Despite U.S. laws, thousands still virtual slaves in America

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitudeshall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." — 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified Dec. 6, 1865

KANSAS CITY — Sebastian Pereria told a friend last year about his life in America.

How he wanted to see his wife and children in India, but his boss kept his identification papers and wouldn’t let him go.

Other waiters who worked with him at a restaurant in Topeka, Kan., told of how they were forced to work 13-hour days, six days a week. They talked of how the boss underpaid them and pocketed their tips.

In the end, Pereria, 46, got his wish. He finally arrived home last year.

In a coffin.

The U.S. government could not help Pereria, even though they said he fit the criteria for being a human trafficking victim. Other waiters he worked with got help and were rescued from the Globe Indian Restaurant. But for Pereria, even in death, a judge remained unconvinced.

America declared war on human trafficking nearly a decade ago. With a new law and much fanfare, the government pledged to end such human rights abuses at home and prodded the rest of the world to follow its example.

But an investigation by The Kansas City Star found that, in spite of all the rhetoric from the Bush and Obama administrations, the United States is failing to find and help tens of thousands of human trafficking victims in America.

The Star also found that the government is doing little to stop the flow of trafficking along the porous U.S.-Mexico border and that when victims are identified, many are denied assistance.

The United States also has violated its own policies by deporting countless victims who should be offered sanctuary, but sometimes end up back in the hands of traffickers.

After spending millions of taxpayer dollars, America appears to be losing the war in its own backyard.

Even some top federal anti-trafficking authorities in the Bush and Obama administrations acknowledged serious problems.

“The current system is not yet picking up all the victims of human trafficking crimes,” Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told The Star two weeks ago. “It has been a growing problem and in a world of growing problems, it’s time for the nations of the world to take it on.”

America’s failure to live up to its own high standards isn’t for lack of will or good intentions or even money. The Star’s investigation pointed to problems that are more systemic: an uncoordinated, inconsistent approach to finding victims; politically charged arguments over how to define trafficking; and a continuing disbelief among some in local law enforcement that it even exists.

The issue is further complicated by the heated debate over illegal immigration. The willing participation initially of some victims is blurring the lines and testing the law.

“People feel if you come in illegally, anything that happens to you is your fault,” said Lisette Arsuaga, with the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking. “Slavery is not an immigration issue. It’s a civil rights issue. There’s no justification for making someone a slave.”

It may be hard to imagine that slavery exists in America, but trafficking victims are all around us. The Midwest, in particular, seems to be an emerging hub.

Although trafficking usually is considered a coastal phenomenon, more alleged traffickers — 36 in the past three years — have been prosecuted by federal authorities in western Missouri than anywhere in the nation.

One Kansas City case, involving Giant Labor Solutions, is believed to be the largest labor trafficking ring uncovered in U.S. history.

Around the country, some victims exemplify the more exotic definitions of trafficking — those sold into the sex trade or into forced labor. But many, like Pereria, find themselves in mundane jobs. Incurring heavy debts while trying to find a better life, they become financially chained to their traffickers and work for low pay or in dangerous conditions.

They toil in factories and massage parlors, on fruit and vegetable farms, and inside homes, hotels and restaurants from California to Maine. Stripped of their humanity, they’re often threatened with their lives, or their families’ lives, if they don’t submit to the traffickers’ demands.

The victims are not unlike Dareyam, a 42-year-old Indonesian woman held captive for 18 years, half of those in the United States.

Kept as a housekeeper on the West Coast, she was forced to clean house naked and to sleep on the floor. She could not use the indoor bathroom, forced to go in a plastic bag outside.

“My lady, she was mean, evil, crazy, you know,” Dareyam told The Star.

Another Indonesian woman, Ima, 29, worked long hours caring for two children, cleaning a home on the West Coast and never making a dime. Verbally abusive, the woman who enslaved her once hit Ima so hard she needed stitches.

After three years, she wrote a note to a housekeeper next door. Please help me, I can’t take it anymore. It took Ima hours to find the courage to write those eight words.

The physical and psychological toll on trafficking victims can trap them in a life of slavery for years.

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