Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2009


Multnomah County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Keith Bickford had been a school resource officer at Reynolds High School for 12 years when he learned about a new job opportunity as the head of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force.

“I just jumped on it, not knowing really what I was getting into,” he says. “My very first phone call was from a mother who lost her daughter to a pimp. I knew I was where I belonged and I wanted to get moving on it.”

Since that call two years ago, Bickford has talked with countless parents facing the same nightmare. While the specifics differ, the pattern is the same.

“The girl begins dating an older guy, and he’s kind of a ghost the parents never see,” Bickford says. “He starts buying her nice things; she starts skipping school and then disappears for a weekend or becomes a runaway and disappears for a week. She gets picked up and the next time she leaves, she’s gone permanently.”

Bickford recalls one woman who hadn’t heard from her daughter for two months before receiving a letter in which her daughter addressed her as “Mommy,” a term of affection she never used unless something was wrong.

“The letter was from Las Vegas and she’s down there because her pimp said, ‘You work for me now because I know where your little brother goes to school and I’ll kill him,’” Bickford says. “She’s a prostitute for conventions in Las Vegas and she doesn’t see any of the money. It all goes to a pimp while she gets raped several times a night.”

Homeless kids are prime targets for sex traffickers. On average, one of three homeless youths will be contacted by a pimp within 48 hours of hitting the streets, according to Bickford. Increasingly, high school students from middle-class, two-parent homes also fall prey to what is now the world’s fastest growing crime.

Human trafficking – which encompasses forcing people to sell sex or drugs or subjecting them to abusive labor conditions – is second only to the drug trade as the world’s largest criminal industry. In 2007, human slave traders made more money than Google, Nike and Starbucks combined. There are currently 27 million men, women and children enslaved globally. And, an estimated 200,000 young people are victims of sex trafficking in the United States, according to the Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization.

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted in 2000, established the first comprehensive effort to protect victims, prosecute traffickers and increase public awareness about the problem. The law was reauthorized in 2003, 2005 and 2008, with each reauthorization enhancing, expanding and strengthening federal anti-trafficking efforts.

The U.S. also is utilizing special visas, known as “T” and “U” visas, which are intended to protect foreign-born trafficking victims from being deported if they cooperate with police and prosecutors.

West Coast Slave Route
Oregon passed its own human trafficking law in 2007, following Washington and California. By then, Portland was well on its way to racking up some sobering statistics in the modern-day slave trade.

The most recent FBI Operation Cross Country sting found Portland has the second highest standing in the country for sex trafficking, with over 50 percent of those victims being children. Portland has the largest sex industry per capita in the nation, which provides a kind of camouflage in which sex trafficking victims easily disappear.

Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Greg Moawad says Portland’s proximity to Interstate 5 also draws sex traffickers.

“I-5 is a very easy mode of transportation for pimps and prostitutes, and that’s why we tend to see more of that here,” he says. “Portland is easy to get into and out of, and it’s right between British Columbia and L.A.”

The U.S Attorney’s Oregon office prosecuted a slew of sex trafficking cases over the summer, the result of Operation Cross Country and other recent investigations. Though Oregon didn’t pass its anti-trafficking law until 2007, former U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut began aggressively prosecuting such cases as early as 2005, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Kemp Strickland.

“Karin always considered human trafficking as a problem in Oregon and as something she wanted law enforcement to address,” he says.

Strickland, who was assigned to prosecute trafficking cases about a year ago, says there is a learning curve when delving into any new type of criminal law. Human trafficking cases, in particular, can take even the most seasoned prosecutors aback.

“I’m surprised by the number of prostitution and sex trafficking cases involving minors,” Strickland says. “There seems to be more and more young girls involved and the ages seem to be getting younger.”

Along with an increase in domestic cases, the trafficking of foreign-born victims in the U.S. has grown exponentially as more immigrants make America their new home. Some 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked nationally in the U.S. alone, the Polaris Project reports.

“They are the perfect victims,” according to Bickford. “They don’t understand our language or our laws. They don’t even know they have rights when they step into the U.S. Even if they come up from Mexico illegally, they still have rights. A lot of people aren’t happy when you say that, but it is true.”

The Promised Land
It is not uncommon for foreign-born victims of human trafficking in the U.S. to be lured here by promises of work as a nanny, maid or other domestic help that will allow them to support themselves and their families back home. Once these women arrive in America, however, they either find themselves trapped in indentured servitude or discover that their new job is actually as a prostitute, exotic dancer or drug runner.

