|Slaves Among Us: Human Trafficking in the Seattle Area
by Wenda Reed
She may bus tables at your local restaurant. She may do your nails or serve your coffee. Maybe he landscapes your yard or lays your carpet. Perhaps she’s your neighbor’s nanny or housekeeper, or she’s one of many young women living in a house in a suburban neighborhood where men come and go all night.
They are “invisible people” in the words of Assistant U.S. Attorney Ye-Ting Woo, the leading prosecutor of human trafficking-related cases in the Western Washington District. They are victims of modern day slavery — confined not by chains, but by locked doors or physical violence or, more often, by a psychological cage constructed of threats, debts, forced isolation, lies and language barriers.
“I just keep quiet,” says a young African woman rescued from domestic servitude, speaking on a video prepared by the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) and the Seattle Police Department. She was told by a local couple who hired her as a housekeeper that the three children she left behind in Africa would be sent to good schools and that she would get to visit them every year in December. The visits never happened. “I wake up at 6 in the morning. I had to do everything,” she says. “I work up to 9:30 [p.m.]. I go to bed at 10.”
“They told me not to communicate with other people, even if they visit us [or] come to the house. So I just keep quiet.”
There are hundreds of foreign-born people like her enslaved among us in Washington State. In legal terms, they are victims of “a severe form of trafficking in persons — 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 subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery” (federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000). The majority in Washington are exploited for their labor, say those who work intimately with victims; some are forced into prostitution or sexual slavery.
Worldwide, the United Nations estimates that at least 12.3 million adults and children are enslaved, 56 percent of them women and children. A relatively small number — about 17,500 — are trafficked into the United States from abroad, according to U.S. State Department figures. Other governmental and human rights groups place the number at about 50,000.
No one counts how many of them end up in the Seattle area. That’s partly because the number is fluid as people pass through this gateway state on their way to other destinations. Mostly, it’s because “the victims of trafficking don’t know they’re victims,” says Lan Pham, executive director of the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center (APIWFSC), one of three organizations in Seattle federally funded to serve those caught in human trafficking. Hemmed in by fear and isolation, “most victims don’t want to be found,” she says.
APIWFSC has served about 100 clients with human trafficking connections in the past four years. The Refugee Women’s Alliance serves about 10 clients a year. The third local organization, the Seattle office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), serves 20 to 30 people at a time. A few more end up at other agencies. Intensive case management may take six months to three years as a client moves from slavery to independence.
“There are hundreds we aren’t finding,” says Detective Harvey Sloan, human trafficking officer for the Seattle Police Department and co-chair, with Woo, of the Washington Advisory Committee on Trafficking (WashACT). “The numbers we know of are way lower than what’s out there,” agrees Kathleen Morris, a caseworker with the IRC and program manager for the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network (WARN).
They come here legally or illegally, into Sea-Tac Airport or the Port of Seattle, over the Canadian border or up the I-5 corridor. Although some areas of the country report high concentrations of people from one particular area of the world, victims in Seattle come from Asia, Africa, Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico and South America. “We’re equal opportunity exploiters,” Sloan quips. Most do not speak English as a first language.
Those who are rescued are found by law enforcement, are identified by first responders and medical personnel or by people working in social service agencies, or discovered by church members or good Samaritans who notice something wrong. Here are some of their stories.
COMING TO AMERICA
I met Sophie in a Bellevue coffee shop after she finished her nurse’s aide shift at a local hospital. She is beautiful, self-assured and soft-spoken. “For a long time, I felt uncomfortable even thinking about it,” she says of her months of servitude.
She lived in Novosibirsk, Russia. “In my country, after age 25, it is hard to get married,” she says. It was especially difficult for her because she had a son by a previous marriage. At 29, she was subjected to continual pressure from family and peers. She posted her photo and profile on an online dating site and met a man — “a handsome, white American, a former military man.” She fell in love with him. He came to Russia to meet her family, asked her to marry him, and applied for a fiancé visa to allow her to come to America. Ten months later, she arrived at his home near Boston with her 10-year-old son.
Immediately, her fiancé put her to work remodeling his house. She did plastering, nailing and electrical work for him, while waiting for the marriage ceremony. The law requires that someone in the United States on a fiancé visa must get married and get a green card within 90 days. The ceremony happened just before the deadline, but Sophie’s new husband said he couldn’t afford the green card. “You are illegal now,” he told her after the 90-day limit had expired.
