Friday, October 10, 2003

Chris Fiscus

Arizona a hub for human trafficking

They might work in massage parlors or restaurants, factories or fields. They could be nannies or maids. They may be from south of the border or the Far East, eastern Europe or Africa.

They are victims of human trafficking, a modern day form of slavery still practiced across the country, and in Arizona.

But local police, faith-based groups, non-profits, social service agencies and everyday citizens have joined efforts to help. They created a small group fueled by passion for change, and a three-year federal grant worth about $1 million.

"It's going to have a huge impact. Most people aren't aware slavery still exists in this country," said Melynda Barnhart, a local attorney and a program specialist for the new group, called "ALERT."

If successful, she said, the public will realize the trafficking problem exists and the group will create a situation "where more victims can be freed."

ALERT, or the Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking, has established a hotline for victims to call. Victims also can turn to the group for emergency shelter and food, medical and mental health services, translators and legal aid, and other services.

The FBI and other agencies already have referred victims to the group, Barnhart said, adding, "We know there's a problem here."

Some trafficking victims are brought across the border against their will. Others agree to go under false pretenses, then are taken away to other states and often placed in forced labor or in servitude for a debt they could never work off.

The U.S. government estimates that about 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. for forced labor each year.

Because of Arizona's proximity to the Mexican border, and because crackdowns along the border in Texas and California push others to cross into Arizona, the state is a key part of the human pipeline.

Once in Arizona, trafficking victims often are taken east to states such as Florida and New York. There already have been documented cases in both states where victims said they met their traffickers in Arizona.

"We just happen to be a hub. We happen to be part of the train," said Will Gonzalez, an assistant city prosecutor for Phoenix, and one of those working with the group. "They do swing through here on the circuit."

It's not smuggling, where people pay a price to willingly cross the border and then are on their own once they arrive; it's forced labor through trafficking.

Current victims being helped by the group declined to be interviewed.

But a recent case with Arizona ties illustrates the state's role in the pipeline.

The Justice Department last year indicted six people in Buffalo N.Y., on charges of forced labor, conspiracy and trafficking in human beings. The case involves more than three dozen Mexican men and boys who were recruited in Arizona to work on farms near Buffalo.

According to published reports, the men and boys were placed in a van with no seats and windows that could not be opened when transported. Once there, workers could not leave until they paid $1,000 each for the trip, plus rent and food. The workers say they were virtual prisoners, and some said they were paid as little as $30 a week for 60 hours of work.

ALERT's goal is to provide a way out. Part of the effort is to find local victims through the hotline and by spreading the word in Arizona communities. Also, when a trafficking ring is broken in other states, some victims may be brought here either because of relatives in Arizona or to get a fresh start.

The victims may be able to get a special kind of visa and remain in the United States legally. They also may be eligible for benefits and services similar to what is received by refugees, Barnhart said.

The challenge of reaching victims, though, is sizable.

They are quickly shuffled from city to city, coast to coast. They also often fear authorities because traffickers threaten to harm the victims' relatives if they go to the police. It's also a challenge for police to distinguish between trafficking and smuggling.

"Are they being brought here, or being held hostage?" said Gonzalez.

"We don't have any slavery issues in America — that's what the perception is," he added. "People just don't realize it's out there, human trafficking or human slavery."

Locally, ALERT isn't the only hope for making a dent in the problem. Multiple law enforcement agencies are meeting to share information about human trafficking.

And some lawmakers plan in January to propose a bill that would research the scope of Arizona's problem.

Reach the reporter at, or at (602) 444-7942.

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Created: November 24, 2003
Last modified: January 13, 2004
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