Forced prostitution clearly does exist in the United States. In one notorious case, five Mexicans--including three women--pleaded guilty to recruiting teen girls in Mexico with promises of good jobs across the border, imprisoning four of them in a house in Plainfield, New Jersey, and making them have sex six days a week with paying customers. A similar scenario in New York City led to guilty pleas in April by a family of pimps.
These cases could be the tip of an iceberg. Or they could be rare. No one knows. Even the State Department's revised 20,000 figure remains "very suspect" as being too high, says David Feingold, an anthropologist who's in charge of anti-trafficking projects for UNESCO. Estimates aside, very few people in this country are coming to the authorities to complain they've been trafficked. The dearth is reflected in figures for the T visa, the one Alice B. got that allowed her to stay in the country after she ran away from her nanny job in Palo Alto. Each year since 2001, the government has set aside 5,000 of these for trafficking victims. Thus, the authorities by now could have counted more than 20,000 victims. Yet according to the Department of Homeland Security's Citizen and Immigration Services Division, only 1,084 people have filed for T visas. Most applicants reported being forced into labor such as construction, welding and domestic work. These figures suggest that the nation harbors more enslaved drywallers and baby-sitters than it does brothel prisoners.
Still, the media favor sex-trafficking stories over accounts of other forced work. Television and the press are full of titillating reports, often with suggestive visuals (a New York Times Magazine cover piece featured a photo of a teenaged victim posed in a Catholic-style schoolgirl uniform--sitting on a bed). Despite the likelihood that the coverage is skewed, researchers such as Kevin Bales, of the NGO Free the Slaves, have tallied press clippings to argue that prostitution predominates over other types of labor trafficking. The State Department makes the same claim by citing the Bales study. The International Labor Organization used similarly shaky methodology to arrive at its claim, published earlier this year, that most immigrants trafficked to industrialized countries are brought for sex work.
But that's not what people who work with forced labor victims are finding. "Only one-third of my cases are about sex trafficking," says Suzanne Tomatore, an attorney who heads the Immigrant Women and Children Project of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Tomatore says that the "vast majority" of her clients were trafficked into domestic work, including immigrants brought to work for UN and consular officials. The typical employee "gets paid $50 a month or not at all. They're working seventeen, eighteen hours a day, catering parties, washing laundry by hand even though there's a washing machine. They've had their documents withheld and their phone calls monitored." It's the same story in the Washington, DC, area, according to Layli Miller-Muro, director of the suburban Virginia-based women's human rights group the Tahirih Justice Center--except that many traffickers there are World Bank employees.
In Los Angeles, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) also deals mainly with victims who've had nothing to do with prostitution. "Besides bondage in households, we're seeing an increase in people of both sexes trafficked into restaurants and construction," says CAST director Kay Buck. "And factories--often victims are forced not just to work but to sleep in them."
Though the NGOs refer many of these people to the Feds, they seem to get a lot less government PR than do victims who can be portrayed as sex slaves. The Department of Justice publishes a newsletter with colorful bar graphs illustrating its prosecution statistics. The blue bars, for "Sex Trafficking," are much higher than the red ones, for "Labor Trafficking"--implying that the vast majority of DOJ cases under the TVPA are about prostitution. The DOJ won't release comprehensive narratives of each case, but details scattered in departmental press releases and newsletters reveal that many involve women and girls trapped in domestic or restaurant work who were molested or raped by a male employer or by men in his family. The main work these victims did was as cooks, waitresses and housekeepers. The sexual assaults did not involve money. Still, the government apparently is classifying these scenarios as sex trafficking.