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Dispelling the Myths

Most people have preconceived notions regarding human trafficking here in Orange County. However, the reality may surprise you. In order to "be the one" to spot a potential victim, you have to know the truth about human trafficking in Orange County.

While the majority (but not all) of the sex trafficking victims in Orange County are teenage girls or young women, labor trafficking includes people of all ages and of both sexes.

Human trafficking in Orange County includes both sex and labor trafficking.  Labor trafficking victims often work as domestics (maids and child care), in factories, as agricultural workers, and in personal care (ranging from nursing homes to nail salons).  They are more difficult to identify because they may appear to be working in legitimate jobs, and may be working side by side with legitimate employees.

Most sex trafficking victims in Orange County are U.S. citizens, although some are from other states. Sex traffickers (pimps) often move their victims from city to city, or state to state, in order to control them – to keep them from becoming familiar with their locations, or forming new relationships, that could help them to escape. The federal legal definition of human trafficking includes all victims, regardless of citizenship status or country of origin.

Human trafficking is found throughout Orange County.

While some sex trafficking victims are forced to solicit “dates” on street corners, many are forced to sell their bodies for sex in hotel rooms, and others are marketed by their pimps using the Internet.  According to Orange County law enforcement, sex trafficking is found throughout the county – in both North County and South County, from the wealthiest to the poorest communities.

Likewise, labor trafficking is found throughout Orange County.  Many labor trafficking victim work in wealthier neighborhoods, where people are more likely to have live-in maids and nannies.  Their neighbors are less likely to be suspicious about a live-in domestic worker than in poorer neighborhoods.  On the other hand, many human trafficking victims are forced to work in factories or agricultural fields, which are clustered in specific parts of the county.  Still other types of businesses at which labor trafficking victims may be forced work, such as hotels, nursing homes and assisted living care facilities, and personal care services such as nail salons, are found throughout the county, in residential communities of all income levels.

Human traffickers control their victims in many ways.  Although some victims are not free to come and go as they please, and some traffickers such as “guerilla” pimps may use violence against their victims as a means of coercion, many human traffickers use other, less obvious means to control their victims.

Some traffickers employ psychological means of control.  They belittle the victims to destroy their self-esteem and resistance to being controlled. They may threaten to harm the victim’s family if they try to escape or lie to authorities regarding the victim’s legal status or well-being.   They take away the victim’s identification papers (such as a driver’s license or passport), and don’t allow the victim to make eye contact with, or speak to, other people.

Other traffickers use financial means of control, such as debt bondage, in which a victim accepts what appears to be a legitimate job, only to find out afterwards that they will receive much lower wages than they were promised, and that they will receive very little (if any) of those wages.  Victims are forced to accept a situation in which their “employers” deduct their living expenses (which may be inflated by the trafficker) from their “paycheck.”  Traffickers manipulate and control the terms of any “contracts” to which the victims initially agreed.  For instance, victims may be forced them to perform different job duties than they had been promised or work long hours without any time off, and traffickers may extend the term of the contract – sometimes indefinitely – without consulting the victim.

Interviews and Stories

The stories are heart-wrenching. Fortunately, first responders and community service providers assisting victims in Orange County are making a difference. The following interviews and stories are from those directly involved. Please view, listen, and read. What they are telling you will help bring clarity to the problem, how it is being addressed, why OCTA is involved, and most importantly…the of the results when people care.

Imagine being born into a large, poverty-stricken family in another country, and then being sold into domestic servitude at the tender age of seven. Imagine feeling abandoned by your own family – the anger and hurt, compounded by desperation from many years of mistreatment by the family who enslaved her. Imagine being denied an education and a childhood, personal freedom, and basic human dignity. That was Shari’s story.

Forced to cook, clean, and care for a large, extended family, Shari was forced to wear ragged clothing, subsist on table scraps, and sleep on the floor. She was not allowed to leave the house, except to take out, and then bring in, the garbage cans, and to accompany the family to their store, where she worked for them.

Every moment of every day was filled with anger and bitterness, wondering how her parents could have done this to her – until the day when a vendor who had a booth at her captor’s store made eye contact with her and smiled at her. Trained to keep her eyes cast down, Shari had to lift her head to meet the woman’s gaze. It was a revelation – for the first time in her life that she could remember, Shari thought to herself, “someone actually cares about me!’

Every moment of every day was filled with anger and bitterness….until the day when a vendor made eye contact with her and smiled at her... for the first time in her life that she could remember, Shari thought to herself, “someone actually cares about me!’

In subsequent days and months, the woman smiled at her and said hello, and then made small talk with her. Although Shari didn’t speak much English, she understood most of what the woman said, but language difficulties, and more importantly, fear of telling her the truth, kept Shari from answering with much more than a nod or shake of her head or a facial expression. Shari was empowered by these simple acts of human kindness, daring to believe that maybe there was a chance for her of a better life. The woman asked her why she wasn’t spending time with her friends instead of working at the store, sent her small gifts such as make-up (although her captors never gave them to her), and, one day, surreptitiously passed her a slip of paper with the woman’s name and telephone number, and the message that if Shari wanted help, she should call her.