Some women come here knowing their fate, but it’s a matter of simple survival that leads them into exploitive situations, says Portland civil rights attorney Katelyn Oldham.

“Many women really do believe they will be hired as a nanny or domestic help and that will be better than a void of a place like Chechnya or other Eastern European countries where there are no jobs and people are starving to death,” she says. “Others come here knowing exactly what they are going to do. People shouldn’t have to make those choices.”

Amrit Dhillon primarily encounters labor trafficking within the state’s agricultural sector in her work as a staff attorney for Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services and its anti-human trafficking program, Outreach and Support to Special Immigrant Populations (OSSIP). Dhillon says it’s often difficult to determine whether a complaint stems from an egregious labor violation or qualifies as trafficking.

“One of the things that is worrisome is that these people are so isolated. We’ve seen people who have been in servitude for 10 or 15 years,” she says. “Especially with the economy so bad, people are desperate for work. So the problem is getting worse rather than better.”

Dhillon commonly sees labor trafficking cases that involve sexual exploitation as well. It is a hot-button issue for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has filed at least three lawsuits against Oregon agricultural employers. The most recent lawsuits target Willamette Tree Wholesale’s Molalla nursery, Scheimer Farms of Nyssa, and Wilcox Farms Inc. and Wilcox Dairy Farms Group in Aurora. (Last month, Scheimer Farms settled its federal sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit involving one of its drivers and two female employees. The farm agreed to pay two female employees $14,500 and review its management policies.)

In the complaint against Willamette Tree Wholesale, filed in June, the EEOC alleges the nursery violated federal law when it allowed female employees to be sexually harassed and then retaliated against the women and male co-workers after they reported the harassment.

According to the agency’s investigation, a Latina employee was taken to remote areas of the farm by the company foreman and raped repeatedly over several months. He allegedly coerced her with pruning shears, and threatened her life and her family. She was fired when she ultimately refused to be sexually assaulted again, according to the EEOC.

Another Latina co-worker allegedly faced daily sexual innuendos and propositions for sex as well as grabbing and touching. When she and her husband, who also worked there, reported sexual harassment by a crew leader, Willamette Tree failed to investigate or respond to their complaint, according to the EEOC. The agency alleges that the couple and her brother were terminated in retaliation for reporting the harassment.

“This shows how dangerous a situation can become when employers are hostile to workers’ rights and sexual harassment goes unchecked,” EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru said in a statement. “The EEOC is going to be focusing more and more on finding new and better ways to reach the most vulnerable of discrimination victims, like these farm workers, and to halt this kind of horrific mistreatment.”

A Growing Awareness
Chris Carey, a former Multnomah County prosecutor, first learned about human trafficking while traveling in Nepal with a friend. Carey co-founded the Daywalka Foundation, a human rights organization based at Portland State University, and served as its executive director from 2003 to 2007.

Now an assistant professor at PSU, human trafficking is Carey’s research focus and the topic of his dissertation. He provides expert testimony during trafficking cases and says the legal sector is quickly realizing the gray areas that cloud the issue. One example is whether a case constitutes smuggling or trafficking – simply put, choice versus force.

“We used to see a lot of cases involving juveniles, especially from Guatemala, who came up and got arrested for drugs. You know that’s trafficking because juveniles and adults are involved,” he says. “Then you may have a situation where a person was voluntarily smuggled into the U.S. but forced to sell drugs, and then it became a trafficking situation.”

Carey says the legal community also is becoming more aware of debt bondage as a form of human trafficking. An example is when somebody pays a “coyote” to smuggle them across the border and then, once in the U.S., the coyote charges them additional money for the service. Or, the coyote may take them somewhere other than their intended destination, where the victim is forced to do some other type of work than originally agreed upon.

“Generally people are becoming more sophisticated, can recognize these situations more and realize that it’s more than sex trafficking. The other thing we’re learning is how interrelated trafficking is with the drug and arms trades,” Carey says. “As you start to peel the layers of the onion, you find some really disturbing things going on.”

Immigration attorney Siovhan Sheridan-Ayala worked closely with Bickford and the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force when she practiced in Portland and also while serving as Catholic Charities’ director of immigration programs. Sheridan-Ayala, who recently moved her practice to Seattle, says attorneys who handle immigration and civil rights cases increasingly are able to spot clues that point to trafficking and ask questions that help ease clients out of their silence.

