Cover Story: Of Human Bondage

The plantation might be gone, but slavery lives on in the U.S.

Sean Hughes

21st Century Slavery

Modern day slavery, also known as human trafficking, is alive and well. It happens in war-torn Africa, where 9-year-old kids carry semi-automatic weapons after their parents sell them into the military in order to raise money to feed their other starving children. It happens when criminal gangs kidnap underage girls and women to keep fresh faces in the brothels in the sex tourism industry in Thailand. And it happens in Toledo, Columbus and Cincinnati, taking the form of forced prostitution and domestic servitude.

Because human trafficking is such a clandestine enterprise, there are few hard numbers about trafficking and its victims. The industry is estimated at $44 billion annually worldwide, second only to drug smuggling, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Some smugglers are leaving the drug trade or adding on human trafficking as a less risky and more profitable venture. For this and other reasons, states are being encouraged to pass anti-trafficking laws to supplement federal law. The feds, stretched thin with the war on drugs, the war on terror, etc., handle only the biggest cases.

The Ohio General Assembly has three bills pending, partly as a result of sex trafficking cases in Toledo.

But a recent report by the Rand Corp. ( cited cases of domestic servitude involving foreign nationals in Columbus.

Many fear the number of victims of trafficking is on the rise. The State Department believes 14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are brought into the U.S. legally and illegally every year from more than 50 different countries. The number of US citizens in slavery is unknown.

Three human-trafficking cases are under investigation currently in Cincinnati, according to Jessica Donohue-Dioh, coordinator for the Cincinnati Rescue and Restore Coalition for Human Trafficking with the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati (

That's a tiny fraction of the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked internationally each year. With approximately 1 billion people living on $1 a day around the world, the pool of potential slaves is the largest it's ever been, according to Kevin Bales, an international authority on human trafficking and author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

Using coercion and force
People think slavery in the U.S. ended with the Civil War. Bales was at Wyoming High School Feb. 11 to debunk that myth.

"We outlawed burglary, but have you ever had your television stolen?" he says. "Apparently the 10 Commandments say we don't commit adultery any more. People get excited about human trafficking because they think it's something unique, but it's not. Slavery is very much what it's always been for the last 4,000 to 5,000 years of human history in terms of the total control and brutal use of those people and the exploitation of their labor."

Human trafficking is described in federal law as the transportation, harboring, selling or employment of a person through the means of force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of forced servitude.

"Basically it's anyone who's being forced to provide some sort of service, some sort of labor or prostitution with someone forcing them physically, someone who is using fraudulent means to keep them there," Donohue-Dioh says.

American slaves perform everyday tasks ranging from menial labor — such as agricultural work, construction and cleaning and stocking department stores at night — to caring for children.

The term "trafficking" can be confusing because people think of movement, especially across national borders. But human trafficking involves people, like drugs, being sold as a commodity; sometimes they come from another country, sometimes not.

The term is sometimes misused, with "human trafficking" referring to simple smuggling. In that situation, a person from one country, such as North or South Korea, might pay another person, a "coyote," to get her into the U.S. via Canada, where they'll go their separate ways.

Donohue-Dioh says trafficking of citizens within the U.S. is common, and the victims can be held locally or moved to different states. There is nothing voluntary about the situation.

"The hook domestically is preying on homeless youth, runaways, folks that are working two and three jobs to make ends meet and giving them that idea of a better opportunity, a better job maybe," she says. "Some of the hook lines have been modeling jobs, photography and getting them to a place where they don't know their surroundings and, most often, using some sort of physical violence to get them to cooperate that first time, where they're being forced into prostitution.

"After that first time, the element of coercion and force completely changes because this person has now done something they thought they would never do in their entire lives. And their trafficker will use that and use pictures and use physical force to continue to keep them there. The mental health issues that start to take over most predominantly are the shame and the trauma that the individual's been through."

Because of what some experts in the field call the "prostitution paradigm," many social service providers, law enforcement and the general public don't realize that some people caught up in the sex industry aren't there by choice. They can't leave, even if they want to.

Blaming the victim frequently happens when we consider housekeepers, farm laborers, dishwashers and others in low-wage job holders as not having the motivation or work ethic to improve their circumstances.