His behavior changed. “At first, he was so sweet: ‘Honey can you do this?’” she says of the work on the house. “He became more and more controlling.” Sophie has a bachelor’s and master’s degree and was a nurse in Russia, but her husband refused to allow her to take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes so that she could work in America. “If you want to go somewhere, you must go with me,” he told her. “I feel like I’m choking in this house,” she says.
When his children visited, Sophie suggested that they help with dishes and other chores. Her husband told her, “You son will do the dishes; he’s the slave from Russia,” she remembers. “He said, ‘You guys are here to help me do the jobs,’ He began to call us names. He became rude; he became sexually rude.”
She met a Russian-speaking man on the Internet and called him on the phone, crying. He invited her to come to Seattle to stay with him and his girlfriend. Taking her son, Sophie fled, but her husband tracked her cell phone records and followed her here. “I think he came to get rid of me and my son because we didn’t obey,” she says. He began to beat her, but her Seattle friend came home and called 911. Rescued by the police, she was referred to ReWA, where she received help with her divorce and obtaining a green card and free ESL lessons. Almost four years after coming to America, Sophie hopes to pass state exams to work, once again, as a nurse.
Although we often think of slaves as arriving in large groups, smuggled in boats or vans, most come to the Puget Sound area individually, as Sophie did, according to Woo and other local experts. They often enter the country on short-term legal visas issued to fiancés, students, workers or visitors. Many are brought here by family members and then exploited.
A locally publicized case in 2007 concerned Lamyaá, a young Moroccan girl invited to Tacoma by her uncle and his wife to help look after their new baby. In return, he promised to enroll her in school and guide her toward U.S. citizenship. At first, the couple did allow Lamyaá to attend school, but made her sleep in a 5- by 10-foot room with the window blocked. They did not give her a house key and took away her identification papers, a common ploy used by traffickers to prevent their victims from leaving.
After a while, her uncle took her out of school to be “home-schooled.” Instead, she worked 12- to 14-hour double shifts at the couple’s Lakewood coffee shop without compensation, cared for the couple’s two young sons, cooked meals and cleaned the house. Her computer was locked, and she was ordered not to talk to customers.
She was rescued after a couple of teens called authorities because they thought it was weird that she couldn’t go anywhere. “How many people bought coffee there and wondered, ‘Why is she working instead of in school?’” asks APIWFSC’s Lan Pham.
Emma Catague, community organizing program manager at APIWFSC, describes a typical scenario: “Relatives or fiancés promise education or marriage, but when they get here, the promises aren’t kept.” She and Pham give the example of a client who was brought to the Seattle area to be a domestic helper to the sister of her boss in China. She worked very long hours, seven days a week, for no pay.
People trafficked by one individual or couple are the most common types of clients Anne Ko sees as the human trafficking caseworker at ReWA. She mentions a woman recruited by an affluent couple from the Seattle area to be their nanny and housekeeper. “She had to work day and night for almost no money; she couldn’t leave the house and was forced to leave the room when guests came,” Ko says. She was rescued because her captors did allow her to go to church, and the young woman told someone there about her living situation.
“You lose control of your entire self when you are enslaved,” Ko says. Often people have no idea that they are illegally trafficked, she adds. “They feel it’s their own fault they’re in the situation they’re in.”
Individual traffickers or couples may also recruit groups of people from their own country of origin to work in the fields, in a business, or, commonly, in a restaurant. “They will recruit people by saying, ‘Come here, and you’ll get this,’ and when they arrive, it turns out differently,” Catague summarizes.
Chinese nationals were convicted in two 2006 federal cases for paying recent immigrants, some of them illegal, extremely low wages to work long hours in their restaurants. In both cases, the workers were housed together in the owners’ nearby homes. One of the owners transported the workers from her home to her restaurant in vans. The judge called her and her codefendnt “predators” who “exploited” those she illegally harbored and induced to remain in the United States.
APIWFSC caseworkers helped several people who were working for very little money at a Chinese buffet restaurant in Lynnwood. That case came to light when the boss, who had recruited the workers from China, became angry and chased one of them through the restaurant with a butcher knife, drawing police officers. Twenty workers were found housed in one apartment. The people hadn’t thought to complain. “It would be normal business in China, but it’s trafficking in the United States,” Pham says.
