[Stop-traffic] News/US: Sex trade ensnares female immigrants in U.S.

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Sex trade ensnares female immigrants in U.S.
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Sun Nov 26 2000 - 21:41:03 EST


Sex trade ensnares female immigrants in U.S.
By Jennifer Lin, Knight Ridder Newspapers
The Detroit Free Press, November 16, 2000

PHILADELPHIA -- She wanted to taste American life and to escape northern
Thailand, a tropical world of stunning mountains and lush paddies but
little work.

Her brother grew watermelons for a living. Her father was sick. The family
needed money.

When a smuggler offered to take her to the United States in 1996, Alyssa
Chainut grabbed the chance. The man took care of everything: a fake Thai
passport, a U.S. visa and a plane ticket -- one-way to Los Angeles.

All she had to do was pay the price -- $40,000 -- more money than Chainut,
then 24, could make in a lifetime in Thailand.

But the smuggler had it figured out and told Chainut that if she worked as
a prostitute in America, the debt would be gone in no time.

So began the journey of Alyssa Chainut, chattel in a sex trade that
ensnares more women every year.

Chainut -- the alias she uses; her real name is Somphid Chaijamroen --
worked in illicit massage parlors in Los Angeles before heading to the
Philadelphia area, where, police say, the business of Asian-run
prostitution houses thrives.

After four months -- and about 400 encounters of paid sex -- Chainut
cleared her debt. She turned over money to traffickers, who kept track of
her IOU as though she were making payments on a car loan.

"If I come here and I know people, maybe I could work in a restaurant or
something," Chainut said in her limited English. "But if I don't know
people, I have to do that," she said, referring to prostitution.

Even after she paid her debt, Chainut kept working in the massage parlors
because, she said, it was the only work she knew.

Up to 50,000 women and children from around the world are trafficked every
year to the United States, according to a recent CIA report. Some pay off
their debts as seamstresses in sweatshops or as household servants. But
more are put to work as prostitutes, the report said.

Until their debts are covered, the women are confined to the brothels.

"Organized-crime groups are engaging in human slave trade," said Russell
Bergeron, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"Even if an individual agrees to do this doesn't mean it's OK."

Police in the Philadelphia area see the result: The number of brothels
posing as massage parlors, health spas or acupressure clinics is flourishing.

Nationwide, immigration officials have launched Operation Lost Thai, an
investigation that has identified 250 brothels in 26 cities that employ
victims of trafficking.

Closed today, open tomorrow

Chainut's four-year stint in the sex trade has come to a halt.

On a breezy night in July, she was arrested on prostitution charges after
police raided the Sun Gold Therapy massage parlor in Atlantic City. Her
story was pieced together from interviews with her, and from police,
immigration and court information.

Although prostitution is only a disorderly conduct charge and subject to a
fine, Chainut is being held in the Atlantic County Jail in Mays Landing for
violating probation on an unrelated federal charge of money laundering.

It is likely INS agents will deport her to Bangkok, Thailand, when the
federal matter is resolved. Chainut, now 28, said she wanted to go home.

"What's the big deal?" she said of her situation. "I'm not killing anyone.
I'm just killing myself."

At the Sun Gold massage parlor, a green neon sign shone in front of drawn
blinds. "24 HRS OPEN," it told those trawling for sex after a night at the
casinos.

It was July 23, an overcast Sunday evening, the end of a busy weekend in
Atlantic City. Business had gotten so good at Sun Gold that neighbors with
children who lived in the apartments above had started to complain.

In a room in which the women passed the time waiting for clients, Chainut
and the other Korean and Thai women ate dinner. They had on dresses that
were too tight or too low-cut to be worn during the day. They knelt around
a meal of steamed fish, rice and stir-fried greens set on the floor.

Chainut wore a clingy robin's-egg-blue gown of crushed velvet, slit to the
top of her left thigh. On her feet were black slip-on sandals with stiletto
heels.

The massage parlor was flush with money -- at least $32,000 in cash was
stashed there, police said. Above the ceiling tiles was $17,000, and $4,000
was under the carpet.

Clients paid $50 to enter Sun Gold. Behind closed doors, they could "tip"
their masseuse $100 for intercourse and lesser fees for sex acts, police said.

The air inside was hot, moist and stale. Each room had a mirror, a mattress
on the floor, a pile of towels and baby oil. The women kept condoms --
available for clients on request -- in a large Rite Aid shopping bag.