"You also see, a lot of what looks like and likely is Stockholm syndrome," Donohue-Dioh explains. "This is a runaway who's got no one and ¸ this trafficker or pimp is forcing them into prostitution every day. But pimps will protect their girls and their women from Johns that might hurt them. So there's this really confusing psychological element of ¨This person is also protecting me. They're hurting me, but they're protecting me and giving me my basic needs.' Our survival mechanisms take over at that point, and it keeps people there."

Without viable alternatives, leaving can seem impossible — a choice that comes down to staying alive or dying.

Anti-immigration sentiment muddies the waters
Media reports of sensational cases rarely call these extreme cases of exploitation "slavery," even though that's precisely what they are. The conviction last month of a California couple holding a Filipino domestic worker in forced labor is just one recent example, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Blindness toward an institution we assume ended in 1865 means most people miss the evidence right in front of them in news reports.

In an effort to get some kind of data on the types and prevalence of slavery in Ohio, the Rand Corp. reviewed 18,000 newspaper articles and developed a list of support providers to interview about the cases they found. In Toledo and Columbus they identified 15 confirmed cases of modern-day slavery. The articles revealed other potential cases, as did interviews with social service providers and law enforcement, but the group worked only with those that could be confirmed.

"This should be a base line or minimum extent to which human trafficking is occurring," says Jeremy Wilson, author of the Rand report Human Trafficking in Ohio. "This crime exists, and it's a local crime that happens in the heartland of America. If you look at the cases in Toledo, pretty much all of them involved local girls who were victimized by a local offender who's generally from the Toledo area."

One Toledo case called "Innocence Lost" broke up a 13-state sex-trafficking ring that rotated teens among highway welcome centers, hotels and truck stops. Four different grand juries indicted 31 offenders on charges including "sex trafficking in children, taking minors across state lines for prostitution, conspiracy, racketeering and money laundering," the report says.

How human trafficking manifests itself depends on the community in which it exists. Just as all communities experience robbery, kidnapping, murder and other violent crimes, the number of those crimes depends on a variety of factors.

In Ohio, the extensive highway systems that connect the state to large cities like Chicago, our proximity to the Canadian border, the presence of organized crime — specifically the link between Cleveland and Toronto — high rates of urban poverty and cultural diversity are some of the elements that make Ohio a "supply, destination and transfer state."

"One wonderful thing about Ohio is that it has become more diverse," says Kathleen Davis, coordinator for the Partnership for Human Freedoms Program with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. "If you look at the census report, you see an increase in Hispanics and Asians, a lot of this has to do with ¸ over 110 universities, international corporations. There's a constant in flow and out flow of foreign nationals.

"The majority of them are legal, coming for school and business, so it creates this blend factor where traffickers realize that they can bring in people from similar nationalities and they won't be considered a victim because no one's screening them. They look like students, business people and other workers versus trying to bring in a group of Cambodian women and there are no Cambodian women in that community. That's a little more obvious."

Many foreign nationals enter the country legally with appropriate documentation. But being unfamiliar with U.S. laws and their surroundings makes some people vulnerable to traffickers, who will steal their papers and let them expire. The individuals then become "undocumented," and the traffickers use that as leverage to keep them from going to immigration services or anyone else who might help them.

Because of the rampant anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, a pervasive English-only arrogance and the general belief that slavery no longer exists, it's easy to see how the undocumented person would fear coming forward no matter how badly she's being treated.

"It puts the burden of proof on a victim to have to prove that they're a victim of some type of enslavement," Davis says. "Oftentimes they don't even know they're a victim, so it's very difficult for them to raise their hand and say, ¨I'm a victim. Help me.'

"In certain situations they may think they're doing what they're supposed to. They're also under a lot of stress in terms of being threatened, so they're not necessarily worrying about themselves. They may be concerned about their families back home who are being threatened as well."

These extreme and often competing problems make the situation unfathomable for a person who's never lived in a country where a monthly income of $200 would ensure the survival of an entire family.

'Stolen, crushed, beaten, burned, mutilated'
In 2000 Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which for the first time made human trafficking a crime. In addition to charging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with identifying, certifying and serving trafficking victims, the law created a T-visa that allows victims to remain in the U.S. under a status similar to that of a refugee.

That status also makes them eligible for public assistance. Once a foreign national is certified, he can receive free help with things like housing, medical care or job placement.

