Trafficking of Latin American migrants and job seekers within the United States has led to extensive exploitation, with thousands worried about how to report the abuse as their immigration status and other vulnerabilities are used against them. Many of these individuals have left their home countries to seek jobs to improve their lives, as well as the lives of their loved ones.
Given the different forms of trafficking that take place, it is important that resources be made available to meet the needs of survivors. Organizations like My Sister’s House assist survivors with access to resources necessary for their recovery process. In an interview with Latina Republic, Nilda Valmores, their Executive Director, discusses the complex aspects of trafficking and what tools are accessible, especially for the Spanish-speaking community.
What is trafficking?
Human trafficking occurs in many ways, making it important to differentiate its various forms. The Congressional Research Service on Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean defines human trafficking as follows:
“… the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
According to the ACLU, federal law also extends to defining sex trafficking as a “a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under 18.”
Why high rates of trafficking from Latin America into the U.S exist
High rates of trafficking from Latin American countries into the U.S exist for a number of reasons. Common issues that have led to people becoming more vulnerable to trafficking include, fleeing civil unrest within one’s country of origin, whether this is due to violence or expansion of drugs, as well as seeking employment opportunities due to poverty. Some of the top countries of origin where victims have been trafficked for labor include, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica.
Polaris is a nonprofit organization that centers their work on addressing trafficking, releasing reports, and operating the U.S National Human Trafficking Hotline. Polaris obtains their information through in-depth analysis of the data that comes through the Hotline.
The organization has identified the five most common types of trafficking that affect immigrants from Latin America. These include:
- Domestic work
- Restaurant work
- Escort services (commercial sex trade)
When it comes to agricultural work, research found that a significant percentage of Mexican individuals, around 46 percent of the victims were found in this field. According to Polaris, the high number of trafficked Mexicans can be attributed to the fact that there already are established cross-border recruitment systems in place.
These practices are mainly centered around farm work, where the U.S based producers have Mexican recruiters recruit incoming workers, and there is very little oversight conducted, so oftentimes, the recruiters are paid instead of the workers.
Domestic work trafficking can entail many tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, and child care. Workers are often living in their employer’s home, making them isolated, which is often compounded if there is a language barrier. This makes it fairly easy for workers to be taken advantage of, as there isn’t any regulation that may uncover mistreatment of extensive work hours or living conditions.
Through a Hotline that Polaris manages, it was reported that many of the individuals that had been trafficked obtained legal status through visas, such as the J-1 and A-3. However, there have been cases where fraud was committed by employers who misrepresented the types of visas they acquired for workers brought over by them, by petitioning for visas meant for students or fiancés.
Labor trafficking for construction work is another key area to address. This form of exploitation mainly affects men, particularly male immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. When trafficking takes place, employers might have the worker listed as an independent contractor as opposed to being an actual employee, which limits the benefits and worker protections that would have been otherwise available to them.
This can include unpaid sick leave, no health insurance, inability to obtain time off to seek medical care, and lack of protections from discrimination or harassment.
Another common form of trafficking that many Latin American immigrants encounter is within the restaurant and food industry. When this occurs, they are often placed in jobs where they aren’t visible, such as kitchen work. In addition, if a language barrier is present, then that is also exploited. It is estimated that 26 percent of trafficked Latin Americans have been forced to labor under this type of work.
The commercial sex trade is another area where trafficking is common. Survivors have reported being tricked into this type of exploitation, typically through false job advertisements that depict different responsibilities and wage amounts than originally agreed upon.
Valmores recounted a personal story of a speaker at the 2020 Human Trafficking Conference that My Sister’s House hosts. She shared that the speaker, “ …thought she was doing a modeling contract…and this wasn’t [the case].” These advertisements often have false promises made by traffickers who claim they will provide for the individual, or may lure them into the industry by claiming a romantic relationship with the trafficked individual.
There are various factors that can make an individual more susceptible to trafficking. The National Hotline identifies 28 categories that can play a role in increasing one’s likelihood for being trafficked. When it comes to domestic workers, the top five include, having recently migrated to the U.S, economic hardship, recent financial debt, unemployment or underemployment, and unstable housing. These are aspects of an individual’s situation that a trafficker may take note of.
What type of exploitation exists
There are various forms of exploitation, such as trafficked individuals being told that they will be deported, along with their documents being confiscated. The issue of proper pay can result at times, with recruiters receiving payments instead of the workers.
Other forms of abuse include expecting the individual to work excessive hours. People have also been subjected to verbal and/or sexual abuse. In addition to fears of deportation, traffickers can take advantage of the person’s visa representation.
Areas of improvement
My Sister’s House is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to those who have been impacted by domestic violence, sexual abuse, and human trafficking within the Asian and Pacific Islander community. They provide numerous services as they assist those who have been affected.
Nilda Valmores mentions that the organization strives to focus on sex trafficking, stating that,
“[It’s] affecting immigrant women…and we are trying to help those that are most underserved, those that are most vulnerable. In our outreach we try to get the word out.”
Valmores shares that there are various factors that need to be addressed when focusing on trafficking:
“Everything from the prevention side, so that common factors that enable the traffic of women are not in place; this means addressing poverty to addressing pornography, to making sure that the laws are harsher for sexual exploiters.”
