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Enslaved in America

December 2003
Enslaved in America

Human bondage bordering on slavery seems like a social ill of generations past. Sadly, it is not only alive in these high tech and supposedly civilized times, but worse; it is America ?the paragon of freedom ? that is used by the perpetrators to lure unsuspecting victims into domestic, sexual, and other kinds of bondage.



In 1993, 240 sick and starving Chinese men and women were put ashore by a freighter near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. They were on their way to garment factories and restaurants where they would be forced to work-off the $30,000 cost of their trip. In 1995, 76 Thai immigrants were rescued from a garment factory in El Monte in Los Angeles County, where they were being held behind wire fences and forced to work 18 hours a day for which they were being paid less than minimum wage. In 1997, U.S. authorities found 50 deaf Mexicans and their children, being held as slaves in a small apartment complex, and forced to sell trinkets on the streets of New York. In 1999, the FBI and the INS busted a smuggling ring in Atlanta that had recruited 500 ? 1000 girls and young women aged between 13 ? 28, all from East Asian countries for the purpose of prostitution.

The South Asian community is by no means exempt from such human exploitation. In March 2002, the Dallas Fort Worth Desi reported on a case in Tulsa, Oklahoma where 53 Indians were brought in under the guise of training (B1-B2 Visa) to work at the John Pickle Company. They were made to live and work in near slavery conditions. According to article, the workers were paid between $2 and $3 on average. They worked 11 hour shifts, lived in an old warehouse converted to a dormitory where they cooked, ate and slept, The workers' passports were held and they spent their holidays locked in their warehouse dormitory.���

In 1999, a seventeen-year-old girl died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment owned by a well-known Berkeley landlord and restaurateur, Lakireddy Balireddy. Investigations revealed later that he had bought her and at least two other teenage girls from their impoverished parents in Andhra Pradesh, and was using them as cheap laborers as well for sexual purposes.

The U.S. government estimates that nearly 1 to 2 million men, women and children are trafficked every year worldwide. Of these at least 50,000 are brought into the United States! Although victims of trafficking are generally associated with countries in Southeast Asia and Central and South America, more and more women and children are being brought in from East Europe and yes, South Asia nowadays.

Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, clearly defines "trafficking in persons" as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation." Exploitation includes prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation; forced labor (including that of H1-B & H2-B visa holders); slavery or practices similar to slavery; servitude; and even the removal of organs.

In the South Asian community, while only a few cases such as those concerning the John Pickle Company and Lakireddy Balireddy have received media attention, according to Aparna Bhattacharya of Raksha, Inc. ? a social organization addressing domestic violence and other issues among South Asians ? such exploitation is not as rare as some would think.

Others at the forefront of such issues concur. "Although we have not yet heard of cases in which shiploads of South Asian men, women or children were brought in to work in sweatshops or brothels, we have certainly heard of people being brought here as domestic workers, or to work in restaurants and grocery stores under false promises, and then being physically and emotionally abused," says Nalini Shekar of Maitri, a California organization similar to Raksha. Domestic workers are especially on the rise in South Asian families across the country.

"It is really a class thing," says Kripa Upadhyay of the South Asian Network in Los Angeles. "A lot of South Asians were used to having servants in their home countries, and they want the same here," she says. The dramatic poverty in South Asia makes it quite easy for such people to find indigent souls who are willing to risk the very little they have going for them for a glimmer of hope. To seal the deal, the promise of America is too tempting to pass.

The perpetrators, on the other hand have the gall to believe that they are doing a poor person a tremendous favor by getting them into the United States. But the conditions under which these people are kept here, amount to crude exploitation. Most don't make minimum wage, have to work up to 18 hours a day, are denied any kind of health care benefits, and are often sexually abused.

Take the case of Marjina Khalifa, a Bangladeshi maid, whose case was reported in USA Today. She worked for a New Jersey family that fed her leftovers, never allowed her to sit at a table and barred her from leaving home. She fled and took up employment with another family only to face the same treatment. Upadhyay similarly speaks of at least three women, one each from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal who were brought into this country as domestic workers via India, and then grossly mistreated. In one case, there were reports of sexual abuse as well. Unfortunately, in most cases, victims are poor, illiterate, non-English speaking, totally ignorant of U.S. laws, and are often made to believe by their employers that if they go to the police, they will be arrested and then deported. As a result, they never do.

