Labor Trafficking in the US: A Focus on the Invisible
April 23, 2021 - Michelle Stegmann - NJCAHT Blogger
Labor Trafficking in the US: A Focus on the Invisible
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
When I first joined NJCAHT—just before the pandemic hit in February 2020—my focus was on Sex Trafficking. I knew only some basic information, but I had known for many years that I wanted to join the fight against it. By last year, it was finally becoming an issue of increasing prominence in our national consciousness. I had read news articles, seen movies and read books about it. While NJCAHT was also involved in the movement to end Labor Trafficking, that was not an issue I was aware of at all.
As NJCAHT begins its May series on Labor Trafficking, the above fact struck me.
And I wondered: Why?
The National Human Trafficking Hotline indicates that—worldwide—experts believe that there are more situations of Labor Trafficking than Sex Trafficking. But there are critical differences in the response to each, particularly in the United States. Sex Trafficking in the U.S. typically involves American citizens. It is prominent in our news media because, at times, survivors choose to report their former situations to law enforcement and actions are taken. At other times, law enforcement becomes aware of a trafficking ring, and investigates.
Labor Trafficking, on the other hand, typically involves immigrants. They are sometimes documented, sometimes not, making them an easy target for traffickers. Even immigrants with documentation are unfamiliar with our customs and laws, and do not know how, or to whom, to reach out for assistance. They are typically unaware that they are being trafficked for quite a while; they simply believe they are experiencing “normal” working conditions. And in the U.S., the general public has a collective lack of awareness of the prevalence and signs of Labor Trafficking. Hence, those who fall prey to Labor Traffickers become “envizib la.”
If we can’t see something, how can we say something? This leads to the question: How do we spot Labor Trafficking?
The Department of Health and Human Services has created the “Blue Campaign.” Its website offers blue cards that list red flags for Labor Trafficking. They define the crime as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor . . . for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”
The red flags to watch out for are:
- People who no longer possess their identification/travel documents
- People coached on what to say to immigration officials/law enforcement
- People recruited for one job, forced to engage in other upon arrival in the U.S.
- Salary being “garnished” to pay off a “debt”
- Lack of freedom of movement
- Family threatened with harm if the trafficked individual attempts to escape
- Trafficked individual threatened with deportation, or calling ICE
- Individual harmed or deprived of food, water, sleep or medical care
- Individual prevented from freely contacting friends or family
- Individual not allowed to socialize or attend religious services
Many of the above red flags were present for Harold D’Souza, NJCAHT’s first speaker in its upcoming May series. Mr. D’Souza--a native of India who has a master’s in marketing management--was enticed by a friend of his wife’s family to leave a senior management position in the electronics industry in India and move to the United States. The “friend” would later become his trafficker. Mr. D’Souza moved his wife and two sons (aged 4 and 7) to another continent to pursue the American Dream; it would soon turn into a nightmare.
In 2003, Mr. D’Souza was promised a job as a Business Development Manager for a Company based in the U.S., and was told he would be earning a salary of $75,000/yr. He came to the U.S. on a work visa, and was brought to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was immediately taken to a restaurant, and told to work. For 18 months, he worked and was not paid. The traffickers conscripted his wife into working as well, even though she was not permitted to do so under her Dependent Visa.
When the D’Souzas objected, they were threatened, and even subjected to physical abuse. Harold recalls one time his trafficker slapped his 4-year-old son across the face to “teach” Mr. D’Souza “a lesson” to keep his mouth shut. Not knowing the “law, the culture or the people,” he felt he had nowhere to turn. Hope faded.
“They broke me down,” says D’Souza. “They took my self-confidence, self-esteem. They took everything.”
They failed to take his faith, however, and through a local parish, he learned of a program in the Cincinnati area named ‘Cincinnati Works’ https://cincinnatiworks.org that helped people find employment. He contacted the agency, met a lawyer there, and told her his story.
“From that moment, my life changed.”
The lawyer contacted the FBI, who began an investigation. In addition, the attorney thru FBI helped Harold obtain his Continued Presence, U Visa, green card, and ultimately, citizenship. As his options for employment grew, the trafficking ended, but Harold’s fight did not end there.
He and his wife created Eyes Open Unlimited, a 501 [C]3 non-profit organization dedicated to ending Labor Trafficking worldwide through education, prevention, protection and empowerment. The goal is to create, “courage, hope and freedom for all victims and survivors worldwide.”
You can hear Mr. D’Souza speak on the topic in NJCAHT’s May 4, 2021 10:30 am webinar. Pre-register at safernj.org.
For more information on Eyes Open International, check out their website at www.eyesopeninternational.org. And keep an eye out for a new documentary on Labor Trafficking called “To Be Free,” soon to be released by Martin Sheen, where Harold’s story and others are depicted. There is also a bio pic in the works focused on Harold, his experience and his ultimate appointment to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking by President Barack Obama in 2015, Harold was re-appointed by President Donald J. Trump to serve at The White House till 2020.
Michelle Stegmann is an attorney, who serves on the NJCAHT Communications Committee running our LinkedIn Page and is our chief blogger. She also donates her time to Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.