Even when they find out that they’ve been deceived, victims are rarely able to break out of their captivity.
“The trafficker holds your passport; they control you; you can’t leave,” Catague explains. “The traffickers exploit the culture of the place they recruit from; they use physical and psychological imprisonment; they exploit vulnerabilities,” Pham adds. “Sometimes, a trafficker will rape a woman, and then he will emotionally own her. She won’t go back to disgrace her family.”
The threat of harming the victim’s family back home is a powerful deterrent, Pham and Catague say. The traffickers say, “I know where your family is.” The threat of deportation is also held over the victim’s head.
Those who are enslaved by traffickers are naturally isolated. “Most of the (foreign-born) victims don’t speak English, they have no nearby relatives; they come from places of civil unrest and great poverty,” Catague says. In addition, traffickers watch their every move and step in if they try to talk to members of the public.
“If they get too chatty, someone’s there to control them and take them away from the conversation,” Morris says of trafficking victims.
AN INSURMOUNTABLE DEBT
In addition to threats and violence, many victims of human trafficking are kept imprisoned by a huge debt owed to those who smuggle them into the country.
Smuggling — the movement of consenting people across an international border for a fee — is not the same as human trafficking. The migrant’s relationship with the smuggler may end upon arrival at his or her destination. It becomes trafficking when the person is subjected to ongoing exploitation by the smuggler or by someone who takes delivery of the immigrant.
The traffickers often make sure that the debt cannot be repaid. The terms change after the victim arrives in the United States.
“For example, a woman is promised a job as a hotel maid in America,” Sloan says. “When she gets here, the trafficker says, ‘Now pay me $4,000.’ She’s told, ‘You must work as a prostitute (to pay off your debt) before you can get your regular job.’”
Local Hispanic victims have usually been smuggled over the border with Mexico, Sloan says. In the Phoenix area, coyotes (smugglers across the southwestern United States/Mexico border), bring groups to safe houses. “The fee for the victims goes up from $1,000 to $5,000, once the people are in the country,” he adds. Many of the Hispanic immigrants transported to Washington end up in the agricultural fields, the fishing industry, construction or other jobs with minimum regulation. Three Hispanic women who were smuggled over the Mexican border ended up in Seattle, where they were rescued. Two of them were raped by coyotes.
In November 2009, a federal grand-jury indictment was brought against a couple living in the town of Pacific in South King County. For at least three years, they and a small network of smugglers brought immigrants from a Mexican town to live in their garage while they worked off their smuggling debts. Children in the group said they were sexually molested or beaten. The family was fed twice a day and a chain was kept on the refrigerator so that they couldn’t get more food. They were threatened with physical harm if they talked to anyone.
Criminal smuggling networks are often involved in trafficking victims to the Seattle area over the Canadian border, either at the Peace Arch crossing or in remote areas of Eastern Washington. If they’re from a country that is part of the British Commonwealth, they can get into Canada without a visa, Sloan explains. South Korea has a similar treaty with Canada, and a few years ago, transport of young Korean women across the border was a focus of local efforts to help the victims and prosecute the traffickers.
In the last three years, Woo has prosecuted several cases that have resulted in federal convictions. A Chinese national from Vancouver, B.C., convicted in July 2009, admitted smuggling “25 to 99 Korean citizens” into the United States for a fee, and transporting most of them through Washington to Los Angeles to work. “Many of the aliens were required to pay significant smuggling debts and compelled to work in various locations throughout the Unites States, including engaging in sex work … resulting in debt servitude,” Woo argued.
A Korean national was sentenced in February 2008 for illegally bringing about 20 Korean people a month, mostly women, into the United States from Canada. The women wound up working in massage parlors and brothels to pay their smuggling debt. In another 2009 case, a Bellevue woman was sentenced for employing Thai women as prostitutes in three massage parlors, which were fronts for brothels, in Bellevue, Kirkland and Sea-Tac. They were also paying off their debts.
One of the highest profile cases, coming after a 21-month investigation, resulted in the 2007 convictions of a Chinese man and a Chinese couple from Seattle, who ran brothels and an escort service. The victims were young, undocumented Asian women from half a dozen countries, some of whom paid up to $50,000 to be smuggled into the United States in shipping containers. Sloan called them “the 10-day girls,” explaining that “customers want new women all the time, so they are trucked around from place to place.”
