“Not in Michigan!”
“Yes, in Michigan.”
I have this conversation several times a week. It starts when I tell a community member, a lawyer, a politician, or just about anyone, that I represent victims of human trafficking. They assume my clients were victimized in India or Mexico, or maybe New York City or Los Angeles. The reality is that there is human trafficking in all those places, but it is also right here in Michigan. We know human trafficking has occurred in metro Detroit, the U.P., and in rural communities in western Michigan.
So, what is human trafficking? Human Trafficking is a form of modern day slavery. Under U.S. law, human trafficking is divided into labor and sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is the exploitation of a person for labor or services through force, fraud or coercion. Sex trafficking is when a person is compelled to engage in a commercial sex act by the use of force, fraud or coercion. However, if the person engaging in the commercial sex act is under 18, then force, fraud or coercion is NOT required. Most importantly, human trafficking IS A CRIME, and anyone can be a victim of this crime.
What does force, fraud, or coercion look like? Force can take many forms such as rape, beatings, or being confined to a small space. Fraud is when the trafficker tells the victim lies in order to persuade the victim to do what the trafficker wants. Common lies include false offers of employment, marriage, an education, or just a better life generally. Coercion is any plan or pattern intended to make the victim believe that if they do not do what the trafficker says, something adverse will happen to the victim or the victim’s family, friends, or community. Traffickers frequently threaten the victim or their loved ones with physical harm; threaten to call the police or use the law against them; tell victims that what is happening to them is legal in the U.S. or the police are corrupt and involved in the criminal activity; or deprive victims of basic needs such as medical care or nutrition.
Who would possibly do this? I can’t draw a picture of the typical trafficker because it does not exist. Traffickers are U.S. citizens and foreign nationals; strangers and loved ones; rich and poor; male and female. Most traffickers prey on those that are vulnerable – without the most basic resources or protections. Thus, traffickers often prey on the vulnerabilities of children because they lack the same knowledge and resources as adults. Similarly, foreign nationals are often victims because of language barriers, lack of a community support system, or because they are in the U.S. without status. All of these factors are then manipulated by the trafficker.
For instance, traffickers will hold identifying documents such as passports or visas, making the victim entirely reliant on the trafficker.
What happens to a victim that does not have status in the U.S.? Foreign national victims of human trafficking may be eligible for immigration relief. The U.S. government created the T Visa to assist and protect victims of human trafficking. In order to be granted a T Visa the foreign national must be a victim of human trafficking; must be in the U.S. because of the trafficking situation; if over the age of 18, must assist law enforcement in pursuing criminal charges against the traffickers; and will suffer severe hardship if removed from the U.S. If granted a T Visa, the victim becomes eligible for services and other forms of immigration relief.
What can you do? In the rare case, all this may sound very familiar because of your own situation or someone you know. However, more often human trafficking is not easily seen. Thus, the best thing that you can do is to be aware of your surroundings - the surprisingly youthful girl painting your fingernails; the busboy or cook at your favorite restaurant that is not allowed to speak to customers; your fruit that manages to stay the same price as gas prices go up; the young woman who lives and works for the family next door and never seems to leave the house by herself; the rather large group of people living in the small apartment next door that are picked up and dropped off at the same time every day, by the same car – these are all possible signs of human trafficking and one phone call may be the key to freeing victims. If it is an emergency call 911, otherwise call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737- 888.