Human Trafficking: A Crime Hard to Track Proves Harder to Fight


Jessica Penaranda of New York protests against labor trafficking and modern day slavery outside the United Nations in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

July 29, 2015

Oksana was promised a good job with good pay when she came to the United States from Ukraine. But when she arrived in Philadelphia to meet her new boss, things were not as she expected.

“About time you arrive, bitch,” was the first thing he said to her, she says.

“The deal was, I come here, I work for three years, and I pay him off with my work. I pay off my debt, and then I would be on my own,” Oksana said. “That was my understanding.”

What she eventually learned was that she had been swept up in a human trafficking organization that according to the FBI, “smuggled young Ukrainian migrants into the United States and forced them to work for … little or no pay.”

But that was hardly the worst of it. As is often the case with human trafficking, her boss had also been beating and sexually assaulting the women she’d be working with — including her own sister-in-law.

“I was terrified,” Oksana recalls in the below scene from the recent FRONTLINE investigation, Rape on the Night Shift.

With human trafficking now generating an estimated $150 billion each year in illegal profits, according to United Nations data, the trafficking in persons has become one of the fastest growing criminal industries worldwide.

“Trafficking in persons is an insult to human dignity and an assault on freedom,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which was released Monday. In the annual report, Kerry called trafficking “modern slavery,” and linked the problem to everything from extreme poverty and discrimination against women, to government corruption and the reach of transnational organized crime.


Here in the U.S., detailed data on trafficking can be hard to come by, but the State Department report has provided new detail on efforts to prosecute the crime and provide relief to victims.

One takeaway from the report is the challenge of prosecuting a human trafficking case. In 2014, for example, a federally-funded hotline for trafficking victims received more than 21,000 calls. During that same period, the Department of Justice secured 184 convictions for trafficking, up from 174 in 2013. Of those cases, 157 involved sex trafficking and 27 cases focused on labor trafficking.

One reason the crime can be so hard to prosecute, say advocates for victims rights, is that the kind of work that victims do — such as agricultural jobs, service jobs, or janitorial work — is often perfectly legal by nature. The women in the trafficking ring that Oksana worked in, for instance, cleaned big box stores like Targets and Walmarts throughout the Northeast.

It is instead the working conditions of trafficking victims, often invisible to the public and law enforcement, which qualifies their situation as trafficking.

Many victims enter the U.S. legally on an H-2 visa, which enables employers to bring immigrants into the country on a temporary basis to fill jobs. As Amy Farrell, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, explained, they come under the impression that their employer will help them gain permanent residence.

“Once they get here, they were basically told, in a variety of different ways, if you keep working, if you don’t complain, if you keep doing all the things we told you you’d be doing – even though we’re not paying you what we told you we’d be paying you, we’re working on this green card process.”

But all too often, she said, “that’s never going to come.”

Often, the guest worker visa system can leave workers vulnerable to abuse. A recent investigation by BuzzFeed News, for example, found H-2 guest workers routinely “cheated out of their wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved, and imprisoned. Some have even died on the job.”

The dynamic between workers and their bosses under the H-2 system essentially binds immigrants to their employer, and this can make it harder for them to come forward when abuse does occur. That’s because as soon as someone with an H-2 visa leaves their job, they are no longer considered to be in the country legally.

“It’s like stepping off a cliff, and you’re going to fall to the bottom and that’s deportation,” said Farrell.

Beyond deportation, there are other potential risks involved in coming forward. In the case of agricultural work especially, immigrants live where they work, so giving up their employment would also mean being without somewhere to live or a means to provide for themselves or their family.


Another challenge, say victims rights advocates, is a lack of sufficient screening procedures within federal agencies to identify immigrants who have been trafficked. This gap, they say, can leave victims who would be otherwise eligible for federal protections instead open to deportation.

A 2014 study from the Urban Institute, for example, found instances where human trafficking victims were placed into deportation proceedings, threatened by immigration officials or arrested and then placed into a detention center for being unauthorized. Of the victims in the study’s case data, 14 percent were jailed or put through the deportation process instead of being identified as someone who had been illegally trafficked.

There are a number of agencies that can become involved in identifying victims and prosecuting traffickers — including Homeland Security, Border Patrol and the Department of Justice — and this can sometimes complicate the process.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security has two departments that could potentially engage with human trafficking victims. The office of Enforcement and Removal Operations is charged with apprehending and deporting illegal immigrants, while Homeland Security Investigations works to combat criminal organizations within the immigrations system — including human traffickers.

However according to an ICE spokeswoman, there is no standard system in place where the two offices communicate regarding the screening and identifying of human trafficking cases. If Enforcement and Removal Operations encounters an obvious case of trafficking or a victim self-identifies, it is possible that the departments would communicate, said the spokeswoman.

“There is no standard screening process at all,” said Dree Collupy, a partner and expert on asylum proceedings at Benach Ragland, an immigration law firm based in Washington, D.C. She said people either have to self-identify or be identified by a service provider, which can be anyone from a pro bono attorney to someone working for a non-profit. But expecting victims to self-identify, she said, is “very unrealistic.”


While a variety of legal protections exist for trafficking victims, they can be difficult to secure. The main protection, the T visa, grants temporary legal status to undocumented victims for up to three years, at which point they can apply for permanent legal status. Victims can also seek continued presence, which offers temporary residence to anyone who law enforcement identifies as a victim of trafficking.

But obtaining a T visa or continued presence can take months or even years, according to the Urban Institute study, which blamed the lag, in part, to a lack of communication between the agencies involved in the approval process.

“The agencies do not communicate with each other, and even within the agencies there’s very little communication from the headquarters, for example, to the officers on the ground,” said Collupy.

The study also found that the Department of Labor was rarely involved in identifying labor trafficking victims, or investigating trafficking cases. However in April the agency announced it would expand visa certification for victims of human trafficking and additional “qualifying crimes.”

The challenge in obtaining a T visa or continued presence was reflected in this week’s report from the State Department. According to the report, T visas were granted to 613 victims and 788 eligible family members in 2014, down from 848 and 975 respectively in 2013. DHS issued continued presence to 130 victims who were “potential witnesses,” a 24 percent drop from 2013.

U visas are another protection available for undocumented victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. But obtaining a U visa can likewise prove problematic. By law, there are only 10,000 U visas awarded each year, but in 2014 alone more than 45,000 people applied, including victims and their family members.

This type of disparity shows, said Collupy, that when it comes to combatting human trafficking, the need outweighs the resources available.

“There’s not enough pro bono attorneys to help all of the victims currently in immigration proceedings,” she said. “And that leaves people in a situation where they might not even know what they’ve gone through would give them an immigration benefit.”

Related Film: Rape on the Night Shift

FRONTLINE investigates the sexual abuse of immigrant women in the janitorial industry.

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