Feet on the ground

Today I spoke on the phone with Gabriela Villareal, Training and Advocacy Director for the Anti-Trafficking program of the organization Safe Horizon. We set a date in early October (her earliest opening) to meet in person at her office. Though I expect to gain a great deal more insight into her anti-trafficking work when we meet, she was an invaluable help to me today, conveying an abundance of relevant information and giving me the telephone numbers of several important contacts in the City.

Ms. Villareal regularly conducts information sessions with law enforcement officials and other humanitarian organizations in the City, so she had her song and dance ready when we spoke. Many people are fascinated with the sexual slavery element of human trafficking. Naturally so – it is an incredibly sensational, lurid situation. But I don’t want to get into tabloid journalism just yet, so I tried to keep this first conversation focused on the more common purpose of trafficking – involuntary servitude.

There are a variety of ways that forced laborers get into this country, and a variety of jobs they do upon arrival. The demand for involuntary servants comes from industries that want to pay very little for unskilled labor. Agriculture is a prime example. According to Ms. Villareal, there have been several documented instances of farm owners (and businessmen involved in farm-related enterprises) recruiting laborers from third-world countries by offering high wages, providing forged identity documents, and arranging transportation. Once the workers arrive at the promised farm, they find the working conditions and payment to be far inferior to what they were led believe; by then, they have few options.

This is a rather general description of a widespread practice. Ms. Villareal did give me a few specific examples. One of the more famous is referred to as the “Deaf Mexican Case” and is exactly what it sounds like. In the late 90’s, some shady businessmen recruited hearing-impaired people from Mexico, brought them to New York City, and then had them beg on the streets. The traffickers kept almost all of these people’s earnings and housed them in deplorable living conditions in an apartment in Queens. The deaf people did not know sign language, were not proficient in English, and so had little means of asking anyone for help. The lid on the case was finally blown off when neighbors called the police about the huge number of Mexicans living together in a small apartment on their street.

I am just beginning in earnest, but I am at least now certain that this is the subject that I am pursuing this semester.

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