Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 12, 2011

Slavery in America: “I slept with 103 men,” she says. “That is the worst day in my life.”

Filed under: Immigration,Legal Issues — by Christopher Bellavita on July 12, 2011

Slavery still defiles the United States.

By some estimates (including figures from the CIA) as many as 50,000 people “are trafficked into or transited through the U.S.A. annually as sex slaves, domestics, garment, and agricultural slaves.”

The State Department has a lower figure. A few years ago, they reported “that 14,500 to 17,500 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked to the U.S. annually.”

Other people think the problem may be less significant than the 50,000 figure makes it appear.

“The discrepancy between the alleged number of victims per year and the number of cases [authorities] been able to make is so huge that it’s got to raise major questions,” said one criminologist. “It suggests that this problem is being blown way out of proportion.”

Or maybe something else:

“The biggest problem that we have combating these [sex trafficking] cases,” [a DHS official said], “is that once they hear the words ‘Immigration and Customs Enforcement,’ they immediately run. They do not trust us. They immediately think we are going to deport them.”


I read a story Monday about something called T Visas.  The Trafficking Victims Protection Act… allows undocumented human trafficking victims to receive nonimmigrant status under some conditions, including agreeing to cooperate with law enforcement.

According to people familiar with the program, very few people are familiar with the program — victims or officials.

“Since T Visas became available in 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has been authorized to issue up to 5,000 a year — or enough for 10 percent of the 50,000 men, women and children trafficked into the U.S. for prostitution and forced labor each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.”

In the last decade, about 2300 T Visas were issued; in 2010, 447 victims received visas.

(You can find out more about this Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service program at this link.)


Azriel James Relph, an NBC News reporter, described how one person found out about the DHS, USCIS program.  Here is an extended excerpt:

On a recent sweltering afternoon, two women sat at a restaurant table in a small American town, sharing conversation and a cookie and keeping cool. The normally busy eatery was quiet, but even if it had been packed they would have been the oddest couple in the room – a woman who came to this country illegally and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.


“How’s your back? Is it treating you OK?” asked the agent.

“Very, very good,” replied the woman across the table in a heavy South American accent.

We can’t tell you their actual names. Special Agent Jones, her gold badge clipped to her belt and and ICE logo on her black government-issue polo shirt, often works undercover. Naming her could blow that. And her companion, whom we’ll call Laura, is a crime victim. Using her real name or showing her face could give her tormentors all they need to retaliate.

They are both women in their 30s, but the gray streaks running through Laura’s dark hair are suggestions of the pain she has endured.

Laura is a victim of human trafficking who risked her safety by testifying against the man who brought her to this country and forced her to work as a sex slave for at least seven years. Special Agent Jones was a part of the team that saved her.


Laura can’t remember some details of her ordeal, including how long ago she was smuggled into the U.S. — somewhere between 10 and 12 years ago, she reckons. But others — like how she got here — are seared into her memory.

She met a man in her home country when she was in her 20s. He swept her off of her feet, and told her he loved her. She took him to meet her family. When he asked her to go to the U.S. for six months, they cautioned against it, but she was in love and couldn’t say no. They boarded a flight north and only then, on the airplane, did he lay out what he really had in mind for her.

“You’re going to the United States,” she remembers him telling her, “to work like a prostitute.” Laura said she wanted to scream for help, but he told her to remember that he knew where her family was. “I have a lot of friends and I know where everybody lives,” he threatened.

It was a cold winter night when she landed in Washington, D.C. The man passed her off to a couple who took her directly to an old house. She laid awake all night in shock, listening to rats scrape around. All she could think about was how she wanted to phone her family — if only someone in this unfamiliar and unfriendly place could help her make a call.

But Laura had no allies in this frightening new land. She was now an unwilling sex worker in brothels catering to immigrant Latinos in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Atlanta and New York. She remained the “property” of her trafficker, who arranged her movements, as well as those of other women and girls he lured to the U.S. with similar false promises.

She remembers one especially horrific night in Maryland. “I slept with 103 men,” she says. “That is the worst day in my life.”

And she was not alone. “I remember, he say, ‘You no make money, because the other women [had sex with] 130.’ A lot of people don’t believe it, and say ‘No, it’s impossible.'”

Not only is it possible, it happens all the time, all across America, according to Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, a nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

“Basically there’s this whole sex trafficking network that exists in the United States, and it predominantly targets and victimizes women and children from Latin American countries,” Myles said.

Fear of incarceration due to her undocumented status and concern for the safety of her family kept Laura from attempting escape or contacting authorities. But one day, that fear turned into hope, when Special Agent Jones came through the brothel door.

