Human and Labor Trafficking in the US-Urban Institute

Human and Labor Trafficking in the US-Urban Institute

DC Public Safety Radio

Radio Show available at

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety and I’m your host Leonard Sipes. We are doing a show ladies and gentlemen on human trafficking. Back at our microphones from the Urban Institute we have Colleen Owens. She again is with the Urban Institute. She did a heck of a program last time on the issue of human trafficking. Joining her today is Justin Breaux and also Isela Banuelos. Did I get that correctly Isela, so I want to welcome all three of you to DC Public Safety.

Colleen Owens: Thank you.

Isela Banuelos: Thank you.

Len Sipes: Alright now we are going to go with Colleen because Colleen did the program before and Colleen gave me a very quick overview of what it is that we mean by human trafficking.

Colleen Owens: Well thanks so much for having us on the program Len we are really happy to be here. So human trafficking as it is defined in our federal law, which was passed in 2000, essentially, you know, centers on the use of three elements of forced fraud or coercion to compel a person either into I guess two very broad areas of labor trafficking or sex trafficking. If the person is under the age of 18, for sex trafficking you don’t have to prove forced fraud or coercion but for labor trafficking you would.

Len Sipes: I was running the research report. This is the one statement that just really jumped out at me: “To a public largely unaware of it crimes resembling slavery take place in America.” Is that overkill or is that a justifiable description of what we are talking about when we talk about human trafficking?

Colleen Owens: I mean that is absolutely justifiable. If you actually look at the root of the law that we have on human trafficking in the United States, it’s based upon the 13th Amendment principles of slavery. The language is actually directly relation to the language that we have since the 13th Amendment around debt bondage, peonage and slavery and so what we are talking about is actually, you know, the limitation of a person’s liberties and freedom. And this crime that we call human trafficking is somewhat new parlance since about the early 2000s but it is a crime that has existed for a long period of time in the United States.

Len Sipes: Now we are talking about literally tens of millions of people throughout the world?

Colleen Owens: The best estimate that we have actually comes from the International Labor Organization and there estimate is that 21 million people are victims of forced labor around the world.

Len Sipes: And so, but we don’t know the exact number of human trafficking/slavery in the United States but we do know in all probability that millions are involved in this type of behavior in the United States?

Colleen Owens: Right, we don’t have actual any estimates on the prevalence of human trafficking in the United States but we do know that victims have been identified both of labor trafficking and sex trafficking across the country.

Len Sipes: Because last time you and I did the show, in preparation for all my shows I do talk to different people about the topic before actually doing the show and to a person they just said human trafficking in the United States, they found that incredulous and they did not buy into the fact that there is human trafficking in the United States. So to satisfy them, once again, is there human trafficking in the United States?

Colleen Owens: Yes absolutely.

Len Sipes: Okay. So this is appalling, I mean this is absolutely literally appalling that we have forced labor and forced sexual bondage within the United States right now and it’s not all that unusual nor is it all that rare and it is probably happening throughout the country.

Colleen Owens: It is defiantly. I would say that no community is immune to it.

Len Sipes: You did a report which I do want to site and I will put it in the show notes. “Understanding the Organization, Operation and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking In The United States.” You did this again with Urban Institute coupled up with North Eastern University?

Colleen Owens: Right.

Len Sipes: And so this, I have been seeing in my email lots of material coming out of Urban on human trafficking. This is something that Urban is taking very seriously in terms of putting out seminars and reports on it. I mean it is just not a one shot deal. You guys are steadily pounding the streets talking about human trafficking.

Colleen Owens: Absolutely it is an issue that we see as very central and important in the research field and it is something that myself and my colleagues Justin and Isela and Meredith Dank, also of Urban Institute, as well as my colleagues at North Eastern University – Amy Farrell and Jack McDevitt have dedicated a lot of our time conducting research on over the years and it is something that we do feel strongly. There is still so much that needs to be known, a lot of unanswered research questions and it is something that we do remain committed to conducting research on in the future.

