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Forced labor in America: Thousands of workers are being held against their will

Victims of labor trafficking are often invisible to the public.
Victims of labor trafficking are often invisible to the public.
David Turnley/Getty

There are thousands of immigrants working in forced labor in the United States — lured into the country by false promises and then trapped or threatened by their employers so that they're unable to leave.

Here's how it happens: a person in Mexico or the Philippines, for example, finds out about an opportunity in the United States through a friend or relative. An employer is offering a nursing job that comes with a green card — so long as the immigrant pays many thousands of dollars in fees and puts her family in debt.

By the time the immigrant arrives in the United States, she finds out most of what she's been told is a lie. Instead of a green card, she receives a restrictive, temporary work visa. Instead of nursing, she'll be working as a domestic servant. Her passport and work papers are locked away, she's not allowed to leave the house, and money is taken out of her paycheck for housing and food. Her employers remind her that if she tries to run away, they'll make sure she gets deported.

Cases like these are surprisingly common in the United States — although no one knows exactly how many people are affected. Researchers have estimated that there are thousands of forced laborers in agriculture alone. But labor trafficking is widespread in other industries too, including domestic labor, construction, restaurants, and hotels. And the victims can come from all around the world. Some even have graduate degrees.

The issue gets little attention from the government. Law-enforcement officials and policymakers pay a lot of attention to sex trafficking, but they focus less on men and women who are being forced, intimidated, or defrauded into staying in exploitative jobs. That makes it easy for unscrupulous employers to keep workers locked up and hidden away — particularly immigrants who don't speak English and can be threatened with the loss of their legal status.

But researchers are working to answer the question of where labor trafficking is happening in America, and who its victims are. A 2014 report from the Urban Institute and Northeastern University offers a detailed look at how labor trafficking works. Drawing on the records of hundreds of survivors who managed to escape, the report explains how traffickers force immigrants into labor through threats, debt, and restriction of movement.

How traffickers lure immigrants to the US — and force them to work

plane takeoff

By the time a victim's plane arrives in the US, she's often thousands of dollars in debt. (Matthew Johnson/Urban Institute)

The Urban Institute report makes it clear that labor traffickers overwhelmingly target immigrants. All 122 victims in the study was either an immigrant who'd been brought overseas by a trafficker or lured into forced labor after arriving in the US. (The traffickers themselves are either employers or third parties hired to recruit immigrants overseas.)

It makes sense that immigrants would be a particularly vulnerable population — they're less likely to know their rights in the United States and less likely to speak English well enough to communicate with outsiders. And it's not just unauthorized immigrants: the report found that 71 percent of victims of forced and coerced labor actually had legal visas when they arrived in the US.

Traffickers frequently use the workers' legal status as a way to manipulate them. In order to get the job in the first place, the immigrant has to pay a trafficker exorbitant fees — ostensibly in order to get US work papers. This forces the would-be workers to put themselves, and often their families, in serious debt.

And once workers arrive in the United States, they realize just how difficult it will be to pay off that debt. Not only were the workers being paid less than they were initially promised, but money was being deducted from their paychecks for things like housing and food — leaving very little left over.

Traffickers often used the workers' immigration status as both a carrot and a stick. Many traffickers told their victims they'd be able to get green cards soon if they stayed — which would allow them not only to stay in the US permanently, but to leave their current positions and take better jobs. But if workers complained about their conditions, or considered escape, employers could threaten them with deportation.

Many domestic workers are trapped and isolated

Domestic worker forced labor

Domestic workers are the most common victims of labor trafficking in America. (A. Khemka/International Labour Organisation)

Once the workers are in the United States, their movements are typically tightly controlled by their employers. Sixty-one percent of victims either lived with their traffickers or in housing that was provided by traffickers. Some victims were guarded, and weren't allowed to leave their housing or workplaces without supervision.

More than one-third of victims in the Urban Institute report were working as domestic servants, the most common job by far. These domestic servants typically lived with their employers, which meant they could be completely controlled and even isolated from the outside world.

Many trafficking victims simply weren't allowed to leave the houses of the families employing them. One was forced to hide in a secret closet whenever guests came.