Three years ago, after approximately eight months of surveillance and undercover investigation — including late-night stakeouts, digging through trash, getting evidence any way they could — Jones and fellow ICE agents approached a house on a quiet street in an average American suburb and knocked on the door. They knew that the front door was not shielding a family sitting around a dining room table discussing their day, but a brothel where women and girls as young as 14 were being forced to have sex with “Johns” who paid $25 for 15-minute sessions. The women and girls worked all day and night, and almost never saw a penny.

On the day of the raid, Laura sat on a couch in the living room, where men awaited their 15-minute sessions, watching television. After seven years in the brothels she was no longer in high demand. New women and girls were constantly being brought in. The younger and fresher the faces, the more popular they were with Johns. The man she had fallen for all those years before in her home country still found a use for her though; she worked as the maid for this brothel.

She heard a knock on the door, peered out the window and saw the police. She didn’t say anything — she just started to cry as she opened the door for them.

Laura said she hadn’t cried about her situation in years. “You know, at one point you can’t cry,” she said. “You cry no more.” But as she realized what was about to happen, the tears came rushing back. “Crying because I am too happy — not afraid — because I knew that this is over.”

What happened next is a blur, but she remembers that the first person she saw come through the door was Jones. The officers told her they had arrested her trafficker. She asked if she was going to jail. They told her no.

The years of slavery had taken a physical and emotional toll on Laura.

“When we rescued her she appeared substantially older than her age,” said Jones. “She had a lot of baggage. A lot of mental and emotional distraughtness.”

Jones hoped to secure her cooperation as the prosecution built its case against her trafficker and the network he was part of. But her captors had told Laura over and over not to trust law enforcement, and she had no idea if she could really believe anything that an ICE agent was telling her.

“When I first met Laura, she didn’t trust us,” said Jones. “She actually made the case harder by saying that the other women that we rescued were all doing it voluntarily, that her trafficker was innocent. But that is usually the way these victims have been brainwashed to believe. It’s classic Stockholm Syndrome.”

Jones was patient. As one of the oldest victims, Laura’s testimony was crucial to the case. She decided to show her what her trafficker had deprived her of, and give her a taste of freedom.

“So we put her in a position where she could continue to thrive and see where she’s going to go,” she said. She arranged for Laura to get temporary status to stay in the country legally. She put her in touch with a relief agency that helped her find work, housing and mental health care. As Laura started to heal, Jones stayed in touch and kept asking for her cooperation, promising that her newfound freedom could be permanent. But Laura continued to resist.

After three years, Laura finally walked into the courtroom where her trafficker sat — the man she once thought she loved — and testified about her ordeal.

“I remember the day, but I no remember what I say,” she said, “because I so nervous.”

Her trafficker was found guilty of human trafficking. He is in federal prison now, and after five years, he will be deported to his home country. He is also required to pay restitution to Laura and the other nine women and girls he was convicted of enslaving

Working human trafficking cases, Jones has found an even stronger connection to her work. “These girls can be anybody’s daughter, anybody’s sister,” she said. “When I look at these girls — that could have been me.”


My first thought after I read this story was sometimes DHS gets it right.

I talked about this case with a friend who works for the federal government and who knows a lot about trafficking.  I asked him what he thought about the story.  Here’s what he said.


Trafficking is one area the United States is getting more right than most places and one where we have demonstrated world-wide leadership.

DHS getting it right? Being that they have the lead, I suppose, but do we need a DHS to get this one right? Not so sure.

As a nation, the US really has driven the modern anti-trafficking movement. Fall of the Wall, Globalization, Explosion of Internet really brought it to light. It has been a bipartisan effort beginning with President Clinton, continued by President Bush under whom the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was signed into law, and since continued by President Obama.

Though it has been a bipartisan effort, the political left seems to focus more on forced labor and the political right on sex-trafficking.  The disparity can be so severe that our State Department under different party affiliations disagrees as to which is the greater cause of trafficking, by a wide amount.

But the US is not alone on the dispute as to what is trafficking. Much like discussions about what are inalienable human rights, there are still disagreements and a variety of different definitions for human trafficking world-wide.

On this point the US adopted the force, fraud, coercion, under 18 rubric for the TVPA.  There is no movement (across borders, state or national) required for human trafficking.

At first the TVPA required the State Department to rank all countries on their anti-trafficking efforts, and then tie US aid and funding to those efforts.

As you can imagine, this can become extremely political, very quickly; particularly in strategic parts of the world.

Initially, the US did not rate itself, but now it does. This is a good thing and has led to positive steps in the US.

