The author of a new book on human trafficking tells TCR that victims can be as close as the neighborhood beauty salon or the person who knocks on your door to sell you a cheap bauble. Most of them young women in dire straits, they are easy prey in a largely invisible but spreading form of organized crime in America.
“The perfect crime, that’s what this is.”
When Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco began her research into human trafficking in America she was determined to take readers beyond the Hollywood version in which a determined hero comes to the rescue with guns blazing. “This isn’t the movie Taken,” she said.
“Liam Leeson isn’t going to show up in a black Audi to rescue his innocent victim daughter from gun-wielding Albanian mobsters.”
Instead, in her forthcoming book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” she makes clear the problem is both more complicated and more nuanced—and needs a number of different policy tools to deal with what she describes as a “clandestine activity, hidden within the commercial sex industry that has flourished in our country for decades.”
Mehlman-Orozco, who holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, and has testified as a human trafficking expert witness, discussed her book, which will be published by Praeger/ABC-Clio this year, with TCR’s Megan Hadley.
The Crime Report: Is there a human trafficking epidemic in the country—perhaps equal to the drug epidemic?
Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco: Experts say human trafficking is the fastest growing organized crime in the world. So if you’re looking at the rates of organized crime, it was the sale of drugs, sale of guns, then sale of people. But human trafficking has surpassed all as a criminal enterprise.
It’s a win-win for traffickers because they have a plausible alibi by suggesting their victims were consenting, and the penalties are very low in that case. If you’re looking at something low-risk for human enterprise, trafficking is that. Criminals see that, they know that, so they are turning to trafficking of persons as a cornerstone to committing crimes. The perfect crime, that’s what this is. There’s little liability in the court system and the monetary gain is so high that you’re having criminal enterprises taking this approach to how they fund other criminal activities.
TCR: Did you ever encounter any human trafficking victims who did not want your help or were in denial about their circumstances?
Mehlman-Orozco: We usually see victims that are manipulated to such a degree they do not see themselves as being exploited. They develop a trauma bond with the offender and it’s difficult for them to see their exploitation for what it is.
Editor’s Note: In her book, Orozco defines the trauma bond as a strong emotional attachment between the abused and abuser, which helps maintain victim compliance and inhibits the ability for successful prosecution by undermining the credibility of the victim.
Rescues usually do not happen overnight. They occur through gaining trusting relationships. But developing trust with victims is hard. Re-victimization is very prevalent. But in the long term, every victim I have encountered hit a point where they start questioning the lies they are being told, and they will ask for help and be receptive towards receiving help.
TCR: You write in the book, “Human trafficking is a crime because people value money over human life.” Please explain.
Mehlman-Orozco: It’s a combination of money and public accolade. The current purposed legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2016, is a symbolic victory for political leaders. What matters to them is that passing legislation looks good, but it will actually make the crime more clandestine.
The public won’t see advertisements as much, giving them the perception that it was a success even though there was no data to say it worked. In actuality, it will be harmful and reduce saving victims. I (argue) that if a buyer can find it, we can find it as well, and use it as catalyst for rescues and arrest. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found that 73% of trafficking cases occur on backpage.com, and they use that to say backpage.com is the root cause of trafficking.
But correlation does not equal causation.We are seeing that 73% because it is the most well-known place sex is shown.
TCR: What kind of human trafficking signs (both sex trafficking and labor trafficking) should your everyday person be looking for?
Mehlman-Orozco: All of us encounter slavery in our day-to-day lives and it’s important to discern when you do encounter victims. For example, people in the service industry. If you encounter someone in the beauty industry who said they haven’t gotten paid, these things raise concerns. It could further a conversation (that can enable you to) to find out this person is in an exploitive situation. Or if you encounter a door-to-door salesperson, traveling with 15 other kids living in the same hotel room, these are red flags.
We do know that trafficking can happen in these industries. Wherever you work or whoever you are in life, try to understand the type of trafficking that you are most likely to encounter. If you work at a hotel, understand the red flags for sex trafficking. Work with management to get training from credential professionals and understand other ways in which you could intervene for the safety of yourself and the potential victim.
TCR: Given the trauma that human trafficking survivors will experience throughout their life, how can organizations help re-integrate and support survivors?
Mehlman-Orozco: First and foremost, any organization that is receiving funding to help victims needs to receive training that meets a level of standards on trauma-informed care. Right now there is no standard, and organizations can receive funds and provide services without being trained on the complex needs of the survivors.
Consequently, they can provide harmful services. Other things that should be considered: There should be a third party external evaluation on their outcomes. Where are their survivors going? Are they returning to trafficking and being re-victimized? Those outcome needs to be documented and currently they are not.
One of the victims I worked with described it as swinging a baseball bat halfway… you need to follow through with care. Given the complex needs of most victims, one organization may not be the total provider. Right now there’s lots of competition for the same set of funds, so each organization wants to portray itself as an organization that can do everything.
The answer lies within partnerships and collaborations, which should receive funding over single organizations that claim they can do everything.
TCR: You write, “U.S Legislators should continue efforts to address the socioeconomic factors that contribute to the motivation of offenders and targeting of victims.” What do you believe is the underlying issue here?
Mehlman-Orozco: It’s important to look at the root cause of trafficking and understand that while we do see persons of lower socioeconomic status brought into the trafficking situation, everyone in society can be a target. We all have certain needs that need to be met, and this is how traffickers trap their victims. First, we are searching for food, shelter, water, and safety. After safety we are seeking love, belonging and esteem, and that is what a trafficker is likely to fulfill.
You see a lot of faux relationships being used and traffickers provide those needs temporarily to control their victims. That’s a key piece.
TCR: What is the difference between a consenting sex worker and a sex victim?
Mehlman-Orozco: Often, a victim of sex trafficking is mistaken for a consenting sex worker. They look exactly identical. But in the way we handle each crime, they are supposed to be helped. Yet consenting sex workers are treated as criminals. That’s why we see police criminalizing victims of trafficking. Consenting sex workers have been victimized at some point in their lives, or they are victimized during the course of their sex work. Consenting sex workers will say, ‘I am doing this in order to survive and feed my family, and the alternative is homelessness and not being able to live sustainably.'”
I advocate for de-criminalization, not legalization. I don’t want sex trade to be legal, but we shouldn’t go after sex workers, who are highly likely to have been victimized. By doing that, we empower victims to come forward to law enforcement and admit it instead of hiding in the shadows and being fearful. The better approach is to discern whether they are victims or not.
Not arrest them, but get them into other systems so they can see they can live a sustainable life without the sex industry.
TCR: In the book you describe police officers blatantly ignoring sex workers, who may also be victims. Why are police turning a blind eye to this problem?
Mehlman-Orozco: The police make short-term arrests that don’t lead to a conviction and they become jaded and frustrated towards the criminal justice process. It takes a lot of work to take someone out of a trafficked situation and get them to successfully testify against their traffickers. It’s very rare. There is also a misconception that all the women are consenting. It’s the assumption that everyone there is not in chains and doesn’t look distraught, so police officers take it at face value.
Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.