By Hillel Aron
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But those numbers themselves became problematic. Two years later, the State Department dropped the 50,000 figure to 18,000 and then to the current 14,500. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act created a special visa for the exploited workers, the “T-visa.” Five thousand of those are made available each year. (Still a drop in the bucket compared to the 50,000 permanent visas awarded in the annual “Green Card Lottery,” to which 6 million people applied last year.) The number of victims who have applied, been certified as legit and granted a T-visa in 2007? 303.
Where are all the slaves?
Identifying the victims, then convincing them they need to be rescued, turns out to be the major stumbling block. The government devoted $23 million domestically last year to surfacing victims. The Department of Health and Human Services spent roughly a million dollars for every 30 victims. To some the effort seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Los Angeles’s own task force on human trafficking created a hotline phone number and distributed outreach materials emblazoned with the slogan “Know human trafficking: Modern-day slavery exists. Be alert. Be aware.”
What happens to trafficking victims immediately after a raid? Chances are good that they wind up in a shelter program run by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, or CAST, the first and largest service provider of its kind in the country. Perhaps they spend their first few minutes of freedom waiting in the coalition’s office foyer in an anonymous high-rise building in downtown Los Angeles, perusing leaflets about the minimum wage, legal-help flyers, and a Margaret Mead quote pinned to the wall: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
“Unfortunately, deportation still happens sometimes when cases go unidentified as trafficking cases,” says Kay Buck, executive director of CAST. She is sitting in CAST’s conference room, the scene of many tearful conferences between herself and newly liberated slaves. She is petite and pretty, and puts one in mind not so much of the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, but of something similarly strong, yet infinitely more flexible, like bamboo.
Health is the first concern. Sometimes victims only get to eat one meal a day with little protein, so they’re weak. “Clients come to us with just the clothes on their back, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes they come to us naked because traffickers won’t let them have clothes.” Like one client who escaped and didn’t even know she was in Los Angeles.
Housing is the hardest issue. CAST was founded in response to an infamous 1995 El Monte sweatshop case, in which 72 Thai garment workers were enslaved in a factory for eight years behind fences tipped in razor wire. Law enforcement, not knowing any better, simply left them there after an initial inspection. After the raid, victims were put into orange prison jump suits and taken away to detention centers until community groups volunteered their shelters. These days, Buck hands out motel vouchers for emergencies. Or she helps people to find apartments.
In 2004, the coalition opened the country’s first shelter for trafficking victims. Like a doppelganger to traffickers’ own modus operandi, the CAST shelter is a building in an undisclosed suburban location. It houses 10 people at a time, one or two people per room. It’s deliberately intimate and homey. “Our shelter has less policy and procedure than other shelters because we don’t want to remind them that they are slaves,” says Buck. “People have privacy that they didn’t have before.” They do arts and crafts and storytelling. They garden in the Healing Garden, and cook with native produce they grow themselves. Most victims stay for 18 months.
In time, they work on urban “life skills” and so-called “soft skills”: How to use public transport. How to put forth a resumé. How to get a cell phone without being ripped off. How to save money and budget. “A lot of the skills clients have are related to the trafficking. Maybe they came to the country to be a nanny. We show them how to do it in an empowered way. They’re so ... what’s the opposite of built up?” she says, tucking a wisp of blond hair behind her ear. “Slammed down.”
Last year, CAST won a major victory with respect to the laws that let trafficking victims stay in the country. The T-visa is only good for two years. Yet the actual adjustment regulations — the final bureaucratic bridge from visa to green card — had not been written. People whose T-visas had expired were in limbo.
“They weren’t legal, but they weren’t illegal either,” says Buck. “These people were model citizens. They cooperated with law enforcement, which is part of what they have to do to receive the T-visa. It unintentionally revictimized victims of crime in this country.”