Synopsis: Slavery was officially outlawed 150 years ago in the US, but millions of vulnerable low-wage workers are still exploited and trapped in the US and around the world. Experts discuss why foreigners are especially at risk of being intimidated into forced labor in the US and how they might be rescued.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Melysa Sperber, Director, Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking; Catherine Longkumern Project Manager, Human Trafficking Initiative, Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services of Chicago.

Links for more information:

Human Trafficking

Reed Pence: The 13th amendment to the constitution, outlawing slavery in the United States, went into effect 150 years ago this week. But experts say forced labor still exists here. In fact, even though every nation has officially banned it, there are few places on earth you won’t find human trafficking — modern day slavery.  

Melysa Sperber:  It’s a way to profit from the exploitation of others using force fraud and coercion to control them.

Pence: That’s Melysa Sperber, Director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking.

Sperber:  Forced labor, which includes human trafficking, generates $150 billion in profits each year, and at any given time nearly 21 million people are trapped in forced labor.

Pence: About 55 percent of those trafficked worldwide are women and girls… And about five and a half million are children. A lot of us have heard of trafficking in other parts of the world like Southeast Asia… And we may be tempted to think that it doesn’t really happen much here. But Sperber says it’s big business for organized crime in the United States… with lots of profit and little risk.

Sperber:  Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry, second only to drug trafficking as in organized crime. We also know that there is no one face of human trafficking. Trafficked men, women and children work in factories that manufacture our clothes and our electronics; they mine the gold that is in our jewelry; they work on boats and in fields that provide the food we consume every day. Thousands of people are trafficked into the United States each year to work in our farm fields, factories, and restaurants, nail salons, to do domestic work and perform other kinds of labor.

Catherine Longkumer:  You see [it] in the commercial sex industry. You see it in construction, in hotels, restaurants, hair and nail salons, cruise industries, your hospitality industry. Basically, any type of industry that uses low wage labor is vulnerable to exploitation.

Pence: Catherine Longkumer is attorney and project manager for the Human Trafficking Initiative at the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services of Chicago. She says there’s no typical profile of someone who’s in forced labor and can’t get out because there are so many ways to exploit someone… especially a poor foreigner.

Longkumer:  Some of the most common forms of exploitation that we see are threats of deportation, withholding of someone’s documents and identification. So, if you come to this country as a legal immigrant and someone takes away your passport and your I.D., you have no way to prove you are here legally. If they say to you, “You do anything wrong, I’m going to call immigration and have you deported,” it’s a viable threat and they believe it. If their traffickers are connected and know where their family is located, and this is pretty common, so whether the victim is a U.S. citizen or foreign born, if they have access to your family who say, “Engage in these labor services, go engage in that commercial sex act, and if you don’t your little sister’s going to be hurt. We’re going to recruit her. Or your child, we know where they live.” That’s a really easy way to get someone to do what you want because they’re trying to protect their family.

Pence: Foreigners trying to get to the United States may also fall victim to debt bondage — a modern day version of indentured servitude.

Longkumer:  So individuals are brought over on a valid work visa, but back in the home country they are told, “In order to get this legal U.S. visa, you have to pay us $5,000, $10,000, $20,000.” They believe this is required under U.S. law, which it is illegal under U.S. law, but they don’t know that, and so they go into massive debt to come over and work in this country, but this loan is valid back in their home country, and so now they have $20,000 worth of debt that they have to pay off, and if they don’t their family is out on the street and homeless, or worse, depending on where this debt came from and who’s enforcing it.

Sperber:  Trafficking victims are rarely in chains or shackles. It’s a far less visible crime, and therefore much harder to identify and to end. Trafficking enforced labor victims are often enslaved, not through physical restraint and violence, but through debt, coercion, fear and intimidation. For example, we hear many cases of runaways in particular where traffickers will offer them housing, food, livelihood, and they will use that desire of young people to get their needs met, to then lure them into an exploitative situation. We also see young women who are lured by sex traffickers often promising them modeling opportunities, jobs, things that one might not associate with being forced into prostitution.      

Pence: Longkumer says often women face a choice of either engaging in prostitution or being beaten. Or sometimes a trafficker will start a relationship with a young, vulnerable woman. Before long, the trafficker may use it to force her into the sex trade.

Longkumer:  Someone that’s acting as a friend or a boyfriend or a father figure, so they’ve built up this trust and before you know it, you’re believing what they’re telling you and you’ve got this individual and they’ve maybe been supporting you financially or keeping you in the home or buying you clothes or taking you out, and then they say, I need you to help bring in money. I need you to help pay for this. I need you to prove your love to me. Go sleep with this person.” And often times it might start out small. It might be, “Sleep with my friend.” So it can start in that way, or it can be forceful and they’re raped. Then you can have this threat of exposing the individual, so it’s easy, if you have someone who’s foreign born, we’ve seen this happen with clients, the trafficker then says, “If you try to leave, if you try to do anything, I’m going to tell your family that you’re out prostituting.”