Len Sipes: Isela give me a sense as to the report. You’ve talked to what 28 victims and 58 social service providers to get a sense as to what’s actually happening in terms of human trafficking, not just in the United States but throughout the world but in terms of this report particularly in the United States.

Isela Banuelos: That’s correct so we have talked to service providers and victims who have been able to get services and we talked to people who were trafficked into various industries including agriculture, domestic work, hospitality and also restaurants. Thank you, right.

Colleen Owens: Restaurants.

Len Sipes: These are people who are hiding in plain sight according to the report. These are people who we interact with every day; we just don’t know they are being held in bondage. Correct?

Colleen Owens: That is correct.

Len Sipes: And it strikes me that there is a parallel here and any one of you can enter into this conversation. I’m from the main stream criminal justice system and I have dealt with an awful lot of women who are caught up in the criminal justice system who we have supervised in my experience, over the course of the last 25 years and it is not unusual, there is a new piece of research out for one particular state were 85% of the women caught up in the correctional system had histories of violence and sexual violence before the age of 18. And so many of the women who are involved in the criminal justice system are there because, stereotypically I understand but it is true, some male has used physical force or a threat of physical force or a threat of economic force and basically told her, “I’ve got two pounds of cocaine you are going to drive it to New York City.” They are going up Interstate 95. They get pulled over, the drug dog alerts on the car and suddenly she’s in jail or prison for the next 10 years, because principally she was forced to be there. It is sort of a type of bondage as far as I am concerned. And you sit down and you talk with them about their background, it verges on being disgusting. I get the sense that when we talk about human trafficking; we are talking about basically the same thing, force, threat of force, psychological bondage, people who feel paralysis and other people who take advantage of them, Justin?

Isela Banuelos: I think you would want to add fraud in there. What we found was that in most of our cases that was, you know most of our survivors were heavily defrauded in terms of their interview, their recruitment and things of that nature.

Len Sipes: Am I over playing my hand in terms of comparing human trafficking to what I see in the main stream criminal justice system, in particular women offenders?

Isela Banuelos: I think there are absolutely some similarities there and in fact in some of cases, women came to the United States, and you know they were working in homes, they were forced to board flights, and they really didn’t have any choice in the matter.

Len Sipes: The bottom line and the heart and soul of all of these issues that we are talking about today is physical or physiological coercion, to coerce a person in terms of doing something by threatening them physically or threatening them psychologically. So that is a form of slavery.

Colleen Owens: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: But in terms of human trafficking, they’re hiding again, as we said in plain sight. We interact with people on a day to day basis but they don’t feel that they can get out of it. The victims don’t feel that they can escape it because they are not quite sure that the criminal justice system is going to be sympathetic towards their cause, even though they are in the county legally and I do want to get around to that part of it. They feel that they’re going to be deported. They think that terrible things are going to happen to them, happen to their kids, happen to their families back in the countries that they came from, so they don’t escape it. That is a form of bondage. Correct? Talk to me about it.

Colleen Owens: Absolutely, well you know we collected a lot of really interesting information around the escape experiences and my colleague Isela can speak a little bit more on that, but you are absolutely correct that folks are laboring you know in plain sight, often times. They are working in hotels. They are working in construction and restaurants. They are here on a visa for work in these industries, primarily in our sample, that’s what we found. And they are under threat of deportation, threat of being reported to the police if they complain. Their family members are being threatened back home because oftentimes they have been recruited back home in their country of origin and a lot of information has been collected about their personal background. So the traffickers use this against them.

Isela Banuelos: Sorry can I also just add that in addition to having this threat of you know having their family members hurt in their home countries, I think that for folks who are coming into the country authorize and unauthorized, there is this tremendous just fear of contacting law enforcement because of their visa. So contacting law enforcement would mean that they are jeopardizing their status, and so because they don’t want to be deported so they are not contacting law enforcement.

