HIGH POINT, N.C.- On a sleepy street corner in the small town of High Point, N.C., customers shuffle into the Oak Hollow Thrift Store, sifting through used household items and secondhand clothes in a town best known for its furniture manufacturing. Next door, in a small, windowless office, Mark Kadel talks about a lesser-known commodity traded in the Southeast: human lives.
Kadel is director of the High Point affiliate of World Relief, a Christian relief organization that offers aid to victims of human trafficking worldwide. The U.S. Department of State says human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world and estimates that some 15,000 to 18,000 people in the United States fall victim to modern-day slavery each year.
Most trafficking in the United States takes place in Florida, California, and New York, though any states with labor-based or service-based economies are targets. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, making human trafficking a federal crime and mandating an annual federal report on slavery at home and abroad.
But for the millions of Americans leading quiet lives in peaceful communities like High Point, the notion of slavery at their doorstep today seems unimaginable. Groups like World Relief and other nonprofits partner with federal agencies to assist victims and answer core questions: What does slavery look like in America today? How could it happen here? What can be done to stop it?
Kadel addresses those questions with the story of a trafficking victim his office recently helped: A well-educated, 29-year-old Mexican woman paid an immigrant smuggler to bring her illegally to the United States, where she hoped to find better paying work and send money home to relatives. Instead, when she arrived at the border, smugglers transported her to North Carolina, placed her directly in a brothel, and forced her into prostitution.
After months in isolation, the woman managed to escape and found refuge in a women's shelter. Workers from the shelter called the FBI, and FBI agents called World Relief to assist with the woman's physical needs while the agency investigated her case.
Kadel says forcing or coercing women and girls into the sex trade is a common form of U.S. human trafficking. In California, officials discovered in 2004 that Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a Berkeley businessman, ran a sex and labor exploitation ring for 15 years. In 2005, three men pleaded guilty in a New York City court to running a human-trafficking operation for 13 years, smuggling Mexican women into the city and forcing them to work as prostitutes.
Late last year, a federal judge in Florida sentenced Fernando Pascual, 22, to 10 years in prison for harboring a sex slave from Guatemala. Prosecutors say the 13-year-old girl was sold in Guatemala and brought to Cape Coral, where Pascual raped her, beat her, and forced her to work in his home for two years.
But other forms of human trafficking exist as well, including forced labor on farms and domestic servitude in homes. Kadel's office is currently assisting a young woman from India who came to the United States to earn extra money managing domestic duties for a few months in the home of an Indian physician living in North Carolina. When she arrived, the physician confiscated her travel documents and threatened to harm her family, including children living in India, if she attempted to leave.
Nearly two years later, the victim called a national trafficking hotline set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The agency contacted World Relief, which helped her relocate secretly. Law enforcement officials are still investigating her case and the doctor who kept her in servitude.
HHS says that while some traffickers keep their victims under lock and key, many use other fear-driven techniques to keep victims in bondage: They confiscate passports and other identification documents and tell victims they will be imprisoned if they contact authorities. They pile up exorbitant financial obligations on victims for travel costs and living expenses and threaten harm if they leave without satisfying their debts. They isolate victims from outsiders and threaten violence toward them and their family members if they attempt to leave. Though trafficking takes many forms, the common thread is force, fraud, or coercion, according to HHS.
Not all victims of trafficking are foreigners. Late last month, a U.S. District judge in Florida sentenced Ronald Evans to 30 years in a federal prison for running a crack cocaine ring at labor camps he owned in East Palatka, Fla., and Newton Grove, N.C. The workers at the camps were nearly all U.S. citizens, and nearly all came from the same source: homeless shelters across the Southeast.
Evans, 60, offered homeless men seasonal jobs harvesting sweet potatoes and cabbage, with the promise of a decent wage and a place to live. But once Evans bused the men to his farms, he paid workers less than one dollar an hour and kept them in squalid living conditions miles from town. He also kept the workers in debt and addiction by selling crack cocaine on credit.
U.S. prosecutor John Sciortino told the judge in Evans' case that there are "other camps and other vans patrolling homeless shelters throughout the South" whose owners should take warning from Evans' conviction and sentencing.
Another group of U.S. citizens is particularly at risk for falling prey to trafficking: foster children living in shelters. Sex-trade operators promise teens an escape to a better life, Carol Nelson of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking told WORLD, only to imprison them in a life of prostitution.
The Florida coalition works with federal agencies to help trafficking victims escape and establish new lives. Nelson says the coalition has worked with victims from brothels, strip parlors, the hotel industry, restaurant workers, and day laborers: "We find them everywhere."
In the case of foreigners, the coalition works with HHS to help identify victims of human trafficking, and once HHS certifies trafficking victims, they are eligible for the same federal benefits and services available to refugees-as long as they cooperate with law enforcement. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement awards certified trafficking victims a "T Visa" that puts them on the path to U.S. citizenship.
Federal agencies depend on nongovernmental organizations to provide personal assistance to trafficking victims, and they award grants to groups like the coalition and World Relief. The groups use grant funds to assist trafficking victims with food, clothing, living accommodations, job placement, counseling, and medical care.
The work is often complicated, and World Relief must cultivate relationships with landlords and employers willing to take on foreigners with no Social Security number and no work history.
Such groups also have to depend on churches to help victims as well. Kadel says church volunteers assist trafficking victims and refugees as they settle into homes and adjust to American life by helping with English skills, driving skills, and job placement, all in the context of Christian ministry. "I'm all for foreign missions," says Kadel, who served refugees in Albania for nine years, "but here is an opportunity to practice missions right on your own front doorstep."
One of the biggest challenges to helping victims, according to Nelson, is making people aware that the problem of slavery still exists: "People think this stopped with the African-American slave trade, but it never stopped-they've just changed the commodity."