Partly because they are often moved, “the market for sex slaves is so hidden,” Pham says. She recounts a recent case when a brothel was raided on Beacon Hill and APIWFSC helped two of the victims. A woman connected with APIWFSC lived close by and never saw any evidence of the brothel.
The foreign-born sex slaves are usually not walking Aurora Avenue and other hot spots with the local prostitutes, Morris says. “They’re working in brothels or for escort services. We think of it as a shady business, but the brothels are often homes in residential neighborhoods.”
Many of the clients Morris has served “really thought they would be able to pay off their debts,” she says. “But they get in a cycle of supposed debt and they’re trapped.” They are paid very little, but charged for every little thing they use. “In some places, there are fines for everything at work — swearing, having the wrong posture, having elbows on the table — and then the rent is exorbitant,” she adds.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE
The people who come to the Seattle area as victims of human trafficking are “not different from us,” Morris says. “They are like us, trying to pursue an opportunity to make a better life for ourselves.”
“Even though they are exploited, they have a glimmer of a dream that they may get out of the situation and be able to make money,” Sloan says.
They have a little more chance of escaping in the Puget Sound area than in other parts of the country because of the extraordinary partnership between law enforcement and non-governmental organizations that help the victims.
Detective Sloan gives 30 to 40 presentations a year to local law enforcement departments and all kinds of government and non-governmental agencies to teach them to recognize signs of human trafficking. When victims are identified, they are referred to ReWA, the IRC or the APIWFSC for practical and legal help. “We’re pretty much hands-off as far as deporting victims of potential human trafficking,” Sloan says of local law enforcement agencies. “But at the border, they’re not always so sensitive.”
“Here in Seattle, we work well together,” Sloan says, a point echoed enthusiastically by local experts working directly with victims. “If we (the police) do a brothel raid, we try to get the women away from the traffickers and call one of the non-governmental organizations,” he says. If the victims eventually agree to cooperate with law enforcement, they are issued a visa that allows them to stay in the United States. Federal grants help pay for Sloan’s outreach efforts and the services to victims.
There is also room for help from the public. “No one connects (the slavery) with the reality of our daily life,” Morris says. She asks people to be alert and aware of the people in their neighborhoods.
“Is there a live-in housekeeper who seems fearful, withdrawn and isolated?” she asks. “Is there a teenager working during the day when she should be in school? Is someone working an extraordinary number of hours?”
Sloan advises watching for red flags, including people whose documentation has been taken away, who are not allowed to have any money, or who are kept isolated. If one person is speaking for a whole group, that’s another red flag. If possible, he suggests that we ask questions of people we might wonder about: What is their job? Are they being paid? Are they allowed to leave? Has anyone threatened them if they try to leave?’
When we see possible exploitation, “we think maybe it’s just their culture,” Morris says. But that should not dissuade us from making an anonymous phone call to start an investigation. “Slavery is wrong in any culture,” she says.
Wenda Reed is a Seattle investigative reporter and frequent contributor to Seattle Woman.
ASIAN & PACIFIC ISLANDER WOMEN & FAMILY SAFETY CENTER
STANDING UP TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
When the Asian & Pacific Islander Women & Family Safety Center (APIWFSC) was founded in 1993, the emphasis was on finding alternative housing where victims of domestic violence could feel safe, says Emma Catague, the nonprofit’s community organizing program manager.
The impetus was the domestic violence murders of API women in the 1990s, including the 1995 murder of Filipino mail-order bride Susana Blackwell, her unborn baby and her two friends at the King County Courthouse. Even before that highly publicized murder, women from the Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, South Asian Chinese and Japanese-American communities saw an uptick in violence and a need for the new agency.
Domestic violence is a particularly difficult issue in Asian and Pacific Islander communities, according to Catague and Executive Director Lan Pham. Domestic violence, sexual assault and human exploitation may be viewed as a “private matter,” not to be shared with others for fear of reprisals or of “losing face.” Many survivors live in fear, shame and isolation, not knowing that there are existing resources to assist them to safety.
“If (the victims of domestic violence) go to a mainstream shelter, they will leave in a day or two and go back to their situation,” Catague says. There is a need for services to be in the victims’ language and aligned with their culture, she adds. From its International District office, APIWFSC works with other agencies to provide shelter in rotating confidential locations.
