of her mother’s seemed to be doing very well in the United States, always talking about how life was easier here. (She was interviewed through the SAFE Center staff, and her name has been withheld for her safety. “Blanca” was the name she chose to represent her.)
The family friend won the affection of Blanca and her children. One day she sent Blanca a message: “Move here; I’ll give you a job, then you pay me for the trip and that way you can get ahead with your children.”
Blanca agreed and set out to cross the border with her youngest child in her arms.
“I started working at the cleaning company she owned,” Blanca said. “She never told me how much she would pay me and I was embarrassed to ask. I worked from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then she would take me to clean the machines and the floor of a laundromat she’d bought. My workday would end at 11 p.m. with no days off.”
Her pay ended up being $250 a week, from which the woman deducted Blanca’s travel expenses and rent. “I barely had enough left to eat.”
A business of greed
Of the two types of trafficking, sex trafficking is better known, easier to identify, and most reported. Labor exploitation like Blanca experienced is the most common among Latino victims and often takes place in legal environments because it is more difficult to identify. Both feed on the poverty and desperation of the people who are preyed upon.
But Blanca’s testimony shatters the myth that this illegal activity is committed predominantly by strangers.
“The trafficker is someone in our midst who takes advantage of people’s vulnerabilities, needs, lack of knowledge of the country, language and a different geography,” says Rafael Flores, director of bilingual communications at Polaris, the nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It is someone who always threatens to call la migra (immigration authorities).”
A distinction must be made between smuggling and trafficking. The first is committed by coyotes with consent from the person being moved. The second involves crimes of physical force, fraud such as false job offers, or coercion, including holding someone against their will.
“I prosecuted for human trafficking a woman no more than five feet tall, the owners of two restaurants, an 85-year-old man and another 65-year-old woman,” says Renee Battle-Brooks, executive director of the Prince George’s County Human Rights Commission.
“The trafficker is that man or woman who comes to the laundry business and asks ‘how much do they pay you? If you want I can help you earn more.’ Or it could be the neighbor recruiting girls and boys between 11 and 14 years old,” she adds.
Exploitation is normalized across the United States. A New York Times investigation published in February portrayed the lives of Central American children in 20 states with endless working hours, dangerous conditions, miserable pay, almost no time for school and no right to health care. Migrant children in California processed milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, others in Alabama made Fruit of the Loom socks, and migrant kids in Michigan were found making parts used by Ford and General Motors, according to the Times.
A problem that affects everyone
“In Maryland, what you see the most is exploitation in domestic work, in restaurants, landscaping, and cleaning,” says Álvarez of the SAFE Center at UMD. “Many are Latinas, but not all. We have also seen cases of combined labor and sexual exploitation.”
Battle-Brooks insists on demystifying the belief that trafficking only affects immigrants. As of 2020, the most common country of origin among SAFE clients was the United States (41%).
“We are seeing cases against those who were born here or have been living here for a long time, against the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities,” the Prince George’s County official says. “As of October 2019, it is illegal in Maryland to exploit labor. We now know it happens in restaurants, nail salons, hair salons, in agriculture, construction, and among day laborers.”
She is concerned that very few cases reach the police.
Under the premise that knowledge is power, prevention training is available to Prince George’s communities. “If you feel victimized or if you suspect someone is being exploited, come to us or go to the police,” Battle-Brooks says. “We will not ask you whether or not you have papers. We are not immigration.”
In 2021, the most recent national hotline data available from Polaris, 175 human trafficking complaints came from the District, with 44 proven cases. In Maryland there were 751 complaints with 118 proven cases, and in Virginia there were 583 complaints with 143 proven. Nationally, there were more than 10,000 trafficking situations that year with 16,500 likely victims.
“It is modern slavery and it affects all races,” Flores says, stressing that these figures do not represent the real magnitude of the problem.
Even the pandemic did not put a temporary stop to these abuses. According to Flores, sex traffickers adapted their illegal economic activity by bringing it into the home and to online recruitment. From the labor side, more complaints were received from the agricultural industry, but they decreased in hotels, restaurants, and landscaping.
Deni Taveras, a state delegate who previously served on the Prince George’s County Council, told El Tiempo Latino “We can’t keep burying our heads in the sand; we have to bring everyone to the table to tackle the problem.”
It is not easy to break the chain
Blanca said she was always monitored. The woman who lured her here kept promising she would eventually be paid better, and stressing that without papers, no one else would give her a job.
“I was not allowed to talk to strangers; I could not go out on the street even to take a breath of air without telling her first; at work [everything was] humiliation and mistreatment,” Blanca recalls. “In the house, we ate once a day, because she didn’t like to get the kitchen dirty. She always mentioned the police, how easy it would be to deport me and how generous she was for bringing me in.”
The difficulty is that many victims do not know that this is fraud, blackmail, coercion, and abuse. They believe that they just ran into the bad luck of a job in terrible conditions or a bad boss who doesn’t pay well. When victims seek help, they do so for different reasons, because they do not know they are being exploited.
Álvarez describes characteristics of the offenders: “If it started as a romantic relationship in their home country, they live as if they are married and sometimes have children; it’s not so easy to see the red flags and break that chain. Sometimes it’s men exploiting women or women abusing other women and children.”
SAFE’s job when a victim arrives is to find out if they are thinking about escaping the situation. If the person isn’t sure, SAFE helps them understand their reality and the risks. When they’re ready, a rescue plan is put into action. “But many times,” Álvarez says, “we find that for our clients, especially Latin Americans, if there is a relationship of trust and economic dependence, and if they have children with the trafficker, it is very difficult to make that decision.
This is similar to domestic violence relationships: it can take months or even years to come to terms with the fact that you are living in a territory with many gray areas.
‘I managed to survive’
Blanca’s trafficker screened her calls. The day she found out that Blanca had told her mother what she was going through, she took away Blanca’s cell phone and changed the internet password. Two days later, she threw Blanca out on the street without her documents and with only the clothes on her back.
“I lived through a horrible ordeal,” Blanca says. “I ended up accepting help from strangers who wanted to sexually abuse me. Someone gave me the address of a shelter and by the grace of God I was accepted. I lived there for nine months.”
Initially she cleaned houses and mowed lawns. During the pandemic, she worked in a lab and at a car wash. The day Blanca managed to buy a phone, her inbox was full of threats and insults from the woman who had exploited her.
Now she gets support from SAFE. “They have saved my life; they have given me legal advice, psychological counseling, economic support for rent, empowerment courses, English, and food for over two years.”
In this process she has been healing by recognizing herself as a victim of exploitation, humiliation, and deception.
“There are several organizations that offer help, but the list is long and they only do it if there is a report to the police. Can you believe me when I tell you that many people don’t have the courage to do it?” Blanca says. “People suffer in silence; it’s hard to accept that you are in the eye of the hurricane, because the abuser works stealthily, doesn’t give you time to react and makes you afraid.”
Blanca fears running into her abuser. And she fears the woman will travel to her home country and hurt her children. But Blanca’s concerns about the lack of a permanent roof over her and her child’s heads are relieved when she remembers that the lawyers who took her case fought to support her.
“It’s a matter of time before I find a better job and a place to live,” Blanca says. “I have learned the language, the counseling sessions have changed my perspective. SAFE has not let go of my hand, and I managed to survive.”
If you are a victim of labor or sexual exploitation or if you know someone who is being exploited, call 311 in Maryland, 911 nationwide, or contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.