Features

The lure of a better life: Human trafficking in the Bay Area
January 11th, 2012
By Liz Dossa


“You are a useless house girl.”


The sentence echoed daily in Sarah’s ears. Her employer, a Kenyan woman, had brought Sarah (not her real name) from Nairobi to the San Francisco Bay Area to take care of the woman’s toddler and her house. Sarah, in her 20s, had believed life would be better in the United States. There was no food in her village. She worked cleaning houses in Nairobi to support her small daughter and her parents. When her employer asked her to come with her to the United States, Sarah felt a leap of hope.


“I was convinced life would be good. When we landed at the San Francisco airport, everything looked so beautiful,” she told an audience of Burlingame Mercy sisters in 2005.


The cruel reality was that Sarah had been labor trafficked by the Kenyan employer, brought here to work as a household slave, imprisoned by threats of harm to her family back home if she didn’t obey. Her employer took her passport and told her that her pay of $50 per month would accumulate toward paying her ticket home. She was not to go out alone or to speak to anyone.


Sarah’s story is one of a pattern which many believe is the largest international criminal operation after drugs. Because victims like Sarah are so well hidden, statistics of human trafficking are difficult to verify. The U.S. State Department estimates that each year more than 600,000 men, women, and children are brought across international borders for both forced labor and sexual exploitation mainly from Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, and more than 14,000 are trafficked into the United States.


“We in the San Francisco Bay Area are one of the largest receiving areas with our borders and coasts,” said Sister of the Holy Family Caritas Foster, who has dedicated her ministry for four years to educating the public on trafficking. “The fallacy is that anyone illegal comes in through our southern borders,” she said. “Transnationals come into our state at our airports and docks. The lure of a better life is powerful.”


Sister Caritas is tireless in telling the powerful story of people often hidden in plain sight, working in restaurants, nursing homes and even private homes. She has spoken to Rotary clubs, Soroptimist groups and parishes, describing the power that traffickers hold over the workers they have brought to the area. They take away the workers’ documents and threaten them with deportation. Isolated by their lack of English and often prohibited from ever leaving their work site, many victims have no idea where they are.


In 2000 the U.S. government first recognized trafficking as a crime with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The law funds identification and support of victims through coalitions of law enforcement, the courts and nonprofit organizations. The act is up for reauthorization, and Congress has not yet acted on it.


In 2007 the U.S Bishops Committee on Migration called trafficking “a horrific crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person.”


Women religious in the Bay Area have been working quietly for years on trafficking. Some have housed victims as they made slow steps toward gaining the protection of a visa designating them as trafficked immigrants. The sisters asked that neither they nor the location of the housing be identified: Traffickers are ruthless in trying to regain control of their victims and could harm their protectors as well.


A note of hope is that the Holy Family Sisters Caritas and Elaine Marie Sanchez are part of a new Cross Bay Collaborative, funded six months ago by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The organization Standing Against Global Exploitation in San Francisco applied for a grant partnering Alameda district attorneys, Newcomers Health Program SF, Bay area Women Against Rape and the sisters. The groups work together to train providers of services, educate people about trafficking and ultimately identify more victims.


Many skills are needed to help trafficking victims. “We need to be patient, continue to work together and partner,” said Caritas.”We must realize (the solution) is going to take a long time.”


Sarah’s case contained a surprising twist. She begged her employer to allow her to go to church, where she pleaded with a priest for help. He called on Sister of Mercy Marilyn Lacey, then Catholic Charities’ director of immigration and refugee services in San Jose. With their encouragement, Sarah ran away from her employer.


Sister Marilyn found a shelter for Sarah and connected her with social services and legal counsel, then referring her case to the justice department for an application for a visa giving her protected status and support as a trafficking victim. With the generous support of a local volunteer who paid for her professional training, Sarah eventually became a medical technician, and her daughter is with her, doing well in school.


An ironic twist is Marilyn’s discovery that Sarah’s abusive employer was on a fellowship at a local university – in the field of human rights.

 

From January 13, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.