Over the past 16 years, API’s focus has sharpened to include domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. Direct services to 2,000 clients a year are a big part of the mission, but prevention and community change is equally important.
Parenting education and support groups, begun in 1998, have been an effective entry point into the many Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups, helping to build long-term relationships. The Safety Center also provides outreach and education to youth and young adults, ages 12 to 25, on dating violence, healthy dating relationships, conflict resolution and belief systems. The Queer Network Program works to address and prevent intimate partner violence in the LGBT community.
APIWFSC works with other agencies to organize the community against violence. “We embrace the men,” Catague says of one such effort, the API Men’s Campaign against Violence. “You cannot just educate women (about domestic violence and sexual assault),” Catague says. “We must educate men because they are part of the problem and part of the solution.”
The Safety Center’s unique Natural Helpers program trains people in the community — including hair stylists, café workers, day care providers and teachers — to recognize the dynamics and warning signs of domestic violence or human trafficking. Bilingual volunteers are especially needed, and extensive training is available.
The biggest challenge for 2010 is balancing the growing number of calls, referrals and requests with shrinking state and other funding sources, Catague says. This is not only a concern for APIWFSC in providing direct services, but the cutback in funding for mental health care has a ripple effect on domestic violence, she adds.
For more information, call 206-467-9976 or visit www.apiwfsc.org.
A candlelight vigil to raise community awareness about domestic violence in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities will be held March 4, from 4 to 5 p.m., outside the King County Courthouse, 516 3rd Ave in downtown Seattle. A reception will follow in the courthouse.
— Wenda Reed
REFUGEE WOMEN’S ALLIANCE SERVING NEEDS AND ‘FEEDING SOULS’
Someireh Amirfaiz, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA), was visiting her brother in Michigan when the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979. The shah was overthrown and the Islamic Republic installed, leaving many Iranians, including Amirfaiz, unable to return home. In that sense, Amirfaiz, educated at the University of Washington and Seattle University, is a refugee.
But most clients who come through the doors of ReWA’s 10 offices in Seattle and South King County have far fewer advantages than she had. In the 25 years since the nonprofit began, the population of immigrants and refugees has become less educated and less equipped to adapt to a new culture and new language, Amirfaiz says. Some have lived in refugee camps for up to 18 years.
“We don’t see ReWA as providing services alone, but also feeding the souls of the refugees, pampering them sometimes,” Amirfaiz says.
ReWA, formerly known as the Southeast Asian Women’s Alliance, was launched in 1985 with a $5,000 grant and the aim of providing newly arrived women with services not provided by other agencies. It now serves 9,000 clients — mostly women, but includes men and children in family units — from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, East Africa and the Middle East. The 130 staff members speak 29 languages, plus English.
Using funds from federal and local governments, United Way, private foundations, corporations and individual donors, ReWA has steadily expanded its services to make the agency a “one-stop service center,” Amirfaiz says. Since she arrived in 2001, ReWA has opened its Family Support Program to help teach English as a second language and job skills. The Human Trafficking Program was added in 2003. A year later, ReWA sponsored its first seniors program for Somali people, providing congregate meals and help with nutrition and fitness. There are now groups serving Vietnamese, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali seniors.
On the other end of the spectrum, ReWA provides early childhood education at two sites in Southeast Seattle/Beacon Hill, and a Head Start program is close to being funded. The agency also provides a youth program, parent education and a developmental disabilities program. A Refugee Girls Empowerment Group helps teens overcome the challenges of adjusting to American culture.
The Domestic Violence Program provides bilingual and bicultural support for victims in 15 languages and distributes videos on sexual assault to six different immigrant communities. A multilingual domestic violence helpline (1-888-847-7205) opened in January 2009. Last year, ReWA also became a licensed mental health care provider.
The current recession has brought new challenges. “Refugees and immigrants are the first to be laid off or fired,” Amirfaiz says. “We are seeing lots of our constituents becoming homeless. It’s especially devastating for them because they come from homelessness and refugee status in their own countries. One man said, ‘It’s like a death sentence to us.’”
ReWA has used United Way funds to provide emergency assistance to clients, but would like to eventually run its own transitional housing for refugees and immigrants, Amirfaiz says.
For more information, call 206-721-0243 or visit www.rewa.org.
— Wenda Reed