Human trafficking workshop raises awareness

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services

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A Human Trafficking Awareness Workshop held at Battle Creek’s Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center brought regional law enforcement officials and academics together to highlight the issue and take questions from the public and federal employees Sept. 26.

The labor trafficking-focused panel and Q&A session was coordinated by the site’s National Hispanic Heritage Month program committee and the Defense Logistics Agency’s local Equal Employment Opportunity office. City officials from the police and fire departments attended alongside DLA employees as well as Spanish language students from nearby Battle Creek Central High School.

Panel participants defined labor trafficking as any form of unfree labor performed under force, coercion or fraud and its perpetrators include those who recruit, harbor, transport or employ victims. They said that it has historically included slavery, debt bondage and convict leasing. Some of the most common victims of labor trafficking in the U.S. work in agriculture, as domestic laborers and in the garment industry. 

The discussion included Dept. of Homeland Security Special Agent Kurt Fiegel, Spring Arbor University Professor Dr. Jeremy Norwood, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Community Relations Officer Valentina Seeley, and University of Michigan Law School Human Trafficking Clinic Professor Elizabeth Campbell.

Panelists explained their respective connections to the topic, were asked questions about the challenges facing support organizations and law enforcement, and offered their thoughts on what community members could do and what the future might hold.

“It hits every group of people,” said Seeley, who has a long legal and civil service background and moderated the panel. She described the scourge of “modern day slavery” and asked attendees to imagine the fear of someone who was brought to the U.S. and forced to work 16 hours a day for $2 an hour, with an employer who had gained control of all of their documents and threatened to turn them in to ICE for removal if they didn’t cooperate. She said she’d seen an “incredible” increase in awareness training requests by churches, schools and community organizations in the past two years and hoped to spread word of the ICE Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office that offers help to immigration-related crime victims, witnesses or those acting at a victim’s request.

Campbell, a lawyer and teacher who helps University of Michigan law students tackle real human trafficking cases, said those most at risk included people from immigrant communities involved in industries that “we as the general population aren’t interacting with,” like farmers and restaurant backroom workers. She said “the challenge [for victims] is coming forward to an authority” and overcoming the frequent language barriers. She said victims are conditioned to believe that their situations “don’t seem that abnormal.” It’s difficult for people to recognize themselves as victims, because it’s not a sudden crime like a kidnapping. Campbell said it’s often a slower process, where the perpetrator builds the victim’s trust over time and then exploits it. And even once someone has made the decision to come out of the shadows and report abuse, “identification is easier than rebuilding the pieces afterward.”

She said labor trafficking cases in western Michigan had involved migrant farming, domestic servants and some convenience store workers, but the problem spanned “a gamut” of circumstances. She also noted that labor and sex trafficking, which captures a greater share of public attention, “coexist very frequently.”

It’s “really hard for even community members who are engaged in this to know what to look for,” Campbell said.

Fiegel handles Homeland Security investigations in southwest Michigan and said the biggest impediment to uncovering and convicting human traffickers is trust. He said he understood the reluctance among immigrant communities to reach out for help from anyone affiliated with ICE, but he encouraged victims to reach out to someone, even if not law enforcement.  He said his agency takes a “victim-centered approach” to law enforcement and “a large part of my job is to build trust in the community” and give those communities a greater insight into what the agency actually does and what services it offers. He said trafficking “just keeps growing” and is attractive to criminals because of the difficulties in securing convictions.

“It is important for us to ensure victims understand all that we can do to help them,” Fiegel said.

Norwood, a professor of sociology, global studies and criminal justice, authored an academic paper called “Indicators of Human Trafficking amongst Migrant Farmworkers in Western Michigan.” His research involved surveying members of migrant worker camps and in addition to teaching, he provides training on the topic to professionals whose jobs require it under state law.

He said building grassroots community task forces that bring together a diverse representation of its members is key to ensuring awareness. He said authorities can’t even begin to identify bad actors without community tips, but for victims or witnesses to come forward and say something, “that’s a big step for them.”

He said the language that community leaders use – the way they describe situations and the populations involved – is extremely important, because divisive or combative terms that victims hear and internalize make it easier for the trafficker to continue to manipulate the victim and condition them to believe that reporting abuse will only make things worse.

All of the panelists agreed that the tenor of the current national conversation regarding immigration issues had impacted the situation, and they all shared their hopes for the future.

“It’s been a big shift,” Fiegel said. He said that some of the informative relationships he had built among at-risk communities had recently “been tested.”

“Despite all the rhetoric, we haven’t changed how we operate,” Fiegel said. But, he said, he was heartened by the attention the topic was receiving and he hoped that in the next five years, his agency could help “create an environment where people feel safe coming forward.” 

Campbell said she thought the coarsening of language and rhetoric around immigration issues had negatively impacted her ability to serve at-risk communities. She implored attendees to “come from a place of humanizing and respecting” groups with their word choices, even while having important and sometimes contentious policy disputes, because people will not seek help if they believe they are despised.

Norwood mused on what individuals can do in their cities to build pride and evaluate their civic duties. He said “it’s important to consider who we want to be as Americans.” He encouraged listeners to go read and learn more about trafficking and consider affiliation with a local trafficking task force.

The Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” offers a hotline to report suspicious activity related to human trafficking. The number is 1-866-347-2423.

The non-government National Human Trafficking Hotline, which allows confidential or anonymous calls, is 1-888-373-7888.