Shari continued to see the woman at the store, but she held onto the slip of paper for a year before she dared to take advantage of the woman’s kind offer. One day, when feelings of desperation swelled up so strongly that she felt as if she couldn’t stand it anymore, Shari sneaked into the back of the store and called the woman to ask for help. The woman told her that at the day and time when Shari normally took the garbage out to the curb, she and her husband would drive by, that Shari should jump in the car, and that she would take Shari to their house, away from her captors. When the day came, Shari, dressed in ragged clothing without shoes, completed her evening duties with her usual blank expression, but deep inside, she felt nervous and scared, waiting for the time when she normally took out the garbage, and hoping that nothing would happen to interfere with her chance to escape. When the time came, she took out the garbage, watered the plants, and then, when she saw the woman’s car, ran as fast as she possibly could, without looking behind her, and jumped in the car. The car quickly sped away, taking Shari to her new life of freedom.

Shari had to answer to law enforcement and immigration officials, and the media was soon filled with stories about her alleged kidnapping, but the woman and her husband treated her with kindness and dignity. Shari was in awe of the new world that was opening up to her – nobody had ever shown a personal interest in her, let alone cooking for her, or taking her to the department store to buy her new clothes. She had her own bedroom, a pink fairyland, with a wonderful, comfortable bed. The next morning, she slept late for the first time in her life.

Although Shari had a lot to learn – the English language, American social customs, how to use money, and more importantly, how to trust people, she has savored every moment of her freedom. With the help of Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force victim service providers and other kind individuals, she eventually learned how to survive on her own.

Today, Shari is living the type of life she would never have been able to imagine. She has her own apartment, where she proudly operates a small daycare center. She is cheerful and talkative, with many friends and an obvious zest for life. Although she still feels angry and hurt on the inside, she glows when she talks about her new life and her plans for the future. She looks forward to completing high school, marrying a wonderful man and having children of her own – and to helping other victims to escape from their situations, just as someone helped her.

“Jackie” is a young Latin American woman who had recently immigrated with her young child to Orange County from her native land, seeking employment opportunities to support her child as well as her family back home, when she came across an advertisement in a local newspaper for a massage therapist.  The advertisement stated that the candidate that was hired would be trained for the position.   The job interview was to take place in a hotel, which didn’t sound quite right to her, but it seemed to be an ideal opportunity to earn income while improving her occupational skills, and since she was new tothis country and unfamiliar with American job interview customs, she decided to go to the interview anyhow.

The person who interviewed her, who turned out to be her pimp and trafficker, kept all of the money that Jackie received, and controlled all of Jackie’s movements – in other words, she seized control of Jackie’s life. 

Sadly, although Jackie innocently thought that the advertisement was seeking a professional who provided therapeutic massages as part of the medical healing process, she found out after giving them her personal information that she had unwittingly become the victim of sex trafficking, forced to provide services in a hotel room to men, in exchange for money, day after day.  The person who interviewed her, who turned out to be her pimp and trafficker, kept all of the money that Jackie received, and controlled all of Jackie’s movements – in other words, she seized control of Jackie’s life.  She told Jackie that if she tried to escape, they would use the personal information she had given them to find and kill her family.

Although current California law limits the use of the term “massage therapist” to a person defined by the law as a “healing arts professional,” most people are not aware of this.  Every year, many innocent, well-intentioned victims fall prey to human traffickers who deceptively advertise positions such as “massage therapists,” “models,” and “hostesses,” tricking eager young applicants into becoming sex trafficking victims.

Fortunately, a few months later, Jackie was freed during an undercover law enforcement investigation of the establishment at which she worked.  She was frightened at first, not understanding that the people trying to help her were plain-clothes police officers, but when they allowed her to call her family, she realized that she could trust them.

Today, with the help of a strong support system, Jackie is enjoying her life.  Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force victim service providers helped her to adjust to her new-found freedom, and to receive her T-visa, which allows her to remain in the country and work legally.  She is working full time, and savoring every moment of her freedom.

Although the thought of leaving his family tore him apart emotionally, he reasoned that if he took the job and worked for just two years, he could then send money home during his absence, and return home with enough savings to make his family more financially comfortable for a long time to come. So, he took the job.