As the women ate dinner, someone pounded on the front door. "Police!" The
women froze. Officers pushed their way in.

Three women bowed on their knees with their faces touching the ground.
"Someone tell them to relax and just sit down," said an officer who later
recalled the raid.

In an affidavit for a search warrant, police said several undercover
officers had been propositioned for sex.

The affidavit also said that police believed many of the women were
indentured immigrants paying off debts. It said several women, who had no
identification on them, were wiring money regularly to Los Angeles.

Police arrested Chainut and two Korean women on prostitution charges. Their
cases are pending. Another Korean woman without a passport was taken away
by INS agents. The Korean-American manager of the brothel, Yoo Mi Evans,
was arrested for promoting prostitution.

With her hands crossed and held high in plastic flexi-cuffs, Chainut was
led to a waiting van.

The next morning, a hastily scrawled sign was taped to Sun Gold's door:
"Closed today. See you tomorrow."

Promised paradise, left in hell

Some trafficked women know from the outset that they will have to work off
their debts as prostitutes. Others are duped by smugglers into thinking
they will work in hotels or restaurants.

"They're promised something that sounds like Disneyland, and it's not,"
said Jennifer Stanger of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking,
a Los Angeles alliance that shelters indentured women.

Police say the women rarely try to escape because smugglers threaten to
hurt their families back home. Traffickers hire the women out to brothels,
never letting them become too familiar with any one place.

"It's the rotating that keeps them lost," said Detective Angelo Maimone of
the Atlantic City police.

Brothels posing as massage parlors advertise in newspapers -- routinely
scanned by police -- and in magazines such as Asian Beauties, which rates
them. They have names such as Hot Diggity Dog, Oriental Body Works,
Chopsticks and Asian Acupressure -- all targets of recent police raids.
Credit cards are accepted, discounts are offered, and appointments are
scheduled.

The men who pay for sex are often as ordinary as the suburbs in which some
brothels are situated. Police recount stories about the family man with a
Toys R Us credit card and a weekly habit of visiting brothels, and of the
father who wrote an anonymous letter to police reporting that his teenage
son contracted a sexually transmitted disease after a tryst.

Police and immigration agents say it is unclear how many illegal immigrants
are victims of debt bondage. The women, they say, seem coached not to talk
to law enforcement.

"It's a code of silence, of fear," said Linda Valentine, supervisor of
special agents in the Philadelphia office of the INS. "They'll tell you
only what they think they have to to get through our process."

Fulfilling a pact

Alyssa Chainut is petite, with black hair that drapes to her waist and
covers a dark tattoo of a flying dragon on her shoulder.

In Thailand, she said, she sometimes worked in a sewing factory, making the
equivalent of a few dollars a day. She went to school to learn how to
decorate cakes. She said she did not work as a prostitute back home.

"I feel different about it in my country," she said.

However, in the United States, it was part of her pact with traffickers.
"They don't push you," she said. "But people who come here, they make a
deal already for you."

For many Thai women, the legal route to the United States -- getting a
passport, applying for a U.S. visa, buying a plane ticket -- is not an option.

The Thai government routinely rejects passport applications from women it
suspects could be heading into the overseas sex trade. Plane tickets are
too expensive for people who make a few dollars a day.

Then there is the hurdle of getting a visa from the U.S. government, which
is suspicious of would-be immigrants posing as visitors. Smugglers,
however, can manipulate Thai travel agents to get tourist visas or concoct
bogus reasons for business visas.

After working in Los Angeles for a year, Chainut, by then debt-free, moved
to Philadelphia with new friends.

For a time, she worked at the Callowhill Relaxation Station above a bar at
the corner of 15th and Callowhill streets in Center City. According to the
FBI's Asian Organized Crime unit in Philadelphia, the massage parlor was a
hangout for Asian gang members, who claimed they were hired to protect the
prostitutes.

Authorities say one of the gangsters was Chainut's boyfriend, who imported
heroin from Hong Kong and exported greenbacks by the tens of thousands.

He used Chainut to help launder money, according to federal charges filed
in 1998. They traveled to the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City,
changed small bills into casino chips, then exchanged those for fresh $100
bills that were easier to smuggle out of the country.

Chainut was sentenced to eight months in jail and three years' probation.

When Chainut was released from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility,
she found a job in a friend's flower shop in Philadelphia. She talked to an
immigration lawyer about filing for political asylum on the grounds that
she could face retaliation from criminals in Thailand for cooperating in
the heroin case.

