By Ashleigh Bugg
Human trafficking manifested in the forms of labor and sex slavery, is an ongoing challenge faced by Cooperative Baptists around the world.
“Do we want a society where exploitation is the norm?” asked Tommi Lee Grover, a partner to CBF field personnel working on anti-human trafficking initiatives in Texas and founder of the awareness organization TraffickStop.
According to Patrick Truman, CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, the problem is rooted in attitudes which permit exploitation as well as in systemic issues dealing with race and immigration. Through recent summits like the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation in Katy, Texas, nonprofit and faith-based organizations are working to combat this culture.
“We are trying to be part of the effort, part of the equation,” Truman said.
Also present in the conversation are CBF field personnel Butch and Nell Green of Houston, who spearhead anti-trafficking campaigns in cities across Texas. Although slavery is a multi-faceted issue, CBF field personnel focus on two major aspects: sex and labor trafficking. Sex slavery is found in various forms across Texas, from brothels and cantinas to massage parlors.
“In Houston, there are more illicit massage parlors than there are Starbucks stores,” Nell Green said.
The Greens partner with numerous faith-based and nonprofit organizations working to stop trafficking. At the recent summit in Katy, they networked with organizations including Free the Captives, Restore One, Elijah Rising, In Our Backyard, The Landing, Freedom Place and Houston’s South Main Baptist Church.
“We think there are these ‘depraved people out there’; yet we bless the industries and the sexual exploitation that brought people to this point,” Green said. “We have to address issues of gender and poverty. We must address racism.”
According to Green, a recent incident in Houston highlighted how racism and socioeconomic issues play into trafficking.
“Not too long ago, a white girl from a middle class family was trafficked, and the entire city erupted, trying to find this girl,” Green said. “She was rescued; but how often does this happen when the victims are black and Latina girls and no one says anything?”
Green said immigration and exploitative systems are also factors.
“We must look at the systems forcing people into this life. We must realize the Latina girl matters as much as the white girl,” she said.
Green works with Houston nonprofits including Elijah Rising, which has a museum on the history of sex trafficking abolition. Green brings groups through the Museum of Modern Day Slavery, housed in a former brothel, to give participants a visual idea of what is taking place. According to its website, the museum is the only one in the nation “dedicated to exposing the brutal realities of sexual slavery and exploitation.”
She also works in the area of hotel outreach during large events like the Superbowl, providing educational resources for hotels where trafficking survivors may be taken against their will. Green relies on partnerships with groups like In Our Backyard and The Landing for hotel and street outreach.
Green explained that sex trafficking is an issue that should be combatted through partnership and the revaluation of societal attitudes.
“If we allow rape culture and sexual exploitation to exist, we are creating a culture where this will continue happening,” Green said.
According to Truman, sex trafficking is a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is a sexualized society. “Rape culture is dominant,” he said.
Grover agrees, noting that societal attitudes only fuel the issue.
“We have to see all the ways we’ve permitted human trafficking to be,” Grover said. “Everyone wants to go and rescue these girls, but we’re fine with sayings like ‘boys will be boys.”‘
She frames the problem as a public health issue.
“I say, ‘Only you can stop trafficking.’ People seeing the message “Each person can survey his or her life and circumstances, including our computer habits,” Truman said. “We can talk to our elected officials.”
Although Truman acknowledges that the issue is massive, he said that more organizations are joining the conversation.
“If you survey organizations across the spectrum, most groups didn’t exist three to five years ago,” he said. “We can’t say we are winning, but we are not ceding this fight.”
Grover agreed: “We have to stand up and say no; we will not stand for this [sexually exploitive culture].”
Another aspect of the issue is labor trafficking, a problem that often takes a backseat in social justice conversations, which focus heavily on sex trafficking. However the International Labor Organization estimates “there are 14.2 million people trapped in forced labor in industries including agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing.”
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by the Polaris Project, received reports of more than 4,800 labor trafficking cases inside the United States. These are the ones documented; thousands of cases may never be reported.
In a study from the Urban Institute, out of 122 closed cases of labor trafficking, 71 percent of the labor trafficking survivors in the study entered the United States on lawful visas, according to Polaris. These survivors paid an average of $6,150 in recruitment fees for jobs in the United States.
Although trafficking survivors may come to Texas from Mexico or Central America, Green cautioned that people from all demographics need assistance.
“Survivors do not always look like we expect,” Green said. “They can be from other parts of the world including Asian and Eastern Bloc countries.”
Polaris Project states on its website that “U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, women, men, children and LGBTQ individuals can be victims of labor trafficking. Vulnerable populations are frequently targeted by traffickers. Immigration status, recruitment debt, isolation, poverty and a lack of strong labor protections are just some of the vulnerabilities that can lead to labor trafficking.”
Many U.S. household goods and services depend on forced labor. According to Polaris Project, “The U.S. Department of Labor has identified 136 goods from 74 countries made by forced and child labor.”
Green works with various partners in “gateway cities” – cities along the Texas-Mexico border such as Presidio, Eagle Pass and Laredo — and “destination cities” — major cities where people are brought including Houston, Dallas and Austin.
Some organizations along the border have limited resources, so Green works to provide networking and assets.
“I’m really good about saying ‘let’s get together and talk about this and see what we can do,”‘ she said.
Green works to help organizations in various ways, including:
- Providing training
- Education through “Human Trafficking 101” classes
- Making sure people know about the national human trafficking hotline
- Working with Mexican consulates
- Asset-mapping in border cities such as Laredo
The Greens work with various groups including three partners in Houston as well as numerous churches and a half dozen organizations and government entities, which include the city of Houston and the Mexican consulate.
Green has transitioned from leader to adviser. Her goal is to equip people in various meaningful efforts. She aims to educate, provide resources and network.
“I am fulltime; I get to devote my life to this,” Green said. “But there are things any person can do.”
Green suggested several steps people may take including tweeting and calling representatives about key trafficking issues, notifying the human trafficking hotline if they see something suspicious and joining an outreach project with a local nonprofit. Green also cautioned people to examine their own outlooks on race, immigration, poverty and pornography, as well as their spending habits.
“We must examine our own racist thoughts and what we think about poverty. We must acknowledge the inextricable link between pornography and human trafficking,” Green said.
She maintained that although the issue is multifaceted, the average person can have an impact.
“Most of us aren’t paying attention to it, but we must perk up our ears and take note and say we won’t accept it,” Green said.
“Everyone has a voice about what we say is acceptable.”
One of the first steps is education. According to the Polaris Project, the following are signs of possible trafficking:
Common Work and Living Conditions. The individual(s) in question:
- Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
- Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
- Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp/manager
- Is unpaid, paid very little or paid only through tips
- Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
- Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
- Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
- Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
- Works of lives where high security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
Poor Mental Health of Abnormal Behavior:
- Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense or nervous/paranoid
- Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
- Avoids eye contact
Poor Physical Health:
- Lacks health care
- Appears malnourished
- Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical constraint, confinement or torture
Lack of Control:
- Has few or no personal possessions
- Is not in control of his/her own money; has no financial records or bank account
- Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or Passport)
- Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (A third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
- Claims of “just visiting” and inability to clarify where he/she is staying
- Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or does not know what city he/she is in
- Loss of sense of time
- Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story
This list is not exhaustive and represents only a selection of possible indicators. Also, the red flags in this list may not be present in all trafficking cases and are not cumulative. Learn more at humantraffickinghotline.org. To request help or to report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1.888.373.7888, or text HELP to BeFree (233733).