The Hidden Indentured Class

AP Images/New Mexico Attorney General's Office

Anna and her husband were supposed to be in the U.S. on their honeymoon. They arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in the spring of 2007 and found Daniel waiting for them with a sign bearing their names. Daniel was an acquaintance, someone Anna’s father-in-law—who lived in Houston—knew through church. He had offered to show them parts of Southern California before they continued on to Texas. It was an attractive detour for a Southeast Asian couple in the U.S. for the first time.

From the airport, they drove to a restaurant for dinner and met some of Daniel’s family—a stop that felt warm and welcoming since they were all from the same country originally. “He was really nice and since we don’t know anybody—and we came from the same country,” Anna recalls, “that’s why we trusted to go with him.”

But then, instead of playing tour guide, Daniel brought the couple to an elder-care facility he owned. He told them to work, care and cook for the residents, and clean the facility. But he continued to be relatively kind, and Anna and her husband thought this was a temporary situation: They would help out, and then be on their way. “There was no one else to work there and the residents were old. We knew that we had to do something, even if we didn’t like to,” she says, adding that Daniel and his mother—who ran the facility along with her son—would intimidate Anna and her husband. Anna remembers thinking,The residents were suffering from dementia and schizophrenia, and if we leave them there all by themselves, we will be in trouble with the law.”

She didn’t necessarily think the residents were mistreated; Anna was simply worried about the perception that she and her husband were neglecting a responsibility for people in demonstrable need. It was a patently false impression, but Anna had no way to know as much without trying to escape to find out—and running the risk of being in trouble with the law. Plus: She was pregnant. Running such a risk, in an unfamiliar place, was a scarier prospect than it might have been otherwise.

Anna was also convinced to stay by the older woman’s coercion: “She started telling us, you have to do this because you’re staying here for free and you’re eating. You live here, you work for it.”

The facility had a phone, but it required a code (unbeknownst to Anna) to make outside calls, and Anna had no cell phone. There was no Internet, and the couple could have tried to flee, but they were told the neighborhood was dangerous.

Daniel continued to be kind to the couple; he was able to convince Anna and her husband that he was looking out for them—albeit demanding some serious favors in return. It was only after Anna and her husband’s tourist visas expired that Daniel’s behavior toward them changed from friendly to authoritative and controlling.

Daniel’s misleading statements morphed into ominous threats to keep them from trying to escape. Daniel made sure they knew he owned a gun. “He told us that there were people before who tried to leave him or did not follow his instructions,” Anna says. “He told us that he hurt those people, saying he can kill.”

Anna, now in her thirties, and her husband were victims of human trafficking—labor trafficking, specifically. Like many other trafficking victims, they were not familiar with U.S. laws and did not know where to turn for assistance. They were not beaten into submission. They were not smuggled into the country. And they were not selling sex. But they were profoundly misled. They were forced to work against their will. They were intimidated into thinking escaping would be more dangerous than staying.

Today, the couple remains in the U.S. on T visas, which are reserved for trafficking survivors. Anna has not yet pressed charges against Daniel—she says the FBI still has an open investigation into her case, and it’s not clear whether or not she will ever be able to press charges; the case may have exceeded the statute of limitations. T visas, however, are only issued to people who cooperate with or assist law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking cases.

Anna asked that her real name, her husband’s, and Daniel’s, along with her home country, not be revealed, for fear of retribution; she hasn’t seen Daniel in years now, but because they know some of the same people through church—a church she no longer attends—Daniel has made sure Anna still feels threatened.


The U.S. State Department defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel someone to provide labor or services against his or her will. It’s a formal term for modern slavery. The State Department recognizes two types of trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. It defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services.” On the ground, what that often translates to is foreign-born people—many of whom arrive in the U.S. through legal means—working against their will in industries from agriculture and food service to nail salons and housekeeping. Sometimes they suffer abuse, sometimes they’re told they have a debt to work off, sometimes their documents are withheld.

There are countless estimates of the scale of human trafficking, with some oft-cited numbers including 30 million globally and 20,000 trafficked into the U.S. annually. But none of these figures are verifiable—which is why Maureen McGough, an attorney at the National Institute of Justice, took note of a November 2012 San Diego State University study that found more than 30 percent of unauthorized Spanish-speaking workers surveyed had experienced labor-trafficking conditions. “We think it’s one of the first statistically sound estimates of prevalence in the U.S.,” McGough says.