Antonio did not realize that he had become the victim of the type of labor trafficking known as debt bondage…His only choice was to try in vain to work off his debts

When Antonio accepted the job, he thought that he would be employed full time, so when he arrived at his new place of employment, a large hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, he was very dismayed to learn that since it was the “off season” for tourists, the hotel had a low occupancy rate, and so they initially only gave him work only two days per week. In addition, after paying the very high fee charged by the employment agency, when he arrived at the hotel, he was told that he was required to pay for the cost of his transportation to the U.S., as well as the immigration visa fees (something normally paid by the employer), his apartment rent, and most of his meals. His employer forced him to live in a small, cramped apartment they had selected, which he had to share with three other hotel workers. As he soon found out, his employer was profiting from the substandard conditions in which they forced him to live, because they were charging him twice what the apartment landlord normally received for the same unit. In addition, his apartment was several miles from the hotel, and public transit was not available during the hours he needed it, so he had to walk back and forth to work, very early in the morning and late at night, in all weather conditions. He was free to come and go as he pleased while not at work, but he found it difficult to enjoy the time because it interfered with his purpose for taking the job, which was to earn and send as much money home as possible, and his living expenses left him little to no money for nonessential expenditures.

Antonio did not realize that he had become the victim of the type of labor trafficking known as debt bondage. The employment agency did not ask for his approval when they deducted from his paycheck the cost of his transportation to the U.S., his room and board, and the fees associated with the necessary immigration documents. As a result, he found himself in debt. His meager salary was not sufficient to reimburse his employer for the cost of transportation to the U.S. and his visa, let alone the costs of room and board that continued to accrue. His only choice was to try in vain to work off his debts.

Antonio felt at that time that there was nothing he could do to escape or improve his situation until his contract expired. His employer lied to him, telling him that if he took a second job, or if he was fired from, or quit his existing job, he would violate the terms of his immigration visa, which would put him at risk of being deported. His employer also threatened to report him to immigration officials if he took a second job. Antonio realized that he only had one option. If he left his job, he would lose his immigration visa status, and would have to pay for transportation back to his country, which he could not afford. Therefore, he sadly resigned himself to completing the seven-month term of his contract. Antonio and his roommates formed a close bond as they worked together to stretch their meager incomes, and came to depend on each other for emotional support.

Antonio sadly realized that coming to the U.S. as a temporary worker in a debt bondage arrangement is not the same as living here permanently.

A few months later, during the hotel’s “high season,” Antonio’s work load increased to thirteen hours per day. He was required to work eight hours per day cleaning ten “casitas,” the equivalent of ten small houses, and then to work as a banquet server for five hours each night. While he was very glad to be earning more money, his employer cheated him out of some of the money he earned by not giving him overtime pay, although it was legally required. He was always exhausted due to the long days, compounded by the necessity to walk long distances to and from work very early in the morning and late at night, his substandard living conditions, and a lack of healthy food because he and his roommates could not afford to buy it.

Antonio sadly realized that coming to the U.S. as a temporary worker in a debt bondage arrangement is not the same as living here permanently. At that time, although he knew that he was being taken advantage of by his employer in many ways, he did not realize that he was a victim of labor trafficking. He considered asking for help, but he knew he couldn’t appeal to the employment agency or the hotel management, and he didn’t really know his only American relative, who lived on the other side of the country, so he tried to make the best of his situation.

After seven months, his contract expired. He thought that he had the option to return home, but realized that his employer would not pay for his transportation home. In addition, his employer threatened to report him to immigration officials if he didn't renew his contract, since his visa would expire. Antonio could not afford to pay the cost of transportation home, and was afraid to risk deportation, so he resignedly signed up for another seven months, but this time at a hotel in Orange County, California. Although the employment agency charged him an inflated fee for renewing his immigration papers, and he dearly missed his family, he still hoped to complete the two year work commitment he had made to himself and his family. The only thing that changed was the location of the hotel – his expenses were still being unfairly deducted from his earnings, and his living conditions were still substandard.

When the second contract expired, Antonio decided that he needed to find a better situation. He believed that if he didn’t renew his contract, he risked deportation, but his hopes for a better life motivated him to take a chance and look for a new job in the U.S. A referral from a friend led to a job as a care taker in an assisted living facility in Los Angeles. The job included room and board plus a small amount of income, and he felt that he was doing something worthwhile, but he became an undocumented worker because the company refused to help him when he tried to apply for the necessary immigration papers. Fortunately, around that time, he was identified as a labor trafficking victim, which enabled him to apply for and receive a T Visa which would allow him to legally live and work in the U.S.

With the help of a large support network of community service providers, he found another job as a care taker, and applied for and received his T Visa. Sadly, he knew that it would be many years before he could legally return home to his native country, even for a visit. Due to this, Antonio was unable to visit his parents, whom he missed very much, but, with the help of community service providers, he was soon able to realize his dream of providing a better life for his children by bringing them to the U.S. to live with him.

Today, Antonio is enjoying his life. He remains in touch with his former roommates, who have become his good friends. He cherishes having his daughters with him, hopes to attending nursing school, and, as he wryly commented, looks forward to visiting that iconic American landmark, the Grand Canyon.