Legislatures call for tougher trafficking laws
Catching and prosecuting offenders a tough task

* By Rick Spruill
* Corpus Christi Caller Times
* Posted January 30, 2011 at 5:30 a.m.

CORPUS CHRISTI — Police hear the rumors all the time.

Tipsters tell of illegal immigrants forced to work without pay or of women and children taken across the U.S.-Mexico border under false pretenses.

Knowing it likely is happening is one thing. Catching the traffickers and prosecuting the cases is a different matter entirely.

Proposed state laws under consideration this legislative session could change that.

Trafficking cases are difficult to separate from basic prostitution and immigration cases and even harder to prosecute unless a victim, often an illegal immigrant facing deportation, divulges details to authorities.

As opposed to smuggling, when a person is taken somewhere such as across the border willingly, trafficking cases involve deception, coercion or force.

Victims are forced into labor, prostitution or held against their will. Many are illegal immigrants, but trafficking can occur even within a state's or city's borders among citizens.

"They may be victims of trafficking that do not even know it," said Sean McElroy, who specializes in trafficking and smuggling cases in the Houston division office of Homeland Security Investigations, the federal agency formerly called Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Many victims look like illegal immigration cases at first glance, McElroy said. It sometimes takes weeks of interviews for investigators to learn those who were thought to be sneaking into the United States actually were forced in.

An estimated 160,000 men, women and children annually are trafficked into Texas, according to a 2009 study by Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Federal court records show no cases of human trafficking in Nueces County and nine surrounding counties since 2000.

However, immigration violations burden Corpus Christi's federal district court docket, often with dozens of cases filed each week and sometimes in a single day.

Corpus Christi police said they can't recall a single case where they were able to charge someone with trafficking, even though several officers named instances where it likely occurred.

Because actual trafficking cases are scarce, a local anti-trafficking advocacy group uses anecdotal evidence and personal experience when speaking to groups in the Coastal Bend.

"The unfortunate part is that we don't have the statistics compiled for this area that maybe Houston or San Antonio have," said Amy Storbeck, executive director of Blue Nation, a nonprofit based in Corpus Christi aiming to increase awareness about trafficking crimes.

Storbeck, a nurse, deflects skepticism about whether human trafficking is present in Corpus Christi and the surrounding area.

"Just because law enforcement and, in many cases, even social workers and health care professionals, don't recognize the signs, does not mean it isn't here," she said.

She speaks of a 14-year-old girl, who in 2006 was twice admitted to Driscoll Children's Hospital after being raped and beaten.

Storbeck said the girl refused to answer questions from social workers, but told her story to another nurse who worked with Storbeck.

"She said 'I know this sounds crazy, but I'm being forced to have sex with men,' " Storbeck remembered.

Because the girl was found with drugs in her system, after being discharged from the hospital she was sent to a juvenile detention facility, a common destination for underage trafficking victims because of a lack of aftercare facilities, Storbeck said.

"It's the only safe place to send them," she said.

Starting this year, state law requires newly hired law enforcement officers to take a basic human trafficking course to be completed "within a reasonable time."

Bills pending before the Texas Legislature are designed to help local law enforcement crack down on human trafficking rings that originate at points around the globe and end with victims being transported to El Paso, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston or beyond.

The almost 900-mile stretch of Interstate 10 that runs from El Paso to Houston is the state's busiest trafficking corridor, and the two cities are the busiest trafficking centers, according to the attorney general study.

Traffickers also cross the Mexican border near Laredo and drive up toward Houston, McElroy said.

Corpus Christi is a transit point, he said. Federal authorities didn't discuss any trafficking harbors located in the area.

But several Corpus Christi police officers remember a local case involving a group of Asian women at a massage parlor that some officers said was a clear-cut case of human trafficking.

Without any of the women crying out to authorities, police had little evidence to go on. Police closed down the business, hoping that would help the issue.

"You don't always get them on the real crime," said Corpus Christi Police Capt. John Houston, who oversees the narcotics and vice division. "We hear the tips. Someone is forced to work at a very low wage, working off a debt that never goes down. We know that exists here. It's just hard to find."

Sometimes, it takes tragedy for law enforcement to uncover the truth, Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin said.

Three years ago, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers discovered a house in Cuero where illegal immigrants were kept and forced to perform labor until they worked off the cost of getting into the country.

It only came to light when someone was murdered, Kaelin said.

Because of the distances involved and the number of agencies awakening to the reality that human trafficking could be a local problem, state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is working to develop legislation to create a shared law enforcement database modeled on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center.

The statewide database would store information related to human trafficking arrests and convictions and provide demographic data for police to use in identifying patterns.

Human trafficking, once considered a problem for lawmakers from larger, metropolitan areas, is now gaining the attention of those from less populated districts, Hunter said. Local law enforcement agencies told him what is currently on the books is not enough, he said. Hunter, a father of three, said he took interest when Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed legislation last session to establish civil penalties against people convicted of human trafficking.

"We still depend largely on kidnapping and prostitution laws to address human trafficking cases," he said. "A missing or kidnapped child whose face appears on a milk carton could actually be the victim of human trafficking."

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