NYC Is Major Human Trafficking Hub: Part 1

The story of people arriving in this country to find work and promise of a better future is a familiar one. What is less noticed but more deadly is the situation of human trafficking. These illegal and profitable networks have attracted the attention of federal and local law enforcement and New York City has emerged as a national model for combating the problem. WNYC's Patricia Willens has more.

Tomorrow you can hear from Ms. P., one of the few victims in the region who has stepped forward to tell her story. The Justice Department granted her a T-visa even though investigators have chosen not to pursue her case in favor of going after the larger networks smuggling people into the city every day.

Narrator: There are no hard numbers. Although the latest State Department figures say about 18-20 thousand people were trafficked into the States last year, to those who work with victims and prosecute the perpetrators, that number sounds much too low. And just from anecdotal evidence in the city, they say trafficking clearly is a growing problem nationwide and New York is one of its major hubs.

FICKE: "New York is a huge multi-national center of activity "

Narrator: Martin Ficke is the interim special agent in charge of the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in the city.

FICKE: " and there is the unfortunate circumstance that to some degree these organizations are trying to sell the American Dream You know, you go to NY, you can make money, send it back to your family."

Ms. P.: "..."

Narrator: That's the voice of a trafficking victim. To protect her identity, we'll call her Ms. P. Uneducated and newly married, she came to the New York/New Jersey region from India to work for a family distantly connected to her husband. Turns out that her husband was getting her wages before he disappeared while she worked for the family she alleges mistreated her for years. This is not an usual scenario so says Nadra Qadeer who works with trafficking victims for Safe Horizons. Standing outside her Jackson Heights office in Queens, she says most victims know and trust the trafficker, at least at first.

QADEER: "Women who have come here whether they're joining what they thought were boyfriends/husbands/partners. Or women who thought they were coming here for work and when they've arrived they've been forced to stay in a house with other women and to provide sexual services to men coming from all over."

Narrator: In the last few years the city has started to wake up to this issue, partly because it's tied to security in the post-September 11th world: Where there are networks to move people across borders, there are opportunities for terrorists. The New York Police Department formed a unit in Brooklyn late last year dedicated to trafficking. Although members of the unit wouldn't speak to WNYC, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly recently said trafficking remains a priority:

KELLY: "We have a proactive program in that regard and we use personnel from our vice division They're seen in some quarters as world experts so we're very much engaged in that issue."

Narrator: There are some world experts here in the city and several of them have joined forces. A group of social service workers, lawyers and police have banded together in a group called the Community Response to Trafficking, or CRT. In its first year, the CRT members have figured out who to contact when a case comes up. Sounds simple but Nadra Qadeer of Safe Horizon says it's made a huge difference.

QADEER: "We've seen significant improvements in just the communication so if the NYPD trafficking squad is surveying a brothel or something like that and they think that they are close to doing a raid, they have called or emailed us and said 'heads up' this is an intervention we are going to make."

Narrator: So many of these raids and police operations happen late at night and under the public's radar. And often investigations drag on for years as law enforcement tries to bring charges against traffickers here and in their home countries. This means little information gets out There were some news reports earlier this year about four men who were arrested and five women detained in Corona, Queens. Investigators believe a gang of Mexican smugglers brought women from southern Mexico to feed an international sex trafficking ring that supplied prostitutes to brothels in Queens and Brooklyn. Police are still trying to get the women to cooperate with them. Fear is a huge obstacle, for the victims and for those who work on their behalf.

Henry Ye is a social worker in Chinatown who rarely gives out his name to people for fear of traffickers in the neighborhood.

YEE: This is a lot of safety concern, especially a lot of social workers like myself and others. I just don't want to expose anyone."

Narrator: He just tells people he works at a local community organization and hopes he can get some of the victims to trust him.

YEE: Not a lot of social workers have now been trained to do investigative work and plus they are putting themselves at risk without knowing because we are dealing with the entire international trafficking network, and they have so many people and resources out there in the community "

Voice 1: "Trafficking hotline, may I help you?"

Voice 2: "Someone said I should call you."

This was a role-playing exercise by two operators of the hotline run by Covenant House in Manhattan. They underwent training recently to better detect trafficking victims.

Voice 1: "So do you need to leave your job?"

Voice 2: " I have a job but it's not a good one my boss says I owe him money for everything I am afraid for my son who got beat up the last time I asked my boss for money he raped me."

Narrator: This caller had some telltale signs of trafficking: she felt compelled to stay, her boss had power here and in the victims' home country, she was too scared to call the police. Advocates and lawyers say defining and reaching out to victims who are trafficked is one of the most difficult tasks in shutting down the networks. But it's critical. And it relies on victims coming forward. The federal government has tried, establishing the T-visa program promising victims a special protected immigration status and help getting a green card if they cooperate with investigators. This has proven a hard sell, with only about 370 visas given to victims nationwide last year. For WNYC, I'm Patricia Willens.

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