For years, Atlanta has been among 14 cities the FBI considers the most booming markets for child prostitutes. But forced servitude in the metro region is hardly limited to the sex trade. Women and children — and sometimes men as well — are made to work without pay in fields, restaurant kitchens and even upper-middle-class homes as domestic servants. The factors that make Atlanta a thriving economic center have also made it a hotbed of human trafficking.
On Aug. 1, a variety of local and federal law enforcement agencies, politicians and nonprofit organizations gathered at Georgia State University to powwow about human trafficking, which has been called a growing problem in the Atlanta area.
How fast it's growing is debatable. As U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates explains, "We've been aggressive in prosecuting here, so it's hard to say if there's really more [instances of human trafficking] here or if we're just uncovering more of it. It's hard to put a precise number on it but, anecdotally, we've seen more and more."
On the local and federal levels, there's been a seemingly successful and well-orchestrated crackdown on what's essentially become a modern-day slave trade — adults and children, citizens and immigrants, being forced to work against their will for no wages. A week before the summit at Georgia State, the departments of Justice, Labor and Homeland Security announced that Atlanta was one of six cities selected to headquarter a new anti-trafficking coordination team. And, following the passage of state legislation giving it investigative and subpoena power, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation formed its own anti-human trafficking unit in July. In the past several months, Yates' office has indicted and/or prosecuted a number of human traffickers, including a man from Marietta who attempted to "purchase" a Guatemalan child for a year of sexual service; a Suwanee woman who lured two young Nigerian women to the U.S. and kept them as domestic slaves; an Ellenwood couple — a preacher and his wife — who forced a young woman from the Kingdom of Swaziland to serve as their housekeeper for two years without pay; and an Atlanta man who pleaded guilty to pimping out young girls on a classified ad website.
The federal penalties for crimes related to human trafficking are stiff. People found guilty of trafficking often spend decades in jail, pay restitution to their victims to the tune of the tens of thousands of dollars and are not eligible for parole. The prosecutions are publicized, but what's seldom discussed is what happens to the victims — particularly those who were brought into the country illegally — after the crime has been discovered. In the aftermath of a human trafficking bust, nonprofit organizations pick up where prosecutions leave off.
In large part, the recent human trafficking summit was intended to raise community awareness. It's a crime that's clandestine in nature and often happens right under the noses of the neighbors and relatives of the perpetrators. (For example, neighbors of the Ellenwood couple who enslaved a domestic servant were "shocked," according to an AJC article, when the allegations came to light in late 2009.) But, says U.S. Attorney Yates, the summit was also intended to serve as a first-of-its-kind networking forum for the many government and nongovernmental agencies that deal with trafficking and its aftermath. As far as she knows, many of the groups that work with the survivors of human trafficking have been operating on parallel paths with little coordination. "It wasn't just about getting together for a day — we formed a real network," Yates says.
Procedurally, most human trafficking cases are investigated by the FBI or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and often in conjunction with the local law-enforcement agencies that might've received the initial tip. The very day a raid takes place, first-responder agencies like Tapestri Inc. — a Tucker-based nonprofit that focuses on assisting noncitizens — mobilize to provide for a victim's immediate needs, like temporary housing, clothing and medical care. Next, groups with legal staff, such as Catholic Charities Atlanta, help victims who are not U.S. citizens acquire visas.
The federal Victim Trafficking Act of 2000 created a channel for victims of human trafficking to obtain temporary immigration documents called T-visas. They're good for four years, and a visa-holder can apply for permanent citizenship after three. The only caveat is that they must agree to cooperate in the prosecution of their perpetrators. Most victims agree to those terms, but occasionally they don't.
Rosa De Kelly of Catholic Charities Atlanta recalls one particularly heartbreaking case in which the victim decided not to cooperate. The young woman, a singer, was brought to the U.S. and was forced to perform without pay. Her three male captors raped her repeatedly. "I think sometimes these people have shame or feel like they need to leave this behind. They're glad they're alive, glad they're free," says De Kelly. "[This girl], she wanted to just leave it behind. So, unfortunately, there was no prosecution."
Based on the number of T-visas handed out each year, a lot of human trafficking cases have continued to go undiscovered or, at least, unprosecuted. The Justice Department estimated in 2005 that between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are trafficked into the country every year — but since 2002, only 4,500 people have applied for T-visas. About 2,300 received them. Although victims of human trafficking are sometimes able to escape and report their forced servitude, Maja (who requested her last name not be used) of the nonprofit Tapestri says fear can prevent them from coming forward. "They fear law enforcement. They've been told by traffickers that they came in illegally and they are afraid they're going to be prosecuted for it, especially the women forced into commercial sexual exploitation — they're afraid they'll be held in jail for a long time," she says. "Many things are going through these people's minds. They don't realize there's relief and help out there for them."
U.S. Attorney Yates says there's a desperate need for additional resources for trafficking survivors in Georgia. Among those needs is bed space. Noncitizen victims of trafficking are often housed, at least temporarily, in domestic abuse shelters, and child victims are often diverted to foster families, who, despite their best intentions, might not be equipped to deal with a trafficking victim's emotional needs. Yates says that until there's widespread public awareness of trafficking, there won't be a demand for the resources.
The odds of preventing human trafficking also come down, in part, to supply and demand. As for catching the individual customers of those sold into sexual servitude, Yates says, "If we catch [these people] in the act, that can be a real deterrent. If there's no demand the girls, they won't be brought here."
The other part of prevention is getting all the involved parties — from law enforcement to prosecutors to the nonprofits — to work together. "We realize we're not going to prosecute our way out of a trafficking problem," says Yates. "We need intervention and coordination with these groups."