Len Sipes: But Justin, they are here legally and not just the fact that they have visa’s when they come, but they paid.

JUSTIN BREAUX: Right, exactly.

Len Sipes: They paid to come here and they paid quite a bit of money.

JUSTIN BREAUX: Right and I think it starts with the recruitment phase. So we were looking at the continuum of the labor trafficking experience and what we found was that it all begins with recruitment oftentimes in their home countries, through their social networks they come across this opportunity. They usually meet with a recruitment agency. This agency will use high pressure coercion tactics to convince them. Many times they are using fraud. The victims are paying large fees. On average it was over $6,000. So that sort of sets the stage. So now they are in debt. They have used their family’s money as collateral and that really lays down the foundation.

Len Sipes: They are here legally, which meant they had to get visas, which meant they had to come into contact with the State Department.


Len Sipes: So there is nobody at the State Department asking questions?

JUSTIN BREAUX: We also highlight that in our report. It is sort of these actions that are taking place and what we found was that for many of the survivors that we interviewed, they had very routine sort of interactions with the State Department. Our survivors were often coach by their traffickers on what to say. In a few instances the trafficker actually participated in the interviews with the victim and the State Department and in that situation the victim, you know had no, didn’t speak English and really didn’t say anything throughout the course of the interview. So we did find that the traffickers played sort of a critical part there. But we do want to add a little bit of a caveat in that we are looking at a subsample of the individuals who have been victimized and received visas from the State Department. We don’t know the universe of individuals who are at risk of trafficking, who have applied for visas and been denied.

Len Sipes: You can only talk about what you know and I understand but there is a certain point where we do need to extrapolate beyond your numbers to the larger issue. The criminal justice system does not come off very well in this report. Again, we are inundated with rapes, robberies, burglaries, what I call the garden variety types of crimes every single day. I have been in law enforcement, I have been in corrections. I understand the stresses and strains upon our system. If you came to me as a police officer and said human trafficking, I guess my response is going to be, what? Because, again, I am overloaded with the day to day crimes that people are very concerned about and nobody at a community meeting brings up human trafficking. Our politicians don’t bring up human trafficking, the medial doesn’t bring up human trafficking and suddenly you present me with an extraordinarily complicated case where I don’t know the law, I don’t know the procedure, I don’t exactly know what to do with this. All I see is a mountain of work and when you are talking about a person being brought over and being worked half to death in a factory, I’m saying to myself what a minute, did you voluntarily come here, do you have a visa? You went through the States Department, you know, you paid for this and your complaint is what? So.

Isela Banuelos: That’s it. I mean that is a very legitimate response and perspective. You know that is something that other research has been done on actually NORC did a study a few years back that indicated that over half of law enforcement, including investigators and prosecutors that they surveyed, had no knowledge of the fact that their state had a law against human trafficking and that there was a high level of misinformation around definition. So folks thought maybe trafficking equaled smuggling. That there had to be movement involved. And so I think that there is a lack of awareness but I also think, and a huge need for training, but I also think something that’s distinct for labor traffic from sex trafficking that we found is that there is really a question about who’s job is it to enforce the laws around labor trafficking. And essentially we found what I would call a black hole of enforcement and it makes sense when you actually look at what we did in our study, which was we categorized and we reviewed cases of labor trafficking victimization and found that there were high rates of labor exploitation. So folks were experiencing crimes that you know sort of civil violations rather, that fall under the jurisdiction of Department of Labor. So wage and hour violations, you know denial of pay or you know failure to give someone a pay stub. You know, lack of meal breaks for example. That is all under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor. What is under the jurisdiction of law enforcement are when it rises to a criminal level, so you know, monitoring and surveying your workers, basically using the threats, the violence, the coercion against them.

