Policy shifts to aid human trafficking victims
Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times
Victims of human trafficking may be sent to El Paso after they are rescued, thanks to a
new federal program.
And those sent to the city will be eligible for an array of government assistance, including
medical care, Food Stamps, housing and immigration assistance.
A seminar recently taught nearly 300 law-enforcement and social service workers about
the new program, Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking.
Attendees learned that foreigners who dance in adult clubs, work as housekeepers or beg
for money on the street could be human-trafficking victims.
"I had no idea until the seminar that human trafficking was such an extensive problem,
and that it goes on here as well," said Adriana Jimenez, an outreach advocate for Sexual
Trauma and Assault Response Services. She learned to identify and help victims.
"We learned the signs ... that could tip us off on whether someone is a human-trafficking
victim. We learned that even people we see selling trinkets on the street could be victims.
We were also told that law enforcement was looking into a few cases in El Paso," she
Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas who testified in July
before a Senate committee, said by phone that President Bush has made human-
trafficking a priority. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, had the hearing to discuss efforts to
battle human trafficking.
"Smuggling is different from trafficking," Sutton said. "Trafficking is a modern form of
slavery. Traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable and desperate of victims. During the
past three years, we have seen an increase in the number of cases in the Western District
of Texas. They are difficult to investigate and prosecute because the victims are reluctant
to contact authorities. They have been threatened ... that if they contact the police they
will be arrested and deported, and sometimes they threaten them or their families."
Human trafficking is defined as the recruiting, harboring, transporting or obtaining a
person through the use of force, fraud or coercion to subject a person to involuntary
servitude, debt bondage or slavery. The law covers the sex trafficking of youths younger
Human smuggling is the illegal and voluntary movement of undocumented immigrants.
Some trafficking victims begin as voluntary immigrants and end up being held against
their will. Traffickers can come from all walks of life. A trafficking operation can be run
by one person or organized crime.
One case Sutton's office prosecuted involved women brought to the United States by a
UTEP research assistant and his wife. They lured young women from Uzbekistan with
promises of modeling jobs and a chance to bring their families. Once here, officials said,
the women were forced to work in local strip clubs.
Soon, the U.S. attorney's office will announce the forming of a local human-trafficking
El Paso may be one city where victims could be sent to live. Under the Torture Victims
Relief Authorization Act, organizations that provide medical, psychological, social and
legal services can get federal grants.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services experts say victims suffer physical and
psychological health problems due to inhumane living conditions, poor nutrition, physical
and emotional abuse, dangerous workplace conditions and no health care.
Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in
the department, and Steven Wagner, director of the department's human-trafficking
program, said a nationwide network of service providers for victims will be created.
Wagner said law enforcement considers El Paso a human-trafficking gateway.
Immigrants are taken to places like California, Oregon, Illinois, New York and Florida.
The federal campaign prompted El Paso to create a coalition of law enforcement and
social service organizations to deal with immigrant smuggling, said Ouisa Davis,
executive director of the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services.
"The way these organizations and law enforcement have come together is historic," she
said. "The fact that many trafficking rings are being discovered in other communities, and
that many of these people are transported through El Paso, has helped to make this an
"It's an issue here, too, and it needs a coordinated response. There are areas in El Paso
County where people are being held, but we don't know where yet. Some cases we've had
in the past involved forced prostitution and young women working as domestics."
Two factors spurred the national campaign, which includes a toll-free hot line and an
information kit for groups that want to help, Horn said. Texas had many hot line calls
from April through August. Half of the callers spoke Spanish.
"First, we had the new (law) that defined victims as victims as opposed to illegal
(immigrants)," Horn said. "Second, when we found that only 240 of the estimated 14,000
to 16,000 people trafficked in the United States each year had been identified, we
determined that that wasn't good enough."
Horn said the agency decided to spread information about such immigrants to people they
might come in contact with.
Before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 passed, human-trafficking victims
were arrested and deported. Now, eligible victims may qualify for a special T-visa to stay
in the United States.
"This international criminal market (generates) an estimated $9.5 billion in profit for
criminal organizations worldwide," John P. Torres, deputy assistant director of smuggling
and public safety for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Congress in May.
Torres also said traffickers and smugglers can be exploited by terrorists seeking U.S.
Last year, Bush signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003,
which enabled trafficking victims to sue traffickers in federal court.
Mosaic Family Services in Dallas-Fort Worth already helps trafficking victims. Program
director Irina Nguyen said "human trafficking is a lucrative business, and every case is
different. We can't take a cookie-cutter approach."
Mosaic is helping 26 women from Honduras who were taken to Fort Worth in a sex-
trafficking scheme, and another group that was trapped in forced labor by a Korean
factory operating in American Samoa.