Pence: If there’s no family to hold over a woman’s head, traffickers may threaten to tell the police instead, and have her arrested for prostitution.

Longkumer:  And unfortunately we see this happen across the board where our clients are arrested and charged with prostitution even if they are disclosing up front to law enforcement that they are being forced. You see that with your U.S. citizen and your foreign born individuals and with your foreign born individuals, then you have that added threat of deportation and that’s hard to prove. If you have an officer who’s not trained in human trafficking, that is the one doing the raid and all they see is an undocumented individual, they don’t want to hear the story. They may not have an appropriate interpreter to get the story, or they’re often, when they’re doing these raids, you have the trafficker in the same room as your victim. You’re not going to get your victim to tell you what’s going on when their enforcer is right there and their family is still in harm’s way.      

Pence: Longkumer says that happens far too often. Many police departments make an effort to train new officers about human trafficking, but they often don’t have the resources to offer refresher courses once police are on the street.

Longkumer:  Five years from now after they are out of the academy, if they haven’t seen a trafficking case, it’s not the first thing that comes to their mind. They don’t always necessarily know the appropriate questions to ask, because these aren’t clients or individuals who are saying, “I’m a victim,” because almost none of my clients will self identify as a victim. Most of them don’t realize that what has happened to them is a crime. They don’t know they have rights, so they’re not going to be forthcoming with this information, and so it’s challenging for our officers to be able to recognize these very subtle signs and to know the appropriate questions to ask.

Pence: With victims afraid to seek help, human trafficking comes with little risk. Even if a raid does result in charges, it may not put a criminal out of business.

Longkumer:  They’re hard cases to prosecute. We’ve seen very few labor trafficking prosecutions in the United States. The cases that have gone to trial are almost exclusively sex trafficking cases. There doesn’t seem to be the political will to invest in these types of investigations because they are long term, they’re expensive, they’re difficult, and they’re new. The law’s only been on the books since 2000, which in the legal field is still a very new law, so it’s difficult to convince prosecutors to take a case. If you don’t have a slam-dunk win, and it’s hard to know if you’ve got a slam-dunk win on a case that rests on psychological coercion.

Pence: Traffickers make their victims dependent on them. It’s one way they keep victims from leaving. So Longkumer says when victims are extricated from forced labor, they need a lot of help. Legal services, immigration, victims rights, and financial help.

Longkumer:  They also have a lot of social service needs. If they’ve just exited their trafficking situation, they no longer have a place to live, if they’re a foreign national individual, even if they were here on a valid visa, that visa ties them to their employer and their employer is their trafficker, they no longer have a right to work in this country; they no longer have legal status in this country; they don’t have access to food. They’re going to have medical needs, possibly. They’re going to have mental health needs, so they have everything, and they have everything all at once.

Pence: Help is available by calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888, or at That’s also where you can call if you suspect that someone’s being trafficked. Longkumer says victims are all around us — at the nail salon, domestic help, or on construction jobs.

Longkumer:  If you can have the ability to have a conversation with someone that you suspect is being trafficked, one, if they’re asking or stating that they don’t have access to their documentation, a huge red flag. If you’re talking to someone and finding out, where are they living, versus where are they working, so if they are living and working in the exact same location, that’s a red flag. If they’re sleeping on the floor, that’s a red flag. If they’re reporting that they’re not talking to their family, that their family doesn’t know what’s going on, if the individual that you might come into contact with, and they can’t identify where they are, that’s a red flag.

Pence: Longkumer says you can leave a tip anonymously on the hotline or website. By itself, it may not be enough for police to intervene. But she says if you call, and a few more other people call, eventually there may be enough evidence to take action. But whatever you do, she says… don’t ignore it.

Longkumer:  We often will relate our movement back to where the domestic violence movement was 30-40 years ago, where people didn’t recognize what domestic violence was, so they didn’t do anything about it. We’re at the point of helping people understand what is human trafficking and being aware of it. What we’ve seen from the data that we do have is that awareness efforts have increased, the number of victims identified has increased. This is all happening out in the open. These aren’t people that are usually locked in a back room that you don’t see. Labor trafficking victims are interacting with you in these services. If you know what to start asking for as a consumer and you start being aware of it and you start challenging companies and you start getting that political will going on, that’s how we’re going to identify, increase, get better statistics, and ultimately end trafficking.

Pence: You can reach the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888, or at You can find out more about all our guests on our website,, where you can also find archives of our segments. You’ll also find them on iTunes and Stitcher.  I’m Reed Pence.

Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.