As a proud Californian from the San Francisco Bay Area, I passionately boast about the Bay Area’s diversity and its progressive politics. Until recently, not once had I stopped to consider the implications of this diversity or its connection to trafficking in persons. How could human trafficking persist in my progressive community? Unfortunately, many Americans often view human trafficking as a foreign issue and don’t recognize its local presence.
The largely invisible nature of human trafficking contributes to this ignorance. Many individuals see sensationalized images of individuals in chains or stories conflating this issue with prostitution, but trafficking in persons is often subtle. Moreover, trafficking into different forms of labor is often excluded from this narrative. Domestic work, migrant work, farm work, factory work — many Americans and employers don’t consider these forms of work as “real” work. Accordingly, workers in these industries don’t receive a large portion of our attention (or much protection under labor laws, in certain cases.)
While working on the Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies this summer, I read The Slave Next Door by Kevin Bales. While I learned about traffickers’ tactics and different forms of human trafficking, my big takeaway was that this issue affects all demographics and can occur anywhere. Though seemingly a simple observation, it is not universally known. Hence, I decided to research how this crime could occur in my community. And, the future policy analyst in me needed to know: what’s being done about it?
The Bay Area has found itself in a very unfortunate situation demanding immediate attention: the same place that serves as a hub for technology, affluence, and progressive politics has become a top U.S. destination for trafficking in persons.
According to the Final Report of the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force (2007), California’s “extensive international border, its major harbors and airports, its powerful economy and accelerating population, its large immigrant population and its industries make it a prime target for traffickers.”
How can the same factors I cite when I talk about how amazing the Bay Area is be the same ones that fuel trafficking in persons?
Though a largely affluent area known for its technological advancements and global connections, the Bay Area serves as a reminder that no community is immune from human trafficking. The same factors that make the Bay Area such a special place worth boasting about often drive this exploitative crime.
Many rings of organized crime move trafficked persons from large Bay Area cities like San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland up into Portland and Seattle and often into Reno and Las Vegas. Labor and sex trafficking of both children and adults are prevalent throughout many Bay Area cities.
Affluence. Many Bay Area residents seek cheap labor, particularly workers to assist with domestic tasks. Traffickers have created an illicit market forcing individuals into labor in order to meet this demand. Technology. Traffickers use communication innovations like the internet, photography, and text messaging to lure, transport, and/or track trafficked persons.
Diversity. Traffickers exploit the Bay Area’s immigrant community, and the U.S. border with Mexico enables rings of organized crime to traffic to and from the Pacific Rim and Latin America. According to the U.S. Department of State and other studies, global economic crises in countries abroad can make certain individuals more vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. As U.S. immigration policy has complicated legal immigration, many individuals seeking to immigrate to the U.S. in search of better opportunities inadvertently become victims of trafficking by paying traffickers to help them migrate. They are often coerced into exploitative labor conditions or sex work with little to no pay and a lack of civil liberties.
Regional task forces dedicated to combating human trafficking via prosecutions and victim services exist within the Bay Area, and they receive their funding from federal grants. Due to the limited availability of funds, however, they have had to compete against one another for resources. Many anti-trafficking organizations, nonprofits, and law enforcement officials cite a lack of funding and a lack of training for individuals coming into contact with potential victims of trafficking as huge obstacles in delivering an effective response to human trafficking.
The San Jose Police Department’s Human Trafficking Task Force has made tremendous efforts to investigate and prosecute many human trafficking cases, and it has increased training programs so that its law enforcement officials become more attuned to recognizing signs of trafficking. Still, San Jose and the rest of the Bay Area have a long way to go in combating this atrocious crime.
For starters, cases involving labor trafficking demand more attention. However, because local agencies often report a lack of resources, time, experience, and training needed to successfully investigate and prosecute these cases, they are often deferred to federal law enforcement agencies like the ICE Homeland Security Investigations Unit, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A more holistic approach to, and understanding of, human trafficking will ensure that the full scope of this crime is adequately addressed.
