By Justin Vorhees
FOR NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A runaway teen is lured into prostitution. An exchange student is recruited by an escort service. An illegal immigrant is forced into labor without pay.
Whether coerced by threat of physical abuse or psychologically manipulated by promises of a better future, victims of modern day slavery are often unable to seek help.
President Barack Obama heightened attention to the human trafficking issue by proclaiming January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
Human trafficking is defined as recruiting, harboring, transporting, or obtaining any person for labor or services using force, fraud, or coercion.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking is the second largest and fastest growing criminal industry in the world.
The department estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the United States every year. The Washington State Office of the Attorney General’s website estimates that commercially, 100,000 to 300,000 adolescents are sexually exploited annually within the United States.
Washington state’s border with Canada, multiple ports, and proximity to Asia make it a common destination for traffickers. Fortunately, state laws and government-funded activist groups help fight the problem locally, according to the Washington State Task Force against the Trafficking of Persons.
One such organization is the Asian and Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center (APIWFSC).
“It’s a lot of work,” said Emma Catague, the community organizing program manager, referring to what it takes to help Asian and Pacific Islander (API) American victims with issues of domestic violence and human trafficking.
Catague is one of the organization’s founders and started the center to provide a cultural-specific safe haven for API women who are victims of domestic violence. The center has been working with victims since the early 1990s.
“It’s difficult when you’re dealing with [the victims] because they don’t trust anybody,” Catague said. The center provides direct services for human trafficking victims, including assistance with food, shelter, protection, and counseling. “They’re new to this country, so we want to make sure we are very sensitive and very respectful of what they need.”
Lan Pham, the executive director of the APIWFSC, described some of the difficulties in finding victims. “They could be trafficked by people they know. They could be trafficked by family members. They could be trafficked by gangs,” she said. “It’s hard for the general public to identify who the trafficking victims are. And then a lot of times, even the victims themselves don’t know their rights and don’t know they’re trafficking victims.”
When asked about the center’s relationship with local law enforcement, Catague said, “Seattle is one of the best [cities working with anti-trafficking organizations]. [Local law enforcement and APIWFSC] actually get along very well. We have a very good relationship.”
Human Trafficking Law
Seattle and Washington state are on the forefront of the issue. In 2003, Washington became the first state to pass a law criminalizing human trafficking, and it is the most stringent law in the country, according to the attorney general’s website. The first conviction under the law occured last year when King County prosecutors convicted DeShawn Clark, who is currently facing 13 to 18 years in prison.
Clark was convicted of human trafficking and conspiracy to promote prostitution, according to the county’s website.
On the federal level, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in October 2000. The law established the T-Visa, which allows victims of trafficking to become temporary residents of the United States. The T-Visa signifies an important shift in immigration law policy. Many victims were previously deported as illegal immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website.
“A lot of documentation is needed,” said Jorge Baron the Executive Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “We help trafficking victims navigate the legal process.”
How to Help
Identifying possible victims is an important step in preventing human trafficking. Many cases referred to the APIWFSC are from local people who saw something out of the ordinary and decided to report it.
“If we can help one person to get out of the situation and save them, then we did our job,” said Catague.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has a 24-hour hotline for reporting tips, or requesting information. The number is 1-888-373-7888. (end)
For more information, visit theIRC.org or www.apiwfsc.org.
Justin Vorhees can be reached at email@example.com.
*Edited on July 1 to fix Baron’s job title.