There are Americans who believe we need strong international laws and that the US needs to buy into the laws. From that perspective, the US prescriptively set the bar and put people on notice regarding anti-trafficking efforts.

However, when we did that, very few states had human-trafficking laws on the books. In ten years, more than forty states put anti-trafficking laws on the books.  These laws complement the federal laws regarding trafficking. Penalties supporting these laws are much more severe.  This increases the cost criminals face doing business and is a legitimate part of doing business.

But it might lead one to say (much like the immigration laws) how can the feds and the states both have human trafficking laws? There are a lot of legal issues around that question, but it does create a gap.

It is true there is an apparent discrepancy between estimated trafficking numbers and actual criminal prosecutions brought.

I believe this is a result of the force, fraud, coercion requirement. Those are really hard things to prove save for the really egregious cases.

Look at the parties involved in the sex cases. Are the Johns going to appear as a fact witness? Of course not, we don’t even arrest them.

The women … I can’t even begin to put my mind around the psychological components to this: PTSD rates that are as high as combat veterans. They just want it to end.  They don’t care if someone is prosecuted or not. Think battered spouse.  Think rape victims.

My colleague just had a successful prosecution of a violent rape where the women failed to report it for over two years. She had been tasered and then raped, and she thought somehow she was to blame for being so foolish to get into that situation.

Many people make the argument that the women choose to get into the pay for sex game and then end up in a bad situation they choose not to get out of.  So they make two bad choices: getting into the game in the first place and then not walking away when they could. Thus, no force, fraud, or coercion, and no human trafficking, just bad choices.

I don’t know. On the labor side, one might similarly argue that a migrant worker knows they are coming to the US to work (the job may not be what they were promised or believed, but they know that is a reality).  They know it is illegal to do so.  They know they are going to be paid less than a US citizen.  They probably know it will be less than what they have been promised.  And they know their living conditions might be substandard.  No matter what they have been promised, they realize this.  Nevertheless, they still choose to come here and work because it beats the alternative.

Choices all around, right? Or force, fraud, and coercion?

DHS getting it right?

They are the current instrument.  The United States is getting it right.




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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 12, 2011 @ 8:18 am

Traffic in humans is a world wide problem. It does relate to HOMELAND SECURITY and has really only been fully recognized as an issue in last two decades.
Thanks for this post and hoping followup will occur.
IMO the problem is underestimated not overestimated.

High end prostitution abounds in the DC area with its large foreign population.

Comment by John Comiskey

July 12, 2011 @ 6:12 pm

Portrayed as much to do about nothing instead of everything to do about humanity and homeland security too.

I talked to hundreds of prostitutes professionally. I arrested them mostly for minor drug possession and disorderly conduct (street walking). I raided their dwellings replete with the smell of human excrement and everything odorous. On occasion I took from them their children borne from their profession. They were all as much victims as they were perpetrators of crime.

Arrest processing is a tedious matter but on the whole, it provides great insight to humanity. Prostitutes see the world for what it is, albeit through the prism of alcohol, drugs, and wantonness. They know who their customers are. They are us all.

We would haul in 5-10 addicts and streetwalkers at a time. The precinct that I worked in averaged about 25 arrests a day. That’s a lot of stories. The arrestees mostly came from impoverished backgrounds but there were more than a few exceptions. I remember one young prostitute 17 years of age whose father was a New York City Cop. I remember releasing his daughter to him. His is a face I will remember.

I came across illegal aliens some of them likely prostitutes-in-waiting in my adventures in the Coast Guard too. The faces too told stories of despair. I knew then as I know now there is little that can be done. Tomorrow there will be more.

History tells us that slavery was once thought a noble thing to do to your defeated enemies at least nobler then killing them.

But this is the twenty-first century. Doesn’t that mean anything?

A colleague (Rich) recently proposed a counter-prostitution strategy for fighting terrorism. It’s simple and two fold. You take the profit out of human trafficking. Pragmatically, by denying criminals and terrorists’ profits you remove the financial incentive to take and barter human lives. “Humanitarily,” you sanction life for life sake.”

Final point is a criticism of humanity and especially women’s advocacy groups. I single out women’s advocacy groups because they have done such a good job on certain issues and especially breast cancer awareness and research. While human trafficking is humanity’s concern, women power replete with Oprah-like advocacy is needed most to combat human trafficking.

Comment by Oh, the dysfunctional and criminal ways of mankind....

July 13, 2011 @ 2:19 am

John, how true and I am hoping women and Oprah and others will read your comments as something far more reaching has to be done….Your experience invaluable and you would make a terrific speaker — Thanks Chris for this enlightening and necessary post which I hope will be read by many….

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