Len Sipes: Human bondage is not a Department of Labor crime; I mean what we are talking about are real crimes that we would define them as being real crimes. We are just a little confused when a person comes here voluntarily on a visa that has been processed by the State Department and we would have one person’s word against another. I mean that is almost an impossible situation but we are talking about real crimes. We are talking about real bondage. We are talking about sexual abuse, we are talking about rape. We are talking about some extraordinarily serious issues.

Isela Banuelos: Exactly, but I think Department of Labor is in a place where they could be doing more to help identify because they are going into work places routinely. When you look at local law enforcement your prior experience, you know as a law enforcement official, it is not really in the routine of law enforcement to be going into work places and looking for crimes unless maybe somebody calls because they were assaulted for example.

Len Sipes: It’s a fascinating conversation. We are more than half way through the program and these programs do go by very quick because again I find this to be extraordinarily interesting. The report, “Understanding the Organization, Operation, Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in The United States” as put out by the Urban Institute Back at our microphones we have Colleen Owens from the Urban Institute, we have Justin Breaux and we have Isela Banuelos, am I getting that correct.

Isela Banuelos: Banuelos.

Len Sipes: Banuelos, okay than you very much and again all from the Institute in conjunction with North Eastern University. Is this Department of Justice supported?

Isela Banuelos: Yes it was funded by the national institute of justice.

Len Sipes: Okay the National Institute of Justice, so some rather prestigious organizations are involved with this and I would imagine Justice is involved in this because they see a problem that nobody seems to be willing to deal with, am I right or wrong?

Colleen Owens: Well basically the study came about because we have been, you know the field has been doing research around human trafficking, I would say, for a little bit over the past decade. And what we have all sort of come to is that we know more, though we still need to know more, about sex trafficking but we really don’t know much about labor trafficking. Does this exist in the United States, what does it look at, how are people being victimized? And so the study came out of that question. And we know that if we wanted to find – our approach was to find cases that have actually been identified and to study those cases.

Len Sipes: You don’t have an empirical basis to make this statement but I have read a couple of your reports and certainly it is justifiable to suggest that you are talking about a couple of hundred thousand people, if not more in the United States who are going through this problem and it is criminal in nature, more than it is labor in nature. I mean, I am trying to set the stage for the person listening to this program who is trying to relate to this. Again, human trafficking, the conversation I had with other people surprised that there is human trafficking in the United States. It impacts more than just a couple of hundred people.

Colleen Owens: Sure absolutely. I mean some of the cases that we looked at actually we may have been reviewing, you know, the cases of one or two victims but in fact the actual labor trafficking case had hundreds of victims that were victimized through that one experience.

Len Sipes: That one experience but is there, we have to somehow in some way put some sort of, I mean people are trying to wrap their heads around what it is that we are talking about and they are sitting there now saying well this is horrible, this is disgusting I did not know about but again it is not really prevalent in the united States. It is, is it not?

Colleen Owens: Well we know that , you know thousands of people have been identified that have been victims of labor trafficking. And I think based on what we found out in our report in terms of how difficult it is for those folks that have actually come forward, to come forward, and all of the barriers that they face in doing so, it does raise question about the extent to which this is happening. And I think also we looked at, I think what was surprising to me was how systematic a lot of this is. That it’s, you know, a lot of the factors that are leading to the labor of folks, of workers being forced you know exist through a lot of these temporary work visa programs. Not to say that they should be cancelled but we that we really need to you know have some serious oversight and look into making some adjustments around these programs to, you know, limit the risk that the workers are facing coming in under those programs.

Len Sipes: But Justin the bottom line is that we, within the criminal justice system have got to start paying attention to this so it has got to be on our radar screen. We’ve got to be talking to our attorneys. We’ve got to be talking to experts. This isn’t anything that we can ignore. This is something that we just should be paying attention to.

JUSTIN BREAUX: Yes you are absolutely correct and in our interviews with law enforcement what we did find was, in fact, a lot of confusion about the issue. Oftentimes they referenced it as being a purely a labor issue. So yeah, there is the need there and there is the need to raise awareness within the public as well.