Because workers were so completely isolated, it was easier for their traffickers to engage in physical abuse without being noticed. One victim was told, "If we killed you, who would know?" In another case, the family washed their food after they ate it, so their domestic servant wouldn't be able to eat their scraps.

The report also notes that not all domestic workers were lured to the United States unwittingly. In some cases, families from abroad forced their existing domestic workers to come with them when they moved to the United States — another form of trafficking.

Trafficking is also widespread in the farm and hotel industries

Hotel Worker Atlantic City

(Spencer Pratt/Getty)

Trafficking also appears to be widespread in other industries that heavily employ immigrants, including agriculture, construction, restaurants, and hotels. Their movements can't be as restricted as domestic servants' can, but they're often controlled pretty tightly. And they're usually kept in terrible living conditions — one worker was fed two meals a day of instant ramen for two months, with no medical care.

In these industries, workers often aren't as isolated. But employers use threats or lies to keep workers from speaking out about their conditions. According to the report, traffickers would warn victims that they knew where their families lived and would go after them. At other times, workers were held captive by a false promise — a trafficker would lie and say a green card was coming any day now. One employer even set up a fake website to let workers check the status of green-card applications that had never been filed.

As a result, many workers in these industries don't speak out, even though they work side by side with non-trafficked workers. In one hotel, trafficking victims were woken up each morning for work by their colleagues, who saw their living conditions — but the colleagues never asked about the arrangement or their treatment.

Traffickers use threats of deportation to keep workers living in fear

Immigrant shoes boarding plane

"I don't want to be illegal." (John Moore/Getty)

Many workers in these exploitative jobs remained out of fear of losing their legal status and being deported. As the report notes, deportation would mean these workers have to return to their families and face the shame of not paying off their debts. And employers were good at exploiting that fear. As one trafficking survivor said, "I could run away, but I don't want to run away. Because I don't want to be illegal."

Many traffickers kept control of workers' passports or work papers. When one woman asked for her passport, her employer said she'd be killed on the street if she left — and retaliated by giving her no food for four days. In some cases, traffickers deliberately let their victims' work visas expire. Often, traffickers would threaten to report workers to immigration authorities if they complained about their conditions.

Meanwhile, some traffickers used lack of immigration status as an excuse to withhold vital services from immigrants. One woman got a poison ivy rash while mowing a lawn for her employer, and her traffickers refused to let her seek medical assistance for two weeks. She finally ran away in order to go to the hospital for treatment.

Labor trafficking victims face a terrible choice between staying and being exploited, or leaving and being deported. And that choice is a real one. In the US, a work visa only authorizes an immigrant to work for a particular employer for the length of the visa. If the immigrant worker quits his or her job, the visa is null and void — and the worker becomes unauthorized.

The threats and coercion used by traffickers in the cases documented in the Urban Institute report were illegal, but an employer's fundamental control over a worker's legal status is just how the system works.

There are ways for workers to escape, but even lawyers often don't know them


Legally, an immigrant victim of labor trafficking can be protected after leaving her trafficker. Trafficking victims can qualify for T visas if they work with law enforcement to go after their traffickers. And while a T visa is being processed, an immigrant can get an administrative waiver for "continued presence" in the US, which allows the immigrant to work legally as well.

But very few people understand how these statuses work, and the report shows that's a huge problem for immigrant victims. Many trafficking survivors lived underground for months, or years, after escaping before they got in touch with service providers. In the meantime, some of them tried to get help from immigration attorneys. But many attorneys aren't familiar with the visa for trafficking victims. In at least one case, the report notes, an attorney recommended that an immigrant who didn't qualify for asylum apply for it anyway — but didn't mention the visa designed for people in his position.

So even though 71 percent of the victims in the Urban Institute report had come to the United States as legal immigrants, 69 percent of them were unauthorized immigrants by the time they were put in touch with service providers.