According to Aparna, "Raksha has gotten calls that could be classified as trafficking but oftentimes the caller may not give enough information due to fear of their abuser.���For example, we had received a call where a neighbor was reporting a teenage girl who was brought in as a ?wife' to take care of her husband's children from a previous marriage. Then there are calls such as about the domestic worker who gets no days off, is beaten by her employer, and does not have access to her documents; or about the H1-B worker who is vastly underpaid and overworked in stark contrast to the terms agreed upon at the time of recruitment. If they challenge their situation they are often threatened with deportation by their employer."

Complicating matters even further is the way the community gets polarized when news of such a case breaks through. Again, class takes over, says Upadhyay. "The abuser's friends and family will never come forward with any information because they think it their duty to stick together." In fact people start raising all sorts of questions ranging from whether the accuser is doing this for monetary gains, or for a green card, or whether this is a case of racism, where successful South Asians are being picked on by the local authorities.

"They do not want to admit it just as they do not want to admit the existence of domestic violence in the community because it goes against the model minority image," explains Shekar. When this happens it becomes even more difficult for community-based organizations like Maitri or Raksha to help the victims. "We are after all working with the entire community, not just a segment of it," says Upadhyay. "It is extremely frustrating for us to hear from the FBI or the local police that they couldn't do anything because there wasn't enough to go by." And so sometimes, traffickers and abusers go free, even though people know who they are and what they have done.


But what happens when a trafficker is convicted? It varies depending on the charges, says Shekar. Under the statutes of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), those convicted of trafficking offenses may receive up to 20 years in prison and, in some instances life sentences. Preexisting servitude statutes carried a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment. The trafficker may also be asked to compensate the victims monetarily on top of serving his/her sentence.


As for the victims, both Shekar and Upadhyay agree that it is a rough road all the way. Although the government has made provisions like the T-Visa that allows them to stay back if they can help the state nail the traffickers, the burden of proof lies with the victims. "For someone who is poor, illiterate, and doesn't even speak English, it is next to impossible to build a case against someone who is infinitely more powerful than she or he is and who has been here longer and obviously knows the law better," says Shekar. Needless to say, many cannot take advantage of the T-Visa. They are either deported or they end up in shelters or intermediate facilities. Even if they have received compensation from their abusers, they may not see that money for years. In addition to their physical and financial woes, there is also the issue of mental trauma that may take them years to overcome. In many respects, they continue to remain victims even after they have been "rescued."


The situation can definitely improve if we change our attitude collectively as a community, suggests Upadhyay. While it is only realistic to assume that as long as economic disparities exist in this world, human trafficking will exist in some form or the other, each of us can do our little bit to stop it. As Upadhyay says, "It is not okay to live off other people's labor. Just because someone is starving in a village in South Asia, it does not make it okay for me to bring that person here, and then abuse her or him, physically, emotionally or sexually."


What is the T-Visa?

The T visa was created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) to protect women, children and men who are the victims of human trafficking. The T visa allows victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons to remain in the United States and assist federal authorities in the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases.

The statute allows victims to remain in the United States if it is determined that such victims could suffer, "extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm" if returned to their home countries. After three years in T status, victims of human trafficking may apply for permanent residency. In addition, subject to some limitations, the regulation allows victims to apply for non-immigrant status for their spouses and children. Victims under the age of 21 may apply for non-immigrant status for their parents as well.

Individuals who are victims of human trafficking and are interested in applying for the T visa can download the new I-914 form from the INS website at http://www.ins.gov/graphics/formsfee/forms/i-914.htm or by contacting the INS Eastern Forms Center Forms Request Line at 1-800-870-3676.


Protections for Victims

Victim Services

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) [http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/] offers victim support, protection services, prosecutorial and law enforcement strategies, and education resources to trafficking victims and victim service providers. The OVC's topical resources page on Trafficking in Persons has more information, including a list of government and non-governmental agencies that work in this area. The OVC also offers funding to provide direct services to victims of trafficking under programs like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act Grant Program.

Victim advocates and caregivers can contact OVC's Resource Center to find out about publications and tools that may be available to assist them in working with trafficking victims. The numbers are (800) 627-6872 or (877) 712-9279 (TTY).

There are numerous organizations that cater exclusively to the South Asian community. Some may not work directly with trafficking issues, but may be able to direct people to relevant organizations and agencies. In Atlanta, Raksha, Inc. can be reached at 404- 842-0725 or Tapestri at 404-299-7775.

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