Hidden in the shadows of polite society in America are thousands of enslaved men, women, and children. This modern day slavery is known as human trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, there are 14,500 to 17,500 victims trafficked each year into this country. These numbers are often under-reported because the victims live in obscurity, hidden from the general public and are afraid to speak out.

A common myth is that human trafficking only refers to forced prostitution. Yet trafficking often occurs in legitimate settings like farms, factories, hotels, nail salons, restaurants, and even private homes in ordinary towns. I spoke to a human trafficking survivor Arti (her name has been changed for her protection) about her experience coming to the United States.

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Jodi Cobb

A resident of Casa Regina Pacis, a shelter for trafficked immigrants.

At 17 years old, Arti was working as a nanny for a family in her home country of Indonesia. She was offered $150 per month with one day off per week to work as a nanny for her Indonesian employer’s cousin in the United States. “They told me that I don’t have to pay for anything to come over; passports, visa, plane tickets. I came with my cousin and the family I worked for back home.” When they arrived, their employer took Arti and her cousin’s passports for “safe keeping”.

After a few weeks, Arti was told that she was going to work for another Indonesian family and her cousin would stay working for the current one. They were promised that they would be able to see each other and talk on the phone all the time. However, none of the promises were honored. Arti worked for three years without any pay, sleeping on the floor and working all day without a single day off. “I worked from the moment I woke up at six, until midnight or sometimes two o’clock in the morning,” said Arti. “I took care of the baby, cooked, did laundry, washed cars, gardening, and whatever needed to be done around the house. The only time I was allowed to go outside was to walk the dog. Also, on Sundays we would all go to church and I would take care of the child but I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone.”

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Jodi Cobb

Residents of Casa Regina Pacis, a shelter for trafficked immigrants.

Arti was physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis by the wife, who would threaten to call the police and have her arrested if she was to escape or talk to anyone. “She said that since I have no papers the police would throw me in jail and that I could get raped in jail.” Arti was scared and kept her mouth shut even when she was being battered. “The wife would pull me, throw things at me and push me at the wall. One time she hit me with a ceramic salt shaker on the side of my forehead and it was bleeding. After arguing with his wife for a while, the husband took me to the emergency room to get stitches. The wife told me not to tell anyone what happened. If asked, I should tell them that I fell and hit my head on a rock or something.” Arti followed the wife’s instructions and kept quiet until one day when she couldn’t take it anymore. “The wife hit me in the face with a bag of ice and I was bruised all over. I wrote a letter to the nanny next door asking for help. I don’t write English and took me a long time to write the letter. A few days later, she [the nanny] arranged my escape and took me to CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking), a human rights organization in Los Angeles.

Sadly Arti’s story is not unique. Many of the traffickers are not the stereotypical gangsters of the movies. They are often trusted family members, friends or community business people that understand the culture and thus vulnerabilities of the people they are victimizing. This was the case for Tala (her name has been changed for her protection), a 28 year old woman who wanted to help her family in the Philippines. Her aunt was already working in the U.S. for a Filipino woman who owned a licensed residential care facility for the elderly. When Tala’s aunt found out that there will be a second facility opening, she told Tala about the opportunity. Excited about the possibility of earning money to send to her family, Tala spoke to her future employer over the phone. “She explained to me that it would be easier for me to get a visa if I was trained as a Tae Kwon Do instructor. She said that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything and that she will take care of everything.” Tala’s trafficker knew that certain foreign professionals with specialized knowledge like Tae Kwon Do can obtain an entry visa more readily. She gave Tala the name of the instructor in Manila that would train her and bring her to the United States. Tala trained for two months in Tae Kwon Do and in October of 2005 she arrived in Los Angeles with her instructor. “When we came to LAX, the instructor asked me for my passport for safe keeping. I didn’t think about it like why is he keeping my passport. I was just thinking, it’s fine I’m here and they are Filipino so I trusted them.”

Upon meeting her employer, Tala was informed that this great deed of bringing her to this country came at a price. “When I met my trafficker, she told me that I’m so lucky that she paid for me to come here and that we need to help each other. She helped me to come here to work and now I need to help her with her business. She said I will need to work for her for 10 years to pay my debt and that I also owed her $12,000. We call it an utang na loob.” In the Filipino culture, an utang na loob is a debt of gratitude. It runs deeper than just ordinary debt or owing a favor. It is a debt that must never be forgotten since no money can ever fully repay it. Often this loyalty is used by those who have the power and material resources to create a dependent relationship, and by those who have not been empowered to break from these ties because it would bring great shame.

Tala worked for her trafficker for over two years. She was one of three Filipino trafficking victims living in the residential care facility taking care of the elderly around the clock. Tala was paid $600 per month of which her trafficker kept half to pay off the $12,000 owed. “We worked from 4:30 am to 11 pm every day. We slept there (the care facility) and would have to get up every two hours to check on the residents,” said Tala. To make sure that Tala and the others never left, the trafficker would also threaten them with calling the police. “She said that if we run away, she would call the police and tell them that we stole something from her.” The three workers slept on the floor and ate whatever food the residents didn’t finish, which often was nothing.

One day on a daily stroll with the residents, a neighbor that became increasingly suspicious of what was going on gave Tala his phone number. “I said to him, what am I going to do with this number? He said, if you ever need anything, you can call me,” Tala recalls. Victims of human trafficking often do not seek help right away. This is mostly due to lack of trust of the authorities, self-blame, or being directly brainwashed by traffickers that they would not be believed.

Tala finally did call the neighbor, but was too scared to speak. “I felt like I was going to kill myself. It was too much.” Lucky for her, the neighbor reported his suspicions to the police and eventually the FBI got involved. The government worked with Tala to get her out the situation and into a safe place.

In both cases, the woman received Green Cards in exchange for their cooperation. However, in Arti’s case, the traffickers were never convicted because she did not press charges. “My family didn’t want me to and there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Now I wish I did,” said Arti.

To confront the atrocity of human trafficking, a modern day abolitionist movement is emerging. At a Freedom Summit held in the San Francisco Bay Area last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Little by little, by naming and, indeed, shaming, we begin to address that this is an issue that the United States will not tolerate.” In 2000, U.S. Congress passed into law The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA). It has been amended several times since then to offer protections for persons in the country illegally who may be a victim of human trafficking. With this law an interagency task force was established to monitor and combat trafficking. The task force also assists in evaluating progress in trafficking prevention, provides victims assistance, and aides the prosecution of traffickers. Although the identification, investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases remains a complex issue, there is more emphasis on the formation of local human trafficking task forces and community outreach programs these days. Even is small, seemingly idyllic communities like Marin County in Northern California, officers are being trained to spot the sign of a human trafficking victims.

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Jodi Cobb

Memorial statue of a slave breaking his bonds.

“I personally believe that we need to be training and conducting advocacy and outreach in all levels of law enforcement and prosecution, all levels of service providers, and the community also needs this awareness about trafficking,” said John Vanek, Anti-Human Trafficking Consultant and retired Lieutenant of the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force in California. “We touch these slaves unknowing every day. The food we eat, the coffee we drink, where we get our clothes, how we perceive women and their role in sex. All these things touch slavery in one way or another and therefore they touch us.”

The images here were taken from Jodi Cobb’s National Geographic Stock collection on human trafficking.