News/US: Federal task force seeks to root out involuntary servitude

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Subject: News/US: Federal task force seeks to root out involuntary servitude
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Tue Jul 13 1999 - 10:09:45 EDT


Federal task force seeks to root out involuntary servitude
People held in bondage in U.S. may number in thousands
By AMY DRISCOLL, Herald Staff Writer
Miami Herald, Sunday, July 11, 1999

   In California, 80 Thai workers were discovered in slave-like conditions
-- smuggled into the country, held in a garment sweatshop, forced to work
long hours and held behind razor wire at night.

   In New York, 50 Mexicans -- all deaf -- were ordered by their smugglers
to sell pencils and trinkets in subways and on street corners for 12 hours
at a time. Those who didn't bring in enough money were beaten and their
families threatened.

   And in Florida, law enforcement officials exposed a Mexican sex-slavery
ring that forced at least 27 women into prostitution.

   Welcome to America, land of the free.

   Ten cases of modern-day slavery -- involving about 150 victims --
prompted the creation last year of the National Worker Exploitation Task
Force, a joint effort between the U.S. departments of Justice and Labor to
eradicate the shadowy business of trafficking in humans.

   ``It's amazing to me that in the final days of the 20th century, we have
people held in slavery in this country,'' said Tom Scott, U.S. attorney for
the Southern District, whose office prosecuted the Florida case along with
the Justice Department. ``That such brutal conditions could exist today --
unbelievable!''

   No one knows exactly how many people are trafficked into this country,
held in slave-like conditions and forced to work, but some Justice
Department officials say the number is in the thousands.

   ``We formed the task force because we had anecdotal information
suggesting that this was a problem much larger than just the cases we
already knew about,'' said Bill Lann Lee, acting U.S. assistant attorney
general for civil rights. ``We're talking about personal liberty and laws
that derive from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits
slavery. These are the most basic elements of humanity.''

   Cases under investigation or prosecution by the task force, according to
a Justice Department official, include:

   * Five defendants in Illinois who allegedly imported Russian women to
the United States, telling their parents that they would be dancing in
respectable, Broadway-type shows. Instead, they were forced to strip in
nude dance clubs and become prostitutes.

   * Young Nigerian women allegedly lured from poor towns and kept as
domestic servants against their will in New York and Texas. They were told
if they didn't cooperate, their families would be harmed.

   * Two Thai women allegedly kept for years under harsh conditions of
domestic servitude by a prominent member of Thai-American society in Los
Angeles. The allegations included 18-hour work days, letter censoring and
isolation from the outside world.

   * Two Florida men who pleaded guilty in May to forcing more than 20
laborers to work in the tomato fields of Immokalee to pay off smuggling debts.

   The targets of involuntary servitude tend to be vulnerable populations
-- poor immigrants, mostly undocumented, and frequently female, Lee said.

   The story of the deaf Mexicans in New York became public in 1997 after
four workers walked into a Queens police station and, using sign language
and written messages, described a life of abuse and enslavement that
triggered an avalanche of national attention.

   As in many of the slavery cases, they had been promised decent-paying
jobs and smuggled into the country only to find themselves living in
cramped housing and forced to work. They were watched by bosses who doled
out one diaper per child each day and demanded a certain amount of money
from each worker. Threats and beatings followed for those who failed to
sell enough key chains or pencils.

    The task force soon hopes to offer services and information about where
to seek help for those in forced labor.

   ``We need to get the word out in Spanish-language newspapers and
television stations especially, that you can come to law enforcement and
you will be helped,'' Scott said.

   A national hotline is also on the way, offering information in 140
languages on where victims can get assistance.

   For Lee, the cases strike at the heart of the American justice system
and the founding principles of the country.

   ``When I assumed this job in December 1997, I did not anticipate that I
would be spending so much of my time on the issue of involuntary servitude,
just one year before the millennium,'' he said. ``Today, after all the
cases that have come across my desk, I am no longer surprised by it. But I
am very saddened by that.''


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