No reliable statistics exist regarding trafficking victims’ countries of origin, but some anti-trafficking advocates have noticed that non-U.S. citizens tend to be trafficked more for labor, while U.S. citizens fall prey more often to sex trafficking. In the San Diego study, construction, food processing, cleaning services, and landscaping were the top four sectors rife with trafficking violations.

People in the U.S., if they’ve heard of human trafficking at all, tend to be more familiar with sex trafficking: It is more often prosecuted, featured in the news, and the target of publicity campaigns. But the disproportionate focus on sex trafficking detracts resources from labor-trafficking victims—and takes a direct emotional toll, as well. “If you have someone who is being trafficked, and they hear or see a story about human trafficking and all that story talks about is sex,” says Avaloy Lanning, anti-trafficking program director at the New York-based nonprofit Safe Horizon, “[if the] victim doesn’t fit that mold, then you don’t know you’re a victim of trafficking. You don’t see yourself in that, and you don’t know that there’s help for you.”

The other danger, she says, is that “it places a stigma on them that they didn’t ask for. If they talk to their families back home, and they say they’ve been trafficked, then their families think that they’ve been doing sex work.”

In late July, a child sex-trafficking crackdown resulted in 152 arrests across the country. It was the seventh sweep conducted under the FBI’s ongoing Innocence Lost initiative. “You don’t see the same sorts of stings necessarily happening with regards to labor trafficking—FBI, local law enforcement going into local farms or places where they suspect that there are victims of labor trafficking,” says James Dold, senior policy counsel for the nonprofit Polaris Project, which operates a national hotline for trafficking victims and has lobbied for stronger federal and state anti-trafficking laws.

A 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that between January 2008 and June 2010, task forces with federal funding opened more than 2,000 human trafficking investigations; 82 percent of these were focused on sex trafficking. However, between January 2008 and June 2009, the report also surveyed organizations that work with trafficking victims and found that just 22 percent of the victims they served had experienced only sex trafficking.  

Sex-trafficking case numbers are almost universally higher than labor ones among local law enforcement agencies—which make up part of the task forces—largely because there are already established vice units dedicated to crimes like prostitution, and officers in these units are more likely to come into contact with sex trafficking. Labor trafficking is often more hidden from view and can be harder to identify. Most police departments are too strapped for funds to devote more resources and training to labor trafficking. Other problems are geography—labor trafficking is often concentrated in remote rural areas—and more subjective factors, like local or personal views on immigration. A migrant laborer from Mexico, for example, may not receive the sympathy of an officer who already believes in further fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border.

On the federal level, according to a Department of Justice report to Congress, of all the department’s trafficking prosecutions for fiscal year 2011, 24 cases filed by the agency were labor cases, and 101 were sex-trafficking cases. Robert Moossy, criminal section chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, says, however, that imbalance may not reflect the number of trafficking victims actually identified and receiving assistance—such as a T visa, housing support, or Medicaid—because a case is only brought when sufficient evidence exists to prove the charge.

In December 2002, a presidential directive issued by the George W. Bush White House instructed federal agencies to strengthen their efforts to combat trafficking. While the directive—which was classified and has only since been made public in pieces—mentioned all forms of trafficking, it called out sex trafficking in particular, saying that pimping, pandering, and maintaining brothels are dehumanizing and contribute to trafficking in persons.

Under President Obama, anti-trafficking efforts have broadened. “It’s not an explicit directive from the Obama administration to focus more on labor trafficking. I think that he’s just taken a more holistic view of what trafficking is and recognized that trafficking spans all different kinds of industries,” says Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Law School and an expert on trafficking. “That’s kind of why we’ve seen an equalization of numbers in prosecutions for sex versus labor at the federal level.” Time is also on the current administration’s side; the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the first comprehensive federal legislation on trafficking, was passed in 2000, and it took some time for federal agencies to learn what human trafficking looks like and how best to fight it. Moossy adds that the current administration has placed a priority on training labor inspectors to watch out for trafficking—“like vice squads looking for all kinds of violations, so that investigators who are already out there looking for labor violations now know about labor trafficking.”

Some individual agencies are also taking action to correct the imbalance. “There are state and local [agencies] that are setting up separate human trafficking units that are separate from vice units,” McGough says. According to its website, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance currently funds 13 anti-trafficking task forces, which are usually collaborative efforts between law enforcement and the local nonprofits that have more experience working with trafficking victims, around the country. Because human trafficking is so hidden, efforts to estimate its prevalence in different parts of the country are unreliable, but experts believe trafficking exists in every state. Some cities, including Clearwater, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia, and states, such as New York, California, and Texas, have developed strong reputations for their anti-trafficking efforts, but advocates say there’s still a long way to go.