Len Sipes: And again this is why I am playing this card too many times resembling slavery taking place in America. I’m trying to get a point across that we are not talking about somebody working 60 hours instead of 40 hours in a factory, who is from another country.

JUSTIN BREAUX: So what we are talking about is for example one of our cases. A woman made a mistake, she was a domestic worker. The family, the traffickers said she made a mistake; she was not given food for four days. When she “stole” two pieces of chocolate, she was forced to stand from 4am to 6pm for the remainder of the day. So those are the types of situations we are talking about. Death threats things of that nature. “If you try to run I will shoot you.” I mean these are things that sort of came out in our findings.

Len Sipes: And again this is something, I think, is just happening way too much in the United States. So they got here from what countries, principally what Asia and Latin America?

Isela Banuelos: That’s correct yes.

Len Sipes: Okay and they got here through visas.

Isela Banuelos: Yes the majority of the people in our sample came here through a visa and 79% like actually don’t quote me, 71% yes and they were flying in. I mean if you are thinking about places like Latin America and Asia these are folks who are coming in through there.

Len Sipes: They are not coming across the Canadian line, walking across the Canadian or the Mexican border. They are flying in with a visa?

Isela Banuelos: That’s correct, yes.

Len Sipes: There is a certain point where most of their visas are now expired?

Isela Banuelos: Yes and that creates further challenges for escaping. Right? So you have a situation where someone did everything right to come into the country legally and now they are caught in a trafficking situation, and their visa has expired. So that’s just creating future challenges to contact law enforcement since they know that they are now unauthorized.

Len Sipes: Justin, go ahead.

JUSTIN BREAUX: One of the first things that the traffickers did upon arrival into the United States was actually seize those documents and that was one of their primarily mechanisms of control over their victims.

Len Sipes: Alright, they believe because their visa has expired that they cannot go to law enforcement, they cannot escape because their visas have expired they are simply going to be deported back to the countries that they came from?

Isela Banuelos: Yeah, that is one of the many challenges that they have to overcome and I think there is also physical barriers. You are talking about people who work in agriculture. We are talking about folks who live in very rural parts in the country and you know it is going to take miles and miles until they come into contact. With some other folks who are in domestic work that is illegal in the privacy of someone’s home and don’t have any contact with anyone. They are under constant surveillance and so how do you create an opportunity for them to access other people?

Len Sipes: And how do they escape.

Isela Banuelos: So the majority of our people in our sample, 59% escaped by running away and the second most common way of escape was through the support of a friend. And you know I think it is important to recognize that for folks who have to be under constant surveillance and there is physical barriers, there is psychosocial abuse from the traffickers and there is a very complicated relationship with law enforcement because of their immigration status, they are relaying on narrowed windows of surveillance to escape. You know we had a situation where a women, you know the trafficker left the door open and she just ran out and waved down a cab. That was one of the stories we heard and for other folks who are working in maybe a more populated setting like hospitality, they are relying on a network or support of friends or colleagues who can help them, you know be more strategic about their exit. Helping them find a way to escape. So it’s, I can’t emphasis the importance of bystanders in this process of escape. A lot of times it took just someone you know to stop someone in the street and say like, “You know, there is something off. What is going on here?” and them having, you know, the power to contact law enforcement to check on the situation and I think that is really, really important.

Len Sipes: Nobody is taking them; nobody from the criminal justice system is taking them back to the trafficker are they? They are not making that mistake are they?

JUSTIN BREAUX: Well so we did have one person that we interviewed and she actually was able to call 911 and when law enforcement arrived they interviewed both the trafficker and the victim and they sided with the trafficker and actually told the victim that if she called law enforcement or 911 again, she would go to prison.

Colleen Owens: Yes, exactly and there was another case where an agricultural worker was shot at by the trafficker farmer and basically then he was arrested and put into deportation proceedings because his visa had expired. And it’s all as a result of the trafficking experience that happens.