The role of law enforcement is also another area that would require further developments. Migrant farmworkers who have been abused and exploited can be hesitant about reporting such cases, especially if they feel that it will jeopardize their ability to earn an income, particularly when it concerns their immigration status.
The Research Triangle Institute International expanded on why more work in this area is needed:
“Law enforcement responders insisted that workers were treated well, whereas outreach workers, who have more contact with farmworkers, reported that workers were frequently abused and exploited.”
A better line of communication is needed so that exploited migrants feel safe to report to law enforcement. In tackling trafficking and additional improvements, Valmores emphasizes the role of elected leaders:
“I think the only answer that I have is that we just continue to make sure that we talk about trafficking as an issue, just to make sure that all city leaders and implementers are aware about its connection with immigrants and allow for those that might have been trafficked to get some relief.”
What resources are available to help/support
One of the directions that has been taken in providing assistance to Latinx immigrants who have been trafficked is taking into consideration the need for a culturally responsive approach. April Dirks and Stormy Hinton’s work on human trafficking of Latinxs and the role of social workers highlighted this:
“Cultural competent practice is something that develops over time and is increased through experience with a culture and understanding a whole host of complex issues, such as immigration law, risk of deportation, cultural norms and values, family structure, language, history of violence, and experiences with acculturation within each family system.”
In efforts to meet these needs, Valmores shares that My Sister’s House works on education and outreach, as well as offers a 24/7 multilingual helpline, shelter and housing, as well as steps to rebuild their lives, such as counseling, legal services and job training. For survivors that speak Spanish, they also have a Spanish speaking group. Other support is offered for Spanish speaking clients in terms of translation, which is crucial for navigating legal documents.
When it comes to making calls to the help line, an English speaker may answer the phone at times, but that shouldn’t deter someone from seeking help. Spanish speaking clients can be connected to a Spanish speaking staff member by giving their contact information, name, and by requesting a Spanish speaker, which My Sister’s House will work to locate, either another worker or volunteer.
Valmores adds that when contacting survivors, the organization calls back through a private number and will make contact several times, but cannot leave a message due to safety concerns, making it imperative that the survivor is able to answer the call. Survivors are able to call as many times as needed.
One thing that Valmores mentions about wanting to see in the future is,
“ … A Spanish speaking shelter in our community, just as there are our shelters. Because even though we have many Spanish speaking clients who come to our shelters, I think that they would be more comfortable in a shelter where everyone speaks Spanish and English,..Where there’s decorations that reflect the culture, where there is food that reflects the culture and the heritage.”
Valmores spoke on the response they provide:
“In our field, we often talk about trauma based healing.” Valmores explains, “Let’s say somebody was sexually assaulted, you’re not going to want to be putting your hands over the person even as a friendly hugger, friendly touch, without their permission, because they’ve been traumatized in that regard.” A key aspect of My Sister’s House is its emphasis on healing by incorporating culture. Valmores expands,“ If you really want to provide effective trauma based healing, you have to begin with culture.”
My Sister’s House has had success in making contact with survivors due to the organization’s community presence, engaging in community events, doing outreach, distributing pamphlets that are translated into various languages, an active social media presence, and a Helpline that produces important reports. They have included cultural responsiveness in the details of their work, such as providing Asian food for the survivors they help.
When it comes to assisting trafficked individuals who are in need of a legal status in the U.S, Valmores explains the options: “…T visa, is for trafficking victims. But just because you’ve been trafficked, doesn’t mean you automatically get awarded.”
Valmores adds that “…one of the conditions, I think, is that the person has to be willing to testify, which makes it hard for many people who are not willing to.”
In addition to this, Valmores shares that since not everyone is awarded a T visa, there is the possibility that an individual will be deported.
“…We feel that there have been people who’ve been trafficked who we’ve helped or tried to help and they’ve been denied. So it’s not automatic. So, the short answer is that there is a process available to assist folks that have been trafficked but that there is no guarantee that they will receive it. The flip side of that is that, yes, of course, they may be deported if they don’t receive it, unfortunately.”
While addressing human trafficking can be complex, it is crucial for Latinx immigrants who have been through such circumstances to know that there are avenues for assistance. Community outreach and various mediums of accessibility provide connections to organizations that can be contacted and can provide information for their respective cases.
Not only that, but support from individuals within the community can go a long way. Valmores recalls individual gestures that make a big difference:
“I’m pretty amazed. So this young woman contacted us and said, “I’m going to do a fundraiser for y’all.” And part of it is not just about My Sister’s House, as a part of it was to admittedly to Stop Asian Hate. But she’s hosting this fundraiser, this bike rally or bikers against racism this coming weekend. For me that’s an example of one person, making a difference.”
In order to contact My Sister’s House, they can be reached through their website that has a message option, as well as their email for inquiries, [email protected], and a 24-hour Multilingual Help Line, which can be reached at 916-428-3271.
Nohely Diaz is a graduate from California State University, Sacramento. During her education there, she majored in Government with a concentration in International Relations and doubled minored in Criminal Justice and Peace and Conflict Resolution. She is committed to bringing awareness to topics relating to human security and human rights. Her dedication to public service has allowed her to engage in several advocacy campaigns regarding human trafficking, labor exploitation, and Indigenous rights. In addition, she has served her community through census work. Nohely is now looking to continue pursuing justice and equity for others by starting Graduate school.