In order to get a T-visa, a victim must assist law enforcement. This point is potentially problematic for people who come from countries where cops don't just turn the other way but actually participate in the enslavement process. Manipulation was likely used to keep a person enslaved; requiring slavery victims to help investigators could make this requirement feel like more of the same.

"That's one of the things that came up in a number of our interviews," Wilson says of the Rand Report. "The social services view the whole federal victim certification process with skepticism. They don't trust the system, and they haven't seen it work for others, so they're reluctant to provide information."

The Justice Department is funding more research into human trafficking, including the ways in which the federal government actually re-victimizes people and hampers their recovery.

Even though organizations involved in assisting trafficking victims might have a different focus, they have a similar goal: helping modern-day slaves regain their freedom and putting an end to slavery once and for all.

"Victim services, in the long run, are possibly the most important piece we can do," says Jay Womack, acting director of Anti-Trafficking in Persons Program at HHS. "We're talking about an individual's life that has been stolen, crushed, beaten, burned, mutilated — ugly stuff. How do we put those pieces of life back together? We start with certification of victims. We start with services. We start with empowerment."

Womack says that empowerment is as much for the general public as it is for the victims. As one of six presenters at a seminar on human trafficking hosted by the YWCA and the Freedom Center last month, he made sure participants knew about the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (888-3737-8888) and the public awareness campaign called Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking (

"Rescue and Restore for short," he says. "Our tagline for this is ¨Look beneath the surface.' If we don't look beneath the surface, if we don't ask those additional questions — and everybody has to ask those questions — we can't get any information. We can't get those questions answered to find the fact that we have trafficking victims: We don't just have smuggling victims; we don't just have illegal immigrants; we don't just have prostitutes; we don't just have a worker, a migrant farm laborer."

¨Freedom for everybody'
Some of the "red flags" Womack and others in the field point to are right out in the open. You might be a witness to human trafficking if:

¯ You strike up a conversation with someone who doesn't appear to be a local but isn't aware she's in Cincinnati, or another person jumps in to answer for her.

¯ You see the security guard in front of a building watching and controlling the people going out, not in.

¯ A nail salon that has more male customers than female and/or very late business hours.

¯ Waitstaff and bus people at a restaurant speak little or no English and/or are discouraged from taking to customers by one or two people who appear to inspire fear or do nothing but watch the help.

¯ A person can't provide a valid ID when trying to write or cash a check.

Many automatic assumptions come to mind under these circumstances, and traffickers rely on those assumptions to maintain their control. Someone might not have their driver's license or green card because they've been taken by the person enslaving them; but that isn't one of those automatic thoughts, nor is the possibility of threats of violence, deportation or killing loved ones over the slightest breach of secrecy.

Traffickers can easily move their victims from city to city via cars to hide them from authorities. Keeping the victims uninformed also helps prevent the likelihood of running away, because they have no idea where to go.

"We had the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape back in the day, but now there's an underground network that trafficks people in," Davis says. "Because it's not out in the open, most people don't take a second glance at a person who walks by them that could be a potential victim."

Davis and Donohue-Dioh are just two of many voices trying to raise awareness as a way to prevent human trafficking from becoming a booming growth industry in the U.S.

"Wherever there's a desire to have more things produced, faster and someone who wants to pay less for that, there's an opportunity for human trafficking and exploitation," Donohue-Dioh says. "The really difficult thing about human trafficking is that there's always an opportunity. It can reach any type of employment. It reaches all socio-economic backgrounds. And it reaches all ages, genders, classes, ethnicities."

In spite of all of this, Bales is still optimistic about ending modern slavery.

"If you take the sums of ¸ people trafficked into the country every year, that's almost identical to the number of people murdered in the United States each year, about 17,000," he says. "The big difference there is we spend something like $200 million dealing with the crime of human trafficking and slavery in the U.S. and we spend something like $2 billion to $3 billion dealing with the crime of murder. Every police department has a homicide person or a homicide unit ¸ and there's only two or three police departments in the whole country to have anyone specifically assigned only to human trafficking and slavery cases."

He says to do nothing will ensure a dramatic increase.

"But if we treat it as the serious crime that it is — it involves sexual assault, kidnapping, brutality — I actually think we can reduce this situation pretty dramatically," Bales says. "You can learn to recognize it. We can bring it to an end. A world with freedom for everybody is actually within our grasp."

He says start with