“Many cases are from the past, and even if they are immediately involved in the crisis they might not volunteer the information because they feel so overwhelmed or embarrassed,” Sheridan-Ayala says. “As any lawyer does, you kind of develop a sense of what really happened. It is part of your job, to some degree, to play the investigator and figure out what happened because some of these cases are really bizarre.”

Portland immigration attorney Philip Smith says his office also handles new clients with greater awareness.

“As part of our intake process, we now ask whether the person has been a victim of some criminal activity. We are more sensitive to how the person came here, which might not have been a consideration in the past,” he says.

Crossing the Divide
Now that awareness about the problem is increasing, the next challenge is to bridge the gap in how victims are treated at either end of the legal spectrum. Oldham, the Portland civil rights attorney, says greater sensitivity is needed in law enforcement’s handling of trafficking victims.

“There’s a big problem because they are still being viewed not necessarily as victims, but as criminals. They are engaged in prostitution or some criminal element, but they really are the smallest element,” she says.

Many times, trafficking victims are arrested and then deported back to their home countries, where organized crime groups await to force them back into trafficking. Their fate is worse if they are kept in America and asked to testify against their trafficker.

“Some of these people have been tortured or have had death threats made against them,” Oldham says. “There’s not a very good recognition that sometimes these people have family members or children in their home country who will be murdered if they testify.”

Catholic Charities’ Dhillon says working with federal law enforcement officials sometimes is challenging when they don’t see protecting illegal immigrants as an essential part of the anti-trafficking effort. However, there is a growing collaboration between law enforcement officers, prosecutors and immigration and civil rights attorneys, she notes.

To Bickford, head of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force, that collaboration has been invaluable.

“When it comes to international trafficking, my best success is through immigration attorneys. I’ve worked closely with them and now they trust me to talk with their victims,” he says, adding, “Amrit and Siovhan have done amazing work.”

Another success he has witnessed since joining the task force in 2007 relates to a dramatic change in how prostitution arrests are handled.

“We were arresting domestic trafficking victims for prostitution. We’ve changed that now because federal and state law both state that if they are under 18, they are to be treated as a victim,” he says. “That’s been a big deal and I’m glad that has finally kicked in and they are taking care of the girls that way.”

Breaking the Cycle
Moawad, the Multnomah County deputy district attorney, says another success is that traffickers now are receiving longer prison sentences, thanks to more aggressive prosecution and mandatory minimum sentences. The problem now, he notes, is keeping victims off the streets for good.

“The criminal justice system is really good at putting bad guys behind bars, but it’s not always very good about assisting the victims in addressing the issues that led them to the streets in the first place,” he says, adding childhood physical and mental abuse are common culprits. “We’re putting them in a situation where they are just going to go back out searching for someone to provide that sense of love and security again.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Strickland says greater collaboration at all levels – from state Department of Human Services workers to police officers and prosecutors – is focused on the long-range goal of getting victims out of the sex trade permanently. For example, Portland police officers often distribute pamphlets on victim advocacy when they encounter women involved in sex trafficking.

“The officers are sort of wearing a social worker hat, and they will use their time and resources to connect these women with people and services that can help get them out of the system,” Strickland says. “At this level, we bend over backwards to get the victims plugged in and follow up to make sure they have the resources they need.”

This holistic approach not only benefits the victims, but it also helps the legal system more effectively prosecute the offenders.

“There’s the realization that you’re not going to have much of a case if your victim doesn’t stick around. So, the physical and mental health of the victims is important,” Strickland says.

Bickford says another problem is the lack of a place to house trafficking victims once they are rescued.

“That’s been our big black hole. Once we find a child, we don’t have anywhere to put them. You can either send them home – which works sometimes but not if that’s where the problem is – or send them to foster care, which isn’t secure. And the pimps play on that. They tell the child to cut and run, so when they run away from a foster home you’re watching your whole case run away,” he says.

“We need a secure facility where we can put these kids and deprogram them and get them back into society. There’s a lot of work ahead,” Bickford adds.

Moawad says a solution may be on the horizon. Transitions Global, an Oregon nonprofit that helps trafficking victims, is seeking donations to build a shelter where sex trafficking survivors can live and obtain counseling, medical help, job skills and other support to help them transition out of prostitution.

“That’s the type of thing that would be a fantastic complement to the criminal justice system,” Moawad says. “We can catch the bad guys, but we need help keeping these young girls and women off the streets.” 

Melody Finnemore, a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Wash., is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2009 Melody Finnemore

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