Still, it is hard to measure the full scope of human trafficking due to the relatively recent measures undertaken to combat it. As such, the quality of data concerning human trafficking prosecutions and victim identification numbers may vary from county to county, thus making statistics regarding this issue imprecise. What is the true magnitude of human trafficking in the Bay Area? In the U.S.? In the world? Different studies present different numbers. What is certain is that slavery continues to exist throughout the U.S. and it’s time to collaborate locally, nationally, and globally in order to eradicate it.
It’s time to educate voters so that they know that human trafficking exists within the U.S. Accordingly, politicians need to make this issue an important part of their agenda. The mental block that this isn’t an issue that can happen in the U.S. needs to change. Local agencies within the Bay Area must also coordinate their efforts with state and federal agencies in order to provide a more effective response to this issue.
According to a report by the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Santa Clara University School of Law, though the U.S. has made significant strides in its fight against human trafficking, it has overwhelmingly failed to address human trafficking in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. This report identifies three significant gaps in the U.S. response to trafficking in persons: the “failure to 1) adequately identify and investigate labor trafficking cases; 2) address the intersection between the child welfare system and human trafficking, and 3) provide coordination and promote collaboration between local, state, and federal agencies to combat human trafficking.”
Many Bay Area agencies and service providers report that labor trafficking remains under-investigated. Law enforcement agencies report a lack of adequate resources and U.S. labor laws excluding certain workers, such as farm workers and domestic workers, as factors fueling this ineffective response. The U.S. government and organizations throughout the nation must address labor trafficking. Law enforcement agencies with the jurisdiction to enforce labor laws must have adequate resources and training to resolve these cases. Moreover, laws and regulations must wholly protect all workers from forced labor.
It is also imperative that the U.S. government and organizations throughout the nation address the intersection between the child welfare system and human trafficking. According to the California Child Welfare Council’s report, many children with connections to the child welfare system are at a particular risk for child trafficking. Though the U.S. Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) has made an effort to investigate and prosecute the exploitation of children, the U.S. government should better ensure that the child welfare system has the necessary resources and training to protect vulnerable children from trafficking, provide appropriate victim-centered services, and improve coordination between social services and law enforcement agencies to protect children in the child welfare system.
We also need local, state, and federal coordination in addressing human trafficking. The Bay Area’s local law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking agencies claim that a lack of coordination, funding, and training are obstacles in their fight against human trafficking. Many local anti-trafficking task forces exist to promote collaboration amongst various agencies, but the federal government should assume a leading role to promote communication and coordination amongst federal, state, and local agencies. The federal government should also standardize a human trafficking curriculum that organizations and agencies can use to train those who may potentially come into contact with victims.
Bay Area cities have started to improve their fight against human trafficking by applying these recommendations.
On Tuesday, April 29, 2014, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a human trafficking commission in response to a growing need to combat trafficking in persons. This commission will serve many roles including coordinating government and community efforts to combat trafficking, identifying victim-centered policies and services, developing a more coordinated, informed response, and creating a public-education campaign to spread awareness. Supervisor Cindy Chavez introduced the commission proposal, demonstrating the vast potential for public servants to take initiative in addressing this issue locally.
Other initiatives have recognized the role of globalization and technology in facilitating trafficking in persons. For example, many traffickers transport individuals via airports, but in most cases, staff members fail to identify victims. As a response, Bay Area airports are training their airport staff to identify potential trafficked persons. According to Betty Ann Boeving, founder and executive director of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, “(Airports are) the No. 1 place we should try to intercept (victims) because they are outside of the hands of the trafficker often.”
It is clear that many agencies within the Bay Area have recognized human trafficking as an issue demanding immediate attention. Furthermore, a call to increase the coordination amongst federal, state, and local agencies provides a promising approach to combating this issue holistically. It is crucial that the U.S. and international agenda prioritize this pervasive human rights violation and security threat.
As a proud Californian, I desire to see a Bay Area that capitalizes its skills, resources, and innovation to become a global leader in the fight against human trafficking. As an advocate of global justice and human rights, I envision a world collaborating to stop this crime by first recognizing the inherent dignity of all.
– Written by Harleen Kaur, BTCC Intern
Harleen Kaur is an intern with the Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies for the summer of 2014. Originally from San Jose, CA, she is currently a student studying Government and Economics at Smith College in Northampton, MA.