Trading in humans an ugly commerce in L.A.

By Charles Feng and Namju Cho, Guest columnists

Earlier this month, right here in the San Fernando Valley, local police took part in a sting operation to arrest the owner of a Van Nuys brothel. The owner, authorities found, was part of one of the largest smuggling and prostitution rings ever uncovered in Southern California. Less than two weeks later, more than two dozen people were indicted for their alleged involvement in the ring, which included 46 women serving as prostitutes.
The brothels involved in the sting - also in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Santa Monica and other Southern Californian cities - were often housed in acupuncture clinics and massage parlors. The women entered the United States from South Korea, via Mexico, on illegally obtained visas.

While it is still unclear whether these women were forced into sexual slavery - an important distinction between smuggling and trafficking - it is imperative that this form of modern-day slavery be stopped in all its guises.

Public outcry over sexual slavery in the United States is justified and overdue. Stripping women of their rights as human beings and subjecting them to round-the-clock rape, until they are too diseased or too weak to carry on any further, are vile acts perpetrated by the most ruthless criminals.

Yet the public must also turn its attention to the other forms of human trafficking, which encompass much more than forced prostitution. Forms of modern-day slavery such as domestic servitude, sweatshop labor and farm work are equally prevalent and egregious. While stories of sex-trafficking survivors are the most prevalent these days, they account for only 30 percent of the total caseload at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking.

Between 14,500 and 17,500 people - mainly unsuspecting women and children - are trafficked into the United States every year. The vast majority are moved into metropolitan areas, where they toil, against their will, for little or no compensation, enduring abuse and threats from their captors.

From Seattle to Boston, human trafficking is a flagrant criminal act being carried out everywhere in the United States. Indeed, the barter of human capital is thriving in Los Angeles. L.A. is one of the biggest hotbeds for trafficking in the country, according to numerous studies.

For instance, Khai, a Thai woman who doesn't speak English, arrived in Los Angeles with the glimmering promise that, working in a restaurant, she could earn a decent wage and support her children back in Thailand. The reality, however, was that her traffickers forced her to do laborious household chores before and after 12-hour days at the restaurant owned by the trafficker - where Khai only earned $140 a month. Her traffickers took away her passport. And she was told that if she ever went to the police, her family in Thailand would be harmed.

With the onset of globalization, it is increasingly easy for traffickers to lure women like Khai into their hands. Traffickers guarantee their victims a promised land of financial stability and better lives for their families. Eager to escape poverty and violence back home, and with little access to education and job advancement due to gender discrimination and socioeconomic factors, women are eager to jump at any chance to work in the United States.

After years of slave labor, a victim is broken. The victims face torture and physical assault, and have no access to any medical care or the outside world altogether. At the same time, victims suffer severe psychological abuse as they confront death threats to themselves and family members, forced isolation and armed guards watching their every move.

Yet these women and men are not merely victims. They are also survivors.

When Khai and her colleagues finally escaped their captors, the police were notified, and with CAST's assistance, they were placed in a shelter and received immigration status to live and work in the U.S. Ultimately, they chose to act as witnesses in a court of law against their traffickers, despite fear of retaliation.

As a result, one of Khai's traffickers was placed in prison for six years. Today Khai, a chef in a Thai restaurant, sends money back to her relatives in Thailand every month. She has since reunited with her son and eagerly awaits the day she can be reunited with the rest of her family. She still recalls the time she relished her newfound freedom - standing in front of the vast Grand Canyon and crying, "I have freedom!"

What's encouraging is that Khai's story of courage and strength is but one strand of a recurring motif.

Over and over again, survivors of trafficking - after living through countless horrors - demonstrate that they are able to pull themselves up and get on with their lives.

Yet the past is not forgotten. Instead, the fact that these survivors lived through their traumatic experiences emboldens them to publicly speak out against human trafficking, effectively putting a face to the cause.

Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations and the government are doing their share to ensure that these trafficking survivors receive proper social, legal and medical support. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which Congress first passed in 2000, provides a legal framework for protecting victims, punishing perpetrators and preventing further abuse.

The national spotlight on trafficking has also catalyzed action on the state and local levels.

California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, has introduced legislation that would make trafficking a felony in California and provide protections and restitution for victims. The Los Angeles City Council has introduced an ordinance to tackle sex trafficking, and the Los Angeles Police Department is leading a Department of Justice-funded Human Trafficking Task Force.

With large sting operations unearthing illicit prostitution rings, it is imperative that law enforcement knows how to identify victims of trafficking and treat them appropriately. And as advocates who serve victims of all types of trafficking, we believe more attention needs to be given not only to the travesty of sexual slavery, but also to forced labor, where the circumstances can be every bit as oppressive.

We're off to a good start. But we cannot grow complacent.

After years in the shadows, human trafficking is finally garnering the attention it deserves. Now we must seize the momentum, to ensure that experiences like Khai's will never be repeated in our country.