"She struck me as a person who had been used," said Abraham Cardenas, her
immigration attorney in York.

Last March, Chainut stopped reporting to her probation officer. She didn't
show up for an immigration hearing. She left the flower shop.

And she took off for Atlantic City.

A big problem gets bigger

Immigration and labor officials fear the trafficking problem is not only
bigger than they realized but also getting worse, the CIA report said.

Most of the trafficked women in the United States come from Asia, Russia,
central Europe and Mexico, part of a worldwide $7-billion industry that has
many faces. In Europe, Albanian women have been kidnapped to work as
prostitutes in Italy. Girls in Nepal have been sold by unwitting parents to
brothel owners in India.

The forces that push women to flee their countries are intensifying.
Economic hard times in places such as South Korea, Thailand and Russia have
increased the ranks of willing recruits. It is also easier and cheaper than
ever to fly women in from far-off countries.

The profits from trafficking are tantalizing, the CIA reported. The going
rate for illegal U.S. entry is $30,000 to $50,000.

The trafficking business is run like many others, with wholesalers -- the
smugglers who recruit, transport and place women -- supplying retailers,
the brothels who hire them. The CIA report said both ends of the business
are controlled by criminal gangs, loosely linked networks of smugglers, or
entrepreneurs who victimize their own nationals.

In October, Congress passed bills that would impose tougher penalties
against traffickers and offer amnesty to victims.

"We're not looking to put these women behind bars," said Rep. Chris Smith,
R-N.J., a cosponsor of the bill. "We're looking for protection for the women."

Meager conditions

In the Philadelphia area, many of the illegal immigrants in prostitution --
mostly Chinese, Thai and Korean women -- have entered the country using
temporary business or tourist visas.

Others have snuck in. One Korean woman who was recently arrested at a
Center City massage parlor told police she had been smuggled over the
Canadian border near Detroit.

Capt. Joseph Fair Jr., chief of the vice unit of the Atlantic City Police
Department, said Asian prostitutes live in meager conditions. They sleep on
mattresses on the floor, own few things, and usually speak no English, he
said.

"None of them are making a lot of money," he said. "They're living
day-to-day and getting whatever their masters will give them -- food for
that day, one or two articles of clothing, a roof over their heads."

In clamping down on brothels, police can arrest women for prostitution -- a
misdemeanor -- but have a harder time putting the illegal massage parlors
out of business. In Philadelphia, when such brothels are shut down as a
"nuisance" under the city's licensing code, they can reopen under a new
name with a new license.

Police, hampered by limited resources, find it difficult to build larger
cases against traffickers because suspected victims are hesitant to
cooperate, said Lt. Sean Carr, chief of the Philadelphia Police Department
vice squad.

In Atlanta, authorities broke up an Asian trafficking ring that had
smuggled more than 1,000 indentured women for prostitution. Prosecutors
said the traffickers had been transporting women to and from cities
including Philadelphia.

Janis Gordon, the assistant U.S. attorney who handled the 1999 case, said
the traffickers kept meticulous records of how many clients each woman saw
a day and her earnings, as well as the balance on her debt.

"Once a woman is here working as a prostitute," Gordon said, "she can't
leave. She can't say, 'I'd rather work at McDonald's and pay you back that
way.' "

The price she had to pay

Instead of tight gowns or miniskirts, Alyssa Chainut wears the oversize
orange prison garb of the Atlantic County Justice Facility.

Talking through a phone from the other side of a glass partition, her voice
is soft. Her eyes seem puffy with dark circles.

She said she had been sending money to her father, who needed medical care.
She said that she returned to working as a prostitute last spring for the
same reason she started.

"I need money," she said. "What you think, someone is going to help me?"

Working at Sun Gold was not all that bad, Chainut said. "I feel
comfortable," she said. "I have food to eat, a place to sleep."

She viewed her work as the price she paid to get out of Thailand.
"Sometimes you have to be dumb before you can be smart," she said.

It could be months before she is deported. She said she cannot quite
understand why authorities would not let her go immediately.

"I want to go back," she said. "I want to do something different. I'm tired."
Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

Please contact me off-list for any questions about Stop-Traffic at
<<morhant@igc.org>>.

Women's Reproductive Health Initiative
Program for Appropriate Technology in Health
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labor is an ever-growing worldwide phenomena that affects the health
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