FULLERTON, Calif.—Two women faced local legislators, law enforcers, and a public audience Monday morning to personify the ongoing existence of a crime abolished 150 years ago in the United States: slavery.
The field hearing, held by Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, took place in a packed room at California State University, Fullerton. Entitled “Regional Perspectives in the Global Fight Against Human Trafficking,” the public forum discussed the chilling statistics of international and domestic human trafficking—and what can be done at global, state, and local levels.
The bi-partisan hearing also introduced Royce’s proposed legislation, the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act of 2013. The FORTE Act proposes tougher restrictions and oversight on overseas employment—prohibiting any recruitment or hidden fees, mandating registration for foreign labor recruiters, and educating prospective foreign workers on anti-trafficking protections and rights.
Angela Guanzon, a handsome woman with long jet-black hair and a faint accent, said she entered the United States with a lawful H-2B visa and the anticipation of a good job. For someone from the Philippines, the promise of a job in America was a dream come true. Instead, she was stripped of her passport and slapped with a $12,000 debt the moment she landed on American soil. For two years, she was forced to work 18-hour days at a retirement home for the elderly in Los Angeles. She slept scrunched up on the hallway floor.
“My experience shows that human trafficking happens today in the United States and that it happens to both men and women,” she said.
It also happens to children. Carissa Phelps, a pixie-like, auburn-haired woman, next shared being kidnapped at 12 years old. She was prostituted, raped, and abused repeatedly for two years. Her only interaction with the police as a child prostitute was to be arrested. “People looked the other way, and I was blamed for what happened,” she said. “It took me 15 years to be able to embrace my story and share it.”
Phelps isn’t an anomaly: the average age of a trafficked child is 12, according to local law enforcers. These girls can be found on the streets, in strip clubs and brothels, and online in child pornography. According to a 2013 report, 60 percent of child trafficking victims are from foster care and group homes, said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.: “We remove them from the home, pledge to keep them safe, yet we’ve failed.”
Guanzon and Phelps are proof not just to the horrors of modern-day slavery, but also to the hope that victims can heal. Today, Phelps holds a joint law degree and MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is the CEO and founder of Runaway Girl, FPC, an organization that works with survivors. Guanzon is a certified nurse assistant and an active advocate for human trafficking survivors. They were the last witnesses to speak at the hearing. But when they leaned towards the microphone, a tangible stillness filled the room. A number became a person with a face and real trauma.
The hearing also pulled opinions and recommendations from experts in the field. Ambassador Luis deBaca of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons emphasized the importance of partnerships at every level of government—every town hall, courthouse, and police precinct across the country—“because no community is immune.” That partnership must include the private sector, including faith communities, the survivor community, academia, and the public, he added.
California is leading the war against human trafficking, especially since it’s a trafficking hotspot, thanks to its populous cities, international borders, and extensive ports. Last November, the state passed Proposition 35, which toughened prosecution laws against traffickers. Voters passed the act with over 81 percent approval—the highest rate in state history.
Because of Prop 35, traffickers will now fear and loathe the government, said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. His prosecution unit has sent 24 defendants to state prison, and currently has more than 40 active felony cases. “There’s a gradual awakening over the last two years,” he said. But he emphasized that there’s more work to be done.
According to the California Department of Justice, human trafficking is second to drug trafficking as the world’s most profitable criminal enterprise, at $9 billion.
“Many criminal syndicates have determined that it’s easier to beat and kick around a young girl than compete in the drug trade,” Royce said. “Children don’t fight back.”
In August, Royce launched the Human Trafficking Congressional Advisory Committee, which gathers victims’ rights groups, law enforcement agencies, and community advocates. They meet monthly to address human trafficking concerns and offer policy recommendations. The FORTE Act was introduced soon after. Royce said the legislation will provide more grounds for prosecution and incentives for legislative implementation.
But not enough resources, funding and effort are pooled to combat this crime on a broader scope, said Kay Buck, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), an organization that helped push Prop 35 into law. A July 2012 report showed that the U.S. government spends about $100 million a year against human trafficking, compared to the $15 billion it spends on the drug war. “Clearly, efforts to prevent trafficking and assist victims need more support,” Buck said. She applauded Royce’s FORTE Act, but recommended further protection for other visas, transparency in businesses, and more social services.
The war of human trafficking doesn’t end with a long-term prison sentence for the perpetrators. The victims’ healing process is long-term, Buck said, emphasizing the need for more mental health services. She specified the importance of a faith-based support system. She’s seen vast improvements in survivors who had someplace to go every Sunday and received consistent mentorship: “That’s the kind of service that’s really necessary.”
Phelps said the biggest challenge for human and sex trafficking survivors is the ability to realize that their condition is wrong and create a new identity. “I want to tell fellow survivors that they are in the land of the free. They are not slaves,” she later told reporters. “Recovery is a long process … but compassion in small ways helped me build back my life.”