Law enforcement doesn't help victims and sometimes sides with traffickers

ICE officer putting on his SWAT gear Getty Images

In order to get legal status, unauthorized immigrants who've been victims of trafficking have to go through law enforcement or immigration authorities. If they want a T visa, they have to get a law enforcement official to agree to investigate their traffickers. And if they want a temporary "continued presence" grant, they have to ask an immigration official for it.

But the Urban Institute report shows that law-enforcement officials are pretty skeptical of "illegal" immigrants who claim to have been victimized. When police get called to traffickers' houses or workplaces, for example, they often trust traffickers over victims. In one case, a farmer shot at a trafficked farmworker who was trying to escape. When the police came, they arrested the farmworker for being an unauthorized immigrant.

So the only option for trafficking victims to get legal status after their escape might be cut off based on the biases or whims of an immigration or law enforcement official. One attorney said that she'd only ever seen one immigrant pass an interview for a waiver — after which the immigration official told the attorneys that "he sounds really coached" (something officials say when they think attorneys are helping an immigrant cheat the system). And one victim of trafficking encountered an official who didn't believe labor trafficking happened in America:

"The immigration officer is like, 'Why did you overstay here?' Like, he treat me like I commit...a felony. And I'm like, 'Well, the situation asked for it. I am a victim of trafficking.'

"He's like, 'That's not true. It's not happening in the US.'"

Focusing on sex trafficking has hurt labor trafficking victims

Immigrant maids

It took a high-profile sexual assault case to bring attention to immigrant maids' working conditions. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

In fairness to law enforcement officers, labor trafficking is incredibly difficult to prove. Typically it's a he-said, she-said situation between the immigrant and the employer. And most of the accomplices — the recruiters, or the third-party companies that set workers up with American employers — are in faraway countries.

Also, many law-enforcement agencies don't think of labor trafficking as that important. "It keeps getting bumped down on the priority list," one law enforcement official said to the authors of the Urban Institute report.

One reason for that? Law enforcement agencies have been putting increasing effort into catching sex trafficking in recent years — but they figure sex trafficking cases tie up all their anti-trafficking resources, and they have neither the resources nor the desire to take on labor trafficking on top of that.

That's a reasonable decision from a law-enforcement standpoint. But the lack of attention paid to labor trafficking can make it harder for survivors to find their way after their escape. Disinterest from law enforcement takes away the best option for legal status that immigrant victims have — they can't get T visas without law enforcement officials agreeing that they'll cooperate in an investigation. And without the ability to sue their traffickers — which most pro bono attorneys aren't willing to take the time to do — they can't get back pay or compensation for their abuse.

It can even be hard for survivors to find a place to stay. One service provider told the report's authors that sometimes, she could find a place for women survivors in domestic-violence shelters or shelters for sex trafficking victims. But half of the victims in the report were men, and there are no such resources for them.

The first steps toward a solution: getting officials to notice labor trafficking when it's right in front of them

Construction worker (Matthew Johnson/Urban Institute)

Another common industry for trafficking? Construction work. (Matthew Johnson/Urban Institute)

As hard as it is for police or attorneys to prove that someone was engaging in labor trafficking, the Urban Institute documents plenty of cases when officials should have recognized that something was going on. Embassy officials who found out that victims couldn't read the paperwork they'd signed could have denied the visa — instead, they just told the trafficker to read the paper to the victim. One embassy official even gave a victim an anti-trafficking pamphlet, but when the victim said her trafficker would take it from her, the embassy official didn't recognize what was happening. She just gave the victim an extra pamphlet instead.

In the US, victims often crossed paths with workplace inspectors who were more interested in the conditions of the livestock than the laborers or who just didn't talk to workers at all. And when victims called 911, police often believed the traffickers' side of the story and ignored the person who'd actually made the call.

In all of these cases, if officials were paying a little more attention to labor trafficking — or even just to strange behavior — they might have been able to rescue victims and build a stronger case against traffickers. But right now, victims are their own best hopes for escape. And once survivors escape on their own, it's hard to prove they've ever been victims.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that 63 percent of victims were unauthorized by the time they connected with service providers. The study actually found that 69 percent were unauthorized by that point. The article has been updated to reflect the correct number, and we apologize for the error.

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