Hidden in Plain Sight

An article about human trafficking by Sister Suzanne Susany

A young girl dressed in provocative fashion stands on the street corner, stopping at various cars apparently looking for a ride. We ask in judgment, “where are her parents? Why is she out so late at night alone?” We see, but do not see that here is a victim trapped in a web from which she cannot escape. Human trafficking is often “hidden in plain sight.”

One of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, and the second largest form of organized crime, is human trafficking, often described as “modern slavery.” Thousands of men, women, and children are trafficked into forced labor situations and into the sex trade worldwide to work in sweatshops, massage parlors, agricultural fields, restaurants, hotels and domestic service.1 To this end, President Obama has named January as Human Trafficking Month to call attention to this abuse.

Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Many victims are lured from their homes with false promises of well-paying jobs, and forced into prostitution, domestic servitude, or other types of forced labor. Trafficking victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality, men or women, young or old, American or from abroad, with or without legal status. Victims are vulnerable because of economic hardship, political instability, natural disasters, undocumented status, limited English proficiency, or other causes. Traffickers include corrupt individuals, small families or businesses, loose-knit decentralized criminal networks, and international organized criminal syndicates.

It is estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 American children are sold for sex each year with the average age between 12 to 14 years. Pimps sexually exploit these teenagers who are captives of the traffickers. The teens are often physically assaulted and abused so severely that they die within five to seven years. The victims become so hardened by the environment in which they must learn to survive that they are incapable of leaving on their own.2

Pennsylvania is well-known as a “pass-through” and a “destination” state for human trafficking. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Reading, Delaware County and Harrisburg have been identified as sites where children as young as 10-years-old were victimized by traffickers. Pennsylvania is regularly ranked in the top 15 states from which the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline receives calls, and its highways are utilized to move victims to Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and along the I-95 corridor.

The U.S. Department of Justice enforces laws, both federal and international, that prohibit human trafficking. Pennsylvania has its own rarely-used human trafficking laws in 18 P.C.S. § 30. Most trafficking cases at the local level are treated as prostitution cases where the victim is punished, and the pimp is often given custody of the victim again. The lack of awareness on the part of both the police and the public contributes to the continuance of human trafficking. Although this is the situation in Pennsylvania, it is most probably true of our neighbors in New York, as well as other surrounding states.

Recently, in my work as an immigration attorney and in conjunction with the Community Justice Project, two men from another country who arrived without documents were able to apply for a Trafficking Visa. The men had mortgaged their farms in their country and were brought here along with 40 other men with the promise of work by an unscrupulous trafficker. They believed the lies of this trafficker. Instead of the promised work, they were housed, along with the other 40, in three filthy trailers with broken plumbing, given sporadic work with pay of $1.00/day and meager food. They were told that the trailers had cameras to monitor their movements and that to escape would mean prison. The two men finally did escape and made their way to Pittsburgh. Here they were instrumental in testifying in the criminal case thanks to the aid of many in the community. These same men would be considered by common observers as mere “illegals” who came unlawfully to this country to work illegally. We see, but do not see.

In June, 2012, the Pennsylvania Legislature’s Joint State Government Commission produced an extensive report on human trafficking. The report stated: “public awareness and professional training, increased penalties and access to victim services are crucial for combating human trafficking. Success in combating human trafficking requires concerted efforts of organizations and agencies.”3

The key to dismantling the trafficking industry is equipping law enforcement with specific tools to prosecute these cases. Of greater importance is changing the mindset that treats the victims as criminals, rather than what they really are – victims of a heinous crime. To obtain additional information on trafficking, access the Department of Homeland Security website listed below. Also, contact your state senators and representatives to support legislation that specifically targets traffickers.4 Finally, it behooves all of us to withhold judgment of our first impressions of persons who may not rise to our assessment of how they should act or what they should do, lest the evil of human trafficking be hidden in plain sight before our very eyes.

1 The Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” offers additional resources for human trafficking.

2 Lisette M. McCormick, “Halting Human Trafficking in Pittsburgh,” ACBA Lawyers Journal, Vol. 14, No. 24, (Nov. 30, 2012), p. 7.

3 Report

4 The State of New York Resources