Modern Slavery Emerges From the Shadows

Enforcement of immigration laws could be making human trafficking tougher to detect.

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An estimated 21 million people are subjected to forced labor worldwide. Ima Matul, center, was one of them.

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Ima Matul sat under the bright examination light in a Los Angeles hospital, while an emergency room doctor stared suspiciously at the wound on her head. She wondered if the doctor could really see her brain, like her employer said he could when he first saw the wound. "Tell them that you fell in the backyard and bumped your head on a rock," she recalls being told as a condition of being taken to the hospital to get stitches. Now, the doctor was saying something she didn't understand in English, and her employer was answering for her. Ima, an Indonesian national, knew the employer probably wasn't telling the truth, that it was his wife who had split Ima's head open that morning during another rage-filled tirade about her cleaning skills. By then, Ima had endured two years of emotional and physical abuse, while working in the family's home without pay.

Soon after that incident, Ima wrote a plea in her limited English on a piece of paper: "Please help me. I cannot take it anymore." She kept it hidden for months before overcoming her fear and handing the note to a nanny who worked next door. The nanny told her employer, who then contacted the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, which would arrange Ima's desperate escape a few days later. While the family slept, Ima snuck out of the house and ran to a getaway car waiting down the street, carrying a small bag of clothes she had brought from Indonesia.

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An estimated 21 million people are subjected to forced labor worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. In the United States, American citizens and foreign nationals are trafficked—subjected to forced labor, debt bondage and involuntary servitude through the use of force, fraud or coercion—in brothels and factories, in hotels and restaurants, on farms and in homes. In a speech where he acknowledged how widespread the problem is, President Obama called human trafficking "modern slavery" and announced additional anti-trafficking efforts in September. But despite increased efforts by the administration, service providers worry that stronger enforcement of immigration laws is keeping foreign victims silent.

Foreign nationals that become trafficking victims in the United States, like Ima, have a commonly exploited vulnerability: their immigration status. Victims' advocacy groups say increased immigration enforcement has had a chilling effect on anti-trafficking efforts by fostering a climate of fear among the most vulnerable immigrant populations.

Common story. While there are as many different narratives as there are trafficking cases, Ima's tale is a familiar one, experts say. She was 16 years old and living in her native Indonesia when she heard about the job opportunity—working as a nanny for a family in Los Angeles. The $150 monthly salary she was promised would be enough to support her parents and two younger siblings back home. Millions of Indonesians leave home to work abroad, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, sending home remittances. Ima's recruiter arranged her passport, visa and transportation to Los Angeles. Ima didn't know that the tourist visa she traveled on meant that working in the United States was illegal.

The first week in America, Ima and her cousin, who also came in search of work, stayed in a transition house, learning which American brand cleaning products to use on which surfaces. Then the woman who would be Ima's employer, an interior designer married to a businessman, picked her up. Soon after Ima began her job as a nanny, the conditions changed. She was made to work 18-hour days, seven days a week, without pay. When Ima was caught trying to send a letter to her cousin, who was placed to work in another Los Angeles home, the employer began to physically abuse her and said she'd be arrested or worse if she tried to leave.

Ima didn't know her visa status or American laws. She had no one to turn to and didn't speak English. She believed the threats.