While it may still be an issue under the radar of many Hoosiers, human trafficking seems to be thriving in Indiana. Domestic violence victims’ advocates, human rights attorneys, and immigration lawyers report that they are seeing more victims each year.
Whether the increase is due to more awareness among victims or more outreach from organizations that have worked with victims is hard to tell, according to victims’ advocates. But either way, they agree it’s an issue that can’t be ignored.
The issue first came to the attention of Abigail Lawlis Kuzma, currently the director and chief counsel of the Consumer Protection Division of the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, when she was still executive director of the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic.
One of her first trafficking cases was six or seven years ago, she said, when a victim came to NCLC after he escaped from a warehouse in Pennsylvania. A human trafficker, possibly a coyote, someone who brings people over the border from Mexico for a fee, promised the worker that he would have a normal job and a place to live.
Instead, the victim worked 12 hours a day, ate and slept in the warehouse, and was guarded by armed men.
“Somehow a family member figured it out, was able to smuggle him out, and he was on the run,” she said. “Someone he knew advised him to talk to me. I told him these people were operating illegally and they had no right to hold him.”
Ultimately, she said, the man wouldn’t accept NCLC’s services, so she doesn’t know what happened to him.
“He wanted to believe me, but he was afraid I was lying to him,” she said. Kuzma said this is a common scenario.
For some, said Raio G. Krishnayya, executive director of the Center for Victim and Human Rights in Indianapolis, the way victims are treated in the United States is how workers are typically treated in their home countries.
It’s also difficult to get victims to see themselves as victims, he said, as many think they owe a debt to their traffickers or still think their situation in the United States is better than it would be if they were at home.
This also makes it difficult for victims to cooperate with law enforcement because they may not see a benefit, at least at first. On the flip side, he said, a defense attorney could claim that a victim cooperated with police so he could get a visa to stay in this country legally.
Foreign nationals who are trafficked into the United States may be eligible to receive a T visa, which is available to victims of human trafficking.
However, in many cases, it’s easier to get a U visa, available to victims of crimes who cooperate with police; an S visa, for witnesses of crimes who cooperate with police; asylum status, if the victim has a reason to fear returning to his or her home country; or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for juveniles who’ve been abused and have no one to take care of them in their home country.
These other options are possibly the reason why of the 5,000 T visas available on an annual basis, between 2001 and 2005, only 1,084 visas were issued.
However, Kuzma said, the low number is probably because it is simply difficult to find victims, even though the estimated number of human trafficking victims in the United States is between 14,500 and 17,500 men, women, and children.
To receive a T visa, one must prove he or she was recruited, harbored, or obtained by means of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, debt bondage, slavery, or sex trade, Kuzma explained.
While the victim who worked in the warehouse in Pennsylvania didn’t end up accepting help from NCLC, another victim she met in 2007, a 16-year-old girl from Honduras, was willing to accept Kuzma’s assistance.
The girl was abducted by a gang member and prostituted from the age of 13 or 14 until she was 15. When she was 15, she believed she was going to visit her mother in the United States, but instead she was taken to the United States-Mexico border where she was again prostituted by the man she was traveling with. She was handed off at the border, and she was stopped by border patrol without shoes, a common occurrence among human trafficking victims, Kuzma said.
Even though she wasn’t trafficked in this country, Kuzma said she was able to make the case that the trafficker brought her to the border for the purpose of trafficking her. The prosecution agreed, and the girl was ultimately able to stay with her mother while waiting for relief, which she received in 2008.
Locally, domestic violence victims’ advocates have also noticed an increase in human trafficking cases in Indiana.
Laura Berry Berman, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she often hears from shelter directors that victims are coming to them.
“What’s very interesting is the rural shelters are seeing these issues more so than urban,” she said. One recent example involved a woman who only spoke Mandarin Chinese who had a baby and was kicked out of a communal living situation. The hospital wasn’t sure of her situation, so someone from there called a domestic violence shelter in southern Indiana to ask for help.
She added the power and control issues of human traffickers were similar to those of abusers in domestic violence relationships, which is why she thought many of the victims end up at shelters.
Berman has also noticed an increase in victims seeking T visas and U visas.
What has helped, she said, is a statewide taskforce of law enforcement officers, lawyers, and service providers who are working together to provide resources. She said there are also plans for a resource guide and a statewide training specifically on this issue to take place sometime next spring.
While no longer at NCLC working directly with victims, Kuzma has been working with the AG’s office as part of another outreach program.
“We are going to talk to different groups about how to identify victims,” she said. “An important piece of this is to get the word out among the general public that human trafficking does exist, and that we make sure everyone knows it’s in our community.”
She said other departments are also on alert, such as the Indiana Department of Labor, which has been asked to remain vigilant of calls that come in regarding unfair wages or employment practices that might relate to human trafficking.
She said police officers are also supposed to be aware of how to interact with potential victims of human trafficking, especially when it comes to prostitution and underage girls who have likely been coerced into their jobs, even if they don’t see it that way.
Outreach efforts will include domestic violence shelters, hospitals that treat low-income and uninsured populations, and community organizations that might be able to recognize victims if they know what to look for.
For instance, Kuzma said, if a hospital or clinic notices a pattern where young girls are showing up with venereal diseases, they might be part of a prostitution ring and possibly victims of human trafficking.
“Or if you see a girl who is not in school who seems to be working somewhere – including next door and working there all hours, like a domestic slave, if not for you, who would be asking the question? Maybe if you see her in a grocery line, maybe that’s the opportunity to find out who she is,” she said.
The statewide hotline number to call is 1-800-928-6403, she added.
Krishnayya added attorneys can help by speaking out against various shortfalls in the system when it comes to finding and helping victims, and by helping victims when possible.•