Len Sipes: I’m just hoping that people who have listened long enough to this program at this stage of the game are now beginning to get a sense as to what we mean by human trafficking. I just get the sense that it is not taken seriously. And it’s – people see it as a matter of a labor dispute, it’s not. It’s bondage, it’s bondage in the United States. All right, so what is the role of the public to get them to understand how difficult this is? What should we do? Not just the criminal justice system but the general public.

Colleen Owens: Well I think as Isela mentioned, one of the things that we found that was so important was the role of bystanders and how much they were actually involved. And sometimes there was unrealized opportunities for escape. So. you know, we heard from survivors that for example they were out cutting the grass with scissors, you know, a domestic worker at 4am. And a neighbor was coming home and saw that and they tried to reach out and maybe they had, you know, limited English capacity but they were at least able to communicate that something was wrong and it was an unrealized opportunity for escape.

Other stories we heard they would, you know, ask neighbors for help but they might say, “I don’t want to get involved.” So there were these opportunities where folks were reaching out. What’s really key to understand, I think, and what is different in some cases from what we see with sex trafficking is that in our sample at least of labor trafficking victims, about 96% of all of the victims that we looked at in our case files actually realized something was wrong and they didn’t call it labor trafficking, they didn’t say, “I’m a victim of labor trafficking” but often they would say things like “I realize I am being tricked and I realize that I am being coerced” and so I think that is an opportunity where they are reaching out for help. They do realize something is wrong and it is getting the resources and the awareness out there so that we can actually capitalize on that and get people the help that they need.

Len Sipes: But maybe it’s the term. I mean I am not even quite sure that I understand and I have been in the criminal justice system for 45 years. I mean I’m not quite sure I understand labor trafficking. Human trafficking gets me somewhat to where I need to be and that is why I am constantly brining up this sense of bondage because that, that’s what we are talking about. So isn’t that what we need to get across to the American Public? I mean we are talking about human beings in bondage.

Colleen Owens: Right, but I think we also need to pay close attention to the psychological forms of coercion because sometimes the focus on bondage is important and it’s important to underscore the fact that, you know, people are laboring against their will but sometimes they think people get hung up because they might see a case, for example, of a domestic worker and they might say, “Well why don’t they just leave?”
Or, “They’re a farmer, why don’t they just leave, why do they stay?” and it is really important to understand all of the mechanisms that are being used against them to compel them to stay. The difference with slavery of the past is that people aren’t in chains for the most part but there are other forms of coercion that are being used to keep them in bondage, so –

Len Sipes: But the same question is being asked of domestic violence victims and I am not going to suggest that the question is repulsive. I understand that the question may be somewhat natural but they don’t understand all the complexities involved in this and this bondage. This is psychological bondage in terms of domestic violence. It sounds exactly the same things is happening here. You can entrap a human being in chains but those chains could be psychological. If the trafficker is going to say that your kids are going to be sold off or, you know, “I am going to make sure that your family back in Guatemala goes through utter and complete hell and I am going to make sure that they have no livelihood if you continue fighting me.” That is just as strong of a chain.

Colleen Owens: Right, exactly and back to your original question I mean it’s important then for the public to understand that and so awareness campaigns need to be created that really highlight not just, “are you a victim of labor trafficking” but “have you experienced these thing and if so, you know here is the number to call.”

Len Sipes: You know, again it is just an amazing report. Understanding the organization, operation and victimization process of labor trafficking in the United States. Our guests today: Colleen you bring a sense of real insight in terms of this so it is the second time you have been here but you are always welcome back.

Colleen Owens: Thank you.

Len Sipes: Justin and Isela both of you guys, I really appreciate you being here, again it a program or a research effort by the North Eastern University by the Urban Institute and by the US Department of Justice. You can find the report on the website of the Urban Institute: Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety, we appreciate your comments, we even appreciate you criticisms and we want everybody to have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.


Speak Your Mind


%d bloggers like this: