California is a top destination for human traffickers who coerce people into the sex trade or hard labor through force or fraud, according to an 18-month government study.
The report by a 19-member task force of the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery says California is particularly vulnerable to human trafficking because of its international border, ports and airports; its booming immigrant population; and a large economy that includes industries that attract forced labor.
The problem goes far beyond the sex trade, with migrant farm and construction workers, household employees and workers in motels, restaurants and clothing factories frequently vulnerable to abuse, task force members said.
The report, required by a 2005 state law, cites research by the U C Berkeley Human Rights Center. From 1998 to 2003, university researchers found 57 forced labor operations in nearly a dozen California cities involving more than 500 people from 18 countries. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose were centers for the problem.
Researchers say 80 percent of the victims are female, and half are children. The federal government says human trafficking is second only to the drug trade as an international criminal industry. "We don't have chains, but the traffickers use coercion and fear" to keep people from fleeing, said a 35-year-old woman who said she was lured from Puebla, Mexico, to a Los Angeles sweatshop in
The woman goes by the name Esperanza, a pseudonym that means "hope" in Spanish, because she said the sweatshop owner continues to stalk her. She said she spent 40 days working and sleeping in the clothing factory before escaping by telling her overseer she wanted to attend Catholic Mass.
She said the sweatshop owner threatened to harm her mother and the three children she left behind in Mexico and warned that she would be jailed as an illegal immigrant if she went to authorities. "She told me I had no identity: 'If I kill you, no one will answer for you,'" Esperanza said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Esperanza now helps train law enforcement officers to spot human trafficking victims, who are often frightened, penniless, unskilled, don't speak English and lack basic knowledge of how to dial a telephone or board a bus to seek help. It's the sort of training task force members said should be provided for firefighters, building inspectors, ambulance workers and others who might be in a position to spot the signs of human trafficking.
The state should also increase penalties for traffickers and provide housing and protection for victims, the report says. Task force members are backing pending legislation that would allow a maximum prison term of six years, up from five now, for engaging in human trafficking and make it easier to prosecute child labor cases and trafficking rings that cross county lines.
Until recently, traffickers could be prosecuted only for related crimes, such as kidnapping, pandering or pimping, said San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a task force member. Trafficking was made a specific stand-alone federal crime in 2000 and was criminalized in California in 2005.
That is one reason researchers have mainly anecdotal evidence that the crime is widespread, said task force Chairwoman Nancy Matson, who directs the state attorney general's Crime and Violence Prevention Center. About 600 cases are documented in California a year, Matson said.
The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division estimates that, nationwide, 14,500 to 17,500 people each year are brought into the United States by traffickers to work in the sex trade or other jobs. Harris said that doesn't include American citizens who are transported across state lines.
Adapted from: Don Thompson,"State a hot spot for human trafficking, panel says." Associated Press. 5 December 2007.
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