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.
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.
The threat of arrest and deportation is a common tool traffickers use to control their victims, experts say. Often, they'll confiscate the victim's immigration documents, as Ima's employer did. In another case, last November, the Justice Department secured a life sentence in the conviction of Alex Campbell, a 45-year-old massage parlor owner in suburban Illinois. Besides using violence to coerce three women from Ukraine and one woman from Belarus into forced labor and commercial sex, he had confiscated their passports and visas. At the trial, prosecutors showed that Campbell targeted foreign women without legal status in the United States. Ima's traffickers were never prosecuted.
But even those immigrants who arrive on a legitimate work-related visa have become trafficking victims. These visas usually bind the worker to an employer, who can hold that requirement over their head and even become their trafficker. "If employment ends, then so does visa status," says Avaloy Lanning, senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, a New York-based victim's services agency. "The trafficker uses that against them, [saying], if you run then you're going to be illegal, then immigration is going to pick you up, arrest you and deport you." Because of the vulnerability for exploitation and abuse this creates, victims' advocates are now pushing for comprehensive reform of the temporary worker program to be included in the anticipated immigration legislation.
Immigration connection. While there are no reliable numbers to gauge the full scope of human trafficking in the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations directorate in fiscal 2012 initiated 894 human trafficking investigations, made 967 arrests and 559 indictments, and secured 381 convictions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had about 450 pending human trafficking investigations at the end of last year. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a hotline funded in part by the federal government and operated by the nonprofit Polaris Project, received 20,639 calls last year, referencing 2,333 potential victims—1,367 of them placed by potentially trafficked persons. Forty-one percent of calls received in past years referenced foreign nationals, 43 percent referenced U.S. citizens, and the rest were unknown. In 2004, the last time such an estimate was made, the federal government estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people were trafficked into the United States. According to the State Department, most foreign victims identified in 2011 came from Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras and India.
In 2000, Congress passed landmark legislation called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which, among other things, authorized the government to provide temporary immigration relief for foreign victims. In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have launched global, national and local outreach campaigns to inform vulnerable communities about their rights. More federal, state and local law enforcement officials are being trained in recognizing signs of trafficking and taking on a victim-centered approach. "No matter where a person's from or what their immigration status is, they should come forward to law enforcement," says Angie Salazar, who is in charge of ICE's Smuggling and Trafficking division. "We will always investigate a case; and, if they are identified as a victim of human trafficking, they have rights under the law regardless."
Still, law enforcement officials say most trafficking victims are identified through nonprofit and local service providers. Increased enforcement, including the deportation of more than almost 1.6 million people since 2009, has made it less likely that victims will come forward, service providers say.
"There is a heightened resistance among exploited immigrants to seek protection from law enforcement, to access social services and health care, or to seek assistance related to exploitation or violations of legal rights," states a policy paper published by Freedom Network USA, a national alliance of 30 anti-trafficking organizations. "Any effort to reach out for help brings a risk of disclosure of their lack of status and related immigration enforcement measures. The resulting detention, even if minimal, reinforces the exploitative employer's threats of law enforcement and the immigration system."
"If our government's perceived [to have] these increased enforcement schemes, the traffickers will essentially have a point," says Ivy Suriyopas, policy co-chair at Freedom Network and head of the anti-trafficking initiative at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Immigrant victims are not going to come forward if they fear that the NYPD or the LAPD are not going to come help them but might label them a criminal first and ask questions later. Or maybe never ask questions at all."
Tiffany Williams, advocacy director for the Institute for Policy Studies' Break the Chain Campaign, a D.C.-based migrant workers' rights organization that's also part of Freedom Network, says she and other social workers are seeing "more fear and reluctance" about coming forward, particularly in states with aggressive immigration enforcement laws, like Arizona and Georgia, and since the expansion of the Secure Communities initiative, a federal fingerprinting program to identify undocumented immigrants. "What we've seen on the ground is that the more aggressive they are with these [enforcement] programs, where they're allowing local police to arrest people for being undocumented, the more that the Secure Communities programs and others are growing, the less likely it is that an immigrant survivor would be willing to come forward and ask for help," Williams says, referring to victims of trafficking and other crimes. "It impedes our work significantly," she adds.
More immigrants have been deported since 2009 than during eight years of the Bush administration. In 2012, the Obama administration spent 24 percent more on immigration enforcement agencies than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The Secure Communities program, which began in 2008 by offering states and localities voluntary participation, has become mandatory. At the end of last year, ICE had 39 agreements with local law enforcement agencies in 19 states, delegating federal immigration enforcement authority to them.
A chilling effect. The consequences are detrimental to both immigrant communities and law enforcement, victim advocates say. "I know it's true from talking to people from immigrant communities and from talking to law enforcement [officers] who aren't really supportive of acting in this way. Because if we're talking about the NYPD or the Dallas Police Department or whoever that has to go into immigrant communities to investigate crime, they can say, 'I'm not immigration, I'm not here to deport you ... I'm here to hear about what's happened to you, to make it better; there's justice for you.' And if they had to act as an arm of immigration, they couldn't say that anymore, and they would lose the trust of those immigrant communities," says Lanning.
Alongside the growing mandate to enforce immigration regulations, law enforcement agencies are increasingly trained to deal with trafficking cases. "We have to ensure that if someone is here illegally that we uphold the law and do whatever it takes to ensure that we are fair to that person," says Salazar, the DHS official. "Depending on why we've intercepted them, different courses of action can happen. But when it comes to human trafficking investigations, and any of the investigations we do when there's a human being at the center of our investigation, they are of the utmost priority, regardless of their immigration status." Salazar doesn't think the agency's dual mandates are at odds, but admits there is a challenge. Getting victims to come forward, she says, "is a challenge for law enforcement in general. Probably a little more [for us] because we are an immigration law enforcement agency. But a lot of these victims come from these countries where corrupt law enforcement is common," she says, referring to many immigrants' inherent lack of trust of law enforcement.
Traffickers range from opportunistic individuals to criminal organizations to employment recruiting companies, experts say. Victims don't fit a single profile, varying in gender, age, education level, origin and other factors. The control exercised over a victim by a trafficker is sometimes physical and always psychological. "Many times the trafficker is keeping them in a state of limbo and hope, that this will somehow get better if they just comply with a set of demands or requirements or obligations," says Gary Haugen, a former Justice Department official and founder of International Justice Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit that rescues victims of trafficking and violence overseas. "And so the victim is frequently trying to calculate, 'Okay, am I going to get out of this situation by maybe just doing the next thing that's asked of me—pay a little more money, do this thing I tell you, don't make me mad—or do I really try to go against my trafficker and seek outside help?"
Service providers are rooting for immigration reforms that might make the choice of seeking help more viable. Removing the trafficker's ability to hold a victim's immigration status over their head would arm them with the ability to complain about working conditions, to change employers, or come to a social service agency without fear of being arrested, Williams says.
Ima now works as a survivor organizer for CAST, the Los Angeles organization that rescued her. She has met President Obama and testified before Congress on human trafficking.
Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center to report a tip or request information or assistance: 1-888-373-7888.