It goes on under our noses, in the back rooms of Mexican restaurants, in the basements of tenements, in the farms of the Southern Tier. Human trafficking is a Western New York problem. The violation of basic human rights makes it a Catholic problem.
St. Joseph University Parish hosted the information session, "Human Trafficking: An Introduction to Labor Trafficking," on March 3. Guests Emma Buckthal, an immigration attorney with the Erie County Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Patricia Calleri, special agent with the Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement, answered questions about identifying human trafficking and suggested ways to help stop it.
Buckthal explained that labor trafficking is when a person holds or obtains another person in coerced or forced labor. An employer may threaten to turn a worker over to ICE or withhold wages. There is often restricted movement and/or communication. The worker may get paid, but can't move freely. Often workers live in substandard conditions provided by the employer. The lesser crime of labor exploitation might be a verbally abusive boss, paying less than minimum wage, having occupational health and safety violations, but the victim is not being forced to stay in that situation.
Labor exploitation crosses the line into human trafficking with three key elements: force, fraud and coercion.
"We don't see a ton of force, because it's usually not efficient to chain your trafficked workers to a wall or lock them in a room. They're not productive that way," Buckthal explained. "We see force in the sense of physical violence where people are being hit or physically abused."
She does see a lot of fraud. Employers may promise good wages, a home or free food to potential workers. Once they sign up, workers are kept in line through coercion - being threatened with deportation.
Most victims are paid in cash, so there is no deduction going to taxes or Social Security benefits for the future.
"What they are seeing deductions for though, and it's a really common control tactic, food, rent, rides at absurd rates. Sometimes for really weird things. Our case down in the Southern Tier we had a victim who had the audacity to take a day off, and she was getting major rent deductions. So, when it came time for payday, the trafficker said, 'Hey, you took that day off, so you don't make any money this pay period. In fact, you owe me money.' And payday became pay your boss day."
What can look out for? asked one of the attendees.
"Things that do not smell or feel right is how a lot of my cases start," Buckthal said, recalling one case in the Southern Tier. She stayed with a friend's mother who knew a lot of people in the small town. When Buckthal explained what she did for a living, the woman told her of an immigrant woman she met at church who was living in a basement. That led to an investigation.
Buckthal said her day-to-day work is answering calls from people who see suspicious things. Then she talks to the potential victims.
"One challenge we run into with trust, even with me speaking with potential victims, I'm still a lawyer, which can be kind of scary. I do try to dress down when I meet potential clients, so they perceive me as less of an authority figure," Buckthal explained.
Locals do not present that scary authority presence. "If you start hearing scary things, like fear of the boss, like something is going on with their job or how they got here. That might be the time to use your closeness as a community member to build them up to be able to come anywhere near me, or if they're working with an attorney to know that telling their attorney that information is really, really important," Buckthal explained. "Many victims identify as, 'This is what I signed up for, so I shouldn't complain about it because I knew all the bad things I was agreeing to because I didn't have any other choices.' Many victims also say, 'This is better than what I had at home in my country, so why should I be complaining.' That is a defense many traffickers defense attorneys bring up." Some people may not know what is happening to them is a crime.
Calleri asked those present at the information session to be vigilant to the trafficking issue and report suspected human rights issues, adding that no tip is too small.
"Everything that we get, we look into, because it could be something. If it's nothing, great. We'll move on," she said. "We need the community. We need your eyes and ears to see because we're not everywhere. When we get these tips, we work together. It's not something one agency can do on its own. A successful prosecution and rescue of victims takes the government, the prosecutors, the immigration attorneys, non-government organizations to service the victims to give them rehabilitation into a new life. Whether they're born here or they come here, they are experiencing a life no one should experience."
Trafficking industries commonly take place in hair braiding salons, nail salons, ethnic restaurants - places where there is a lot of work and speaking fluent English is not essential. Often these businesses are owned by someone of same ethnicity.
Someone asked, since most of these workers are undocumented, what happens to them after the trafficker is caught. If the victim has no serious crimes, another agency will be called to help resettle them. Home land Security has a victim's assistant.
"We would never deport a victim in a case. We would find some sort of immigration relief, whether it be through a parole document, a visa. If they don't fit a trafficking visa, we have other options. If they are witnesses in a case, we have different parole document we can give them," Calleri said.
St. Joe's Human Trafficking Awareness Committee meets once a month with the hopes to raise awareness in the community about the issues related to human trafficking and where we can advocate for survivors of human trafficking. They meet the first Tuesday of the month. Everybody is welcome.
"This is the first time I've experienced any information on the subject. So, I thought they did a good job answering questions," said Kathy Tufillaro, a guest. "They did a great job talking about the fact that there is human trafficking in Western New York. I didn't realize that. That was really eye opening."
"I was interested in the law enforcement aspect of it where she shined a light on really what's going on in terms of they're not the bad guys. Law enforcement was there to help," said her husband, Mark.
The Tufillaros from St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville in the invitation of a family member.
"We have three girls so sex trafficking and child trafficking is always on the back of your mind," said Mark.
"You're always trying to keep your family safe. Can you imagine if something like that happened to one of your kids," Kathy added.