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Eduardo Barraza Headshot

Human trafficking mixing-up views on immigration to the United States

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Victims of modern-day slavery are being brought here as human cargo, and destined for the most vile purposes as forced labor and prostitution.

Phoenix, Arizona. April 16, 2009 - There was a time when the common assumption about United States-bound immigration was about impoverished people crossing the border searching for work to improve their economic situation.

This drive about immigration based on the possibility of finding a job still plays a fundamental role in explaining the influx of human beings coming from Latin America into the U.S. However, the social and moral forces behind many of the new arrivals have been increasingly distorting the traditional concept of voluntary human migration by giving it a violent and criminal twist, and by disguising human trafficking as migration.

Contrary to people who migrate by their own will, human trafficking recruits and transports individuals generally under forced and deceitful tactics, evading the same immigration laws undocumented immigrants do. An immigrant is typically interested in getting a job, while victims of human trafficking are lured for the purpose of performing forced work or sex acts. However, many recent cases in the United States show human traffickers are using traditional immigration as a way to conceal their real intentions by hooking people up with false promises of work and dollars.

The economically-disadvantaged cohort of immigrants --the dispossessed men and women who come to work and make a decent living-- is still inserted within U.S. society. However, the coerced and deceitful "migration" of people who in reality are being kidnapped under a false promise of work and dollars, is not only mixing-up the concept of economic-motivated migration, but also hurting its victims, thwarting the necessary political compromise to pass an immigration reform, as well as fueling fallacy-based immigration legislation at the local level, like Arizona's.

As a result of this trend, the old common belief about immigration into the U.S. needs to be set apart into a more complex one: there are those who take their chances by coming to America on their own to seek work and perhaps also find a better life; and, there are those who are being brought here as human cargo, and destined for the most vile purposes as forced labor and prostitution.

Much of what is reported in the media about undocumented immigration in the United States does not have to do with real migration of people but with human trafficking. In fact, many foreign individuals who are arrested are referred erroneously as immigrants, when in reality they have been transported into the U.S. as human cargo and victims of kidnapping and other crimes. They did not migrate on their own will or they were deceived under the concept of migrating to find a job.

Nevertheless, some people who may have agreed to be brought to the U.S. end up being caught in a criminal ring that exploits underprivileged people and persuade them to enter the country illegally, under the false expectation of work. These trafficking gangs are not concerned with helping people improve their economic conditions but in obtaining the maximum profit possible in spite of the inherent risks and dangers they place their victims in. In other words, what is presented to them as an opportunity to come to this country to work, is in reality a well organized criminal scheme that many times involves rape, assaulting and even murder.

We often hear news about busted drop houses where dozens of "immigrants" are found by police piled up in single homes in the most deplorable sanitary conditions, locked up against their wills. They are actually held as hostages until their relatives, in Latin American countries or the U.S. after being blackmailed and threatened, wire high sums of money to the traffickers in order to free them. Some are kept captive and forced to prostitute or work until they pay off their own debts. Once again, this is not the standard scenario where immigrants come on their own risk.

Operations like these are carried out by violent international criminal organizations dedicated to the human trafficking trade. In this sense, not only the concept of the immigrant worker is changing, but also the role of the traditional "coyote" or smuggler who is in the illicit business of transporting people who want to come to the U.S., but these smugglers are not into human trafficking. Today, it is fundamental to identify this trend and be able to see the difference, if we want to understand current migration movements.

Recently, in one of the biggest human trafficking cases ever investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation along other law-enforcement agencies, nine people were sentenced to federal prison. They were part of an international sex-trafficking ring that lured young women and girls from the country of Guatemala, smuggled them into the U.S., and taken to Los Angeles, California, where kidnappers forced them into prostitution. Some of the girls were as young as 12 years-old.

Their journey to the U.S. began back in their homes where parents were assured their daughters would be working in places like restaurants and jewelry stores in California. The human traffickers promised good wages, which eventually would turn into much needed money being sent as remittances to Guatemala. Remember, this type of deceitful practices preys on extremely poor families in Central America and elsewhere in Latin America.

Once in Los Angeles, the kidnapped girls and young women were not assigned to work as dishwashers, bussers or store attendants. Instead, they had their eyebrows tattooed, their hair dyed and then they were forced to work the Los Angeles-area streets as prostitutes. The young victims were intimidated, controlled and threatened to be beaten. While at the apartment where they lived they were locked up and watched. They were told they had to pay off their debts, as much as $20,000, for being brought from Guatemala into the U.S. They were warned their relatives back home would be killed if they tried to escape or failed to pay the debt.

This criminal case convicted a total of nine defendants, all members of an extended family known as the Vasquez-Valenzuela family. The ringleader, Gladys Vasquez Valenzuela, received a 40-year sentence in February 2010.

The criminal charges involved in this case --conspiracy, sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion, and importation of aliens for purposes of prostitution-- show a different aspect many Americans buy into as immigration-related issues. While they involved the smuggling of foreign nationals into the United States, the true concept of people migrating to find work is inexistent within this context of human trafficking,
which is a very complex problem in itself, but it needs to be differentiated from economic-related immigration.

As long as this difference is not clearly established, many people in America will continue to be under the false impression that immigrants are criminals, as well as mixing-up human trafficking with economic-related immigration. As millions of people are in need of an immigration reform, fallacies as the immigrant-criminal will continue to be fuel for those people who reject the immigrant all the while receiving something from them, either their labor as workers or their money as consumers.

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