By ROBERT BURNS
Imagine being taken from your home with the promise of a better life in America, then being forced into prostitution or working for no pay when you get here. Human trafficking is a reality for thousands of people seeking a life in America.
The transport of people for involuntary servitude or forced prostitution, was the subject of a presentation by Supervisory Special Agent Shawn McGraw of Homeland Security on April 3.
Human trafficking is a $30 billion industry, according to McGraw, who has been in law enforcement for 25 years and is currently based in Irving.
“The stuff is out here in our community,” he said. “We need to start doing something about it and start changing the mindset of prostitution.
The woman that is engaged in prostitution is doing it for survival. It is the guys that are benefitting financially. They are the enemy in all this. We need to go after johns and pimps. It has to be the younger generation that can make a difference.”
According to a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 83 percent of cases involve sex trafficking, 12 percent involve forced labor and 5 percent include other forms of trafficking. McGraw said Texas ranks second in the nation in the number of victims of human trafficking. Dallas (No. 1) and Houston (No. 2) are the hot spots.
McGraw said forced labor is essentially modern day slavery. Victims are usually smuggled into Texas from South America and Mexico.
Most are lured in by the promise of good-paying jobs only to be forced or tricked into jobs with poor working conditions and little or no pay.
A variety of industries, from agricultural manual labor to the hospitality industry, use forced labor to decrease costs.
Bonded slavery is the most common way victims are enslaved, according to anti-slavery.org. Usually victims owe a debt to their employers and must work until the employer says they have paid it off. They are usually kept under surveillance and sometimes under lock and key.
The victims also must depend on their employer for food and housing. This poverty, along with threats of violence, keeps victims from defying their employers.
McGraw said 12 is the average age of victims of sexual exploitation. While most are foreigners, they can include people of any race or nationality — even Americans. The majority of American victims are runaways who come from poverty or broken homes. Many have already been victims of sexual abuse.
Typically, the trafficker gets the victim addicted to drugs so they can control the victim better.
“There is some pretty gruesome stuff going on, and there are some really violent and nasty guys who physically and sexually abuse their victims,” McGraw said. “One girl we rescued had sex with 38 men in one day.”
According to McGraw, a pimp can make up to $20,000 per a month on a single girl.
The average case takes about four months to prosecute, he said.
“It is not like CSI at all,” McGraw said. “It takes a long time to gather all that evidence, the hotel receipts, the witness statements, the phone tolls, and then going through and identifying who the johns are.”
McGraw said he works with four agents, each of whom works four cases.
According to polarisproject.org, human trafficking is a fairly recently recognized crime, with the first federal legislation laws coming in 2000. Now 39 states have laws against human trafficking. Texas has tough laws against human trafficking that mirror federal laws and in some instances exceed them. McGraw said the minimum jail time for a trafficker who forces a victim into prostitution is 10 years.
The presentation drew a huge turnout, with students sitting in silence as they listened to the horrors of human trafficking. The students engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session following the presentation.
“I thought it was very eye-opening,” communications major Chanel Jimenez said. “We need more of that type of information going around.”
Jimenez said she wasn’t aware that human trafficking was such a problem locally.
“I know it happens all over the world, but I didn’t think it was so close to home, in our own backyard,” she said.
Psychology major Alexandria Morris had a similar reaction.
“I very much enjoyed the presentation,” she said. “I like that he made it hit home, that he emphasized that this can happen here. I’ve got two little sisters. I don’t think I will let them walk down the street by themselves anymore.”
McGraw said he would like students to get involved in the fight against human trafficking.
“They can start by talking about it,” McGraw said. “Getting their legislature to do something about it. And there are a lot of good nonprofit and government organizations where they could volunteer their time.”