In Ohio, officials recently announced plans to ramp up training on labor trafficking. “When I was looking at the cases that we’d gotten from local law enforcement, it suddenly occurred to me that it was all sex trafficking,” says Melinda Haggerty, director of children’s initiatives for Ohio’s attorney general’s office. “The state law applies equally to labor and sex trafficking, yet local law enforcement hadn’t identified any labor trafficking. It was just a red flag to me that perhaps we should spend a little time focusing specifically on the labor-trafficking aspect.”

While the fights against sex and labor trafficking demand different skills, a law enforcement agency’s focus on sex trafficking lays a foundation for fighting labor trafficking, too. Luis CdeBaca, ambassador for the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, says that even when agencies start out focusing more on sex trafficking, he has noticed the effort ultimately bolsters the fight against all trafficking. “One thing that we have seen around the world is that the folks who end up doing labor cases effectively are the ones who successfully do sex cases, and vice versa,” he says. “But it takes time. Typically, the first stuff that a country or that a jurisdiction will work on is almost invariably sex trafficking.”


At the elder-care facility, Daniel started promising to help Anna and her husband acquire work visas—a not-uncommon trap for trafficking victims that appealed to them because they had just learned that Anna’s father-in-law had incurred debt to help them make the trip to the U.S. They wanted to help pay it off. “He became too rough and started threatening to hurt us and turn us to the police if we don’t follow his orders. He became so controlling,” she says. “We were just patiently waiting for our work visa to come, which it never did.”

As she talks about being controlled by Daniel, Anna fights back tears. “We felt like we’re the lowest animal on earth. The feeling of being controlled, it was so hard, like you had no rights at all,” she says. Avaloy Lanning of Safe Horizon says that’s the common denominator for all trafficking victims, whether they were doing sex work or housekeeping: being wholly controlled by another person is the most difficult part.

About a month into their stay at the California facility, Daniel moved Anna and her husband to another elder-care facility he owned in Texas. He owned five in total—three in California, two in Texas. After a few months there, Anna says she was able to leave because she was about to have her baby—throughout her ordeal she had repeatedly asked to see a doctor. “They told us they will take us,” she says. “I was asking for a checkup because it’s hurting. They never did. I never got the chance to see a doctor.”

So when she started having contractions, Daniel let her go, and she was able to deliver her son in a hospital. “After giving birth, I was allowed to stay in my father-in-law’s house on the condition that my husband will have to stay [at the elder-care facility],” she says, explaining that they cooperated because the threats from Daniel continued.

Anna had no way to know that resources existed specifically for trafficking victims and she was afraid to report to any authorities. But while at her father-in-law’s house, she was able to use a computer and get online, and she came across an article about labor trafficking. “That’s why we had the courage to come out and seek help, because of that article that I read,” she says. “It was similar to our story, so we were able to realize, ‘Oh, so we were victims. So we can get help.’”

Anna called a lawyer who had been featured in the story. Although not local, the lawyer suggested two resources, one of which was Mosaic Family Services, a Dallas nonprofit. Anna’s case manager at Mosaic says that when they first met, Anna was practically falling apart. It took months to build up Anna’s trust to help her access the services available to trafficking victims. Anna remembers thinking, “What did I have to lose—I’m already suffering a lot.”

It’s this sense of trauma that prompts Lanning to call the disproportionate focus on sex trafficking the most frustrating part of her job. “I don’t know how many times a day I say the word ‘labor.’ Nobody wants to hear it,” she says. Anti-trafficking advocates are not looking to diminish the exploitation experienced by girls or women forced into the sex trade. They are simply looking for more resources devoted to all victims of trafficking. “The trauma, whether it’s labor or sex, comes from the same place. It comes from the enslavement,” she says.

Anna’s husband managed to escape about four months after she did. Their son—who was born healthy, though underweight at five pounds—is five now; he doesn’t know yet what his parents went through. Anna says she’ll tell him when the time is right—just as she has told public audiences, in an effort to prevent the same thing from happening to others. (While she doesn’t want to be identified in this story, she has spoken about her experience in safe spaces, such as churches or shelters for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence, with no photos allowed.)

“It’s important for him to understand—like what I tell people in the church. When you go to a restaurant, look beyond the walls because there might be something going on in there,” she says. “People being victimized and trafficked, they can’t talk. They’re being controlled.”

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