“Land of the Free:” Hidden risk in America

Every year, hundreds of thousands immigrate to America. For many, America is the land of opportunity where they can make a better life for their families. But the American promise of “liberty and justice for all” never comes true in the lives of some immigrants. For people like Mai, justice in America is hard to come by.

Mai was lured to America on a false promise. Hoping she could support her family back in Vietnam, she accepted a “high-paying” restaurant job. But Mai’s employer smuggled her into America, telling Mai she’d have to work to repay the cost of her relocation. She worked grueling hours in the restaurant, receiving almost no wage. Mai lived in fear, knowing that her employer could have her family’s home taken away. Without legal status or any knowledge of English, Mai had nowhere to turn for escape. (Department of Justice, 2014)

 Eventually, Mai’s employer was caught and pled guilty to forced labor trafficking.  Mai and seven others were finally released from their abuse. But thousands more immigrants like her are manipulated by their employers in the “land of the free,” cheated out of their hard-earned work.

About Illegal Immigration

 More than 8 million workers, like Mai, are illegal immigrants. But why don’t they just come to America legally? The answer is not simple. Many employers in America, particularly in the agriculture and manufacturing industries, continuously hire illegal immigrants—75% of whom are from Mexico or Central America. (Department of Homeland Security, 2012). Most of these immigrants are drawn by the chance to earn more money for their families. In fact, job opportunities for illegal immigrants far outnumber the legal visas that the United States offers each year. And the process for legally immigrating is difficult and expensive, often taking years to complete. Skilled and educated workers are favored, meaning that underprivileged immigrants who come to America out of financial need have little chance of a legal path. For them, illegally working in the United States can be the fastest and easiest option for improving their family’s situation. (USA Today, 2011)

About Immigrant Risk

No matter their legal status, immigrants, as humans, deserve dignity. But undocumented workers in America are at a much higher risk for labor abuses. Low economic status, language barriers, and fear of deportation make these workers extremely vulnerable to unfair work practices and outright exploitation. Undocumented workers who are injured on the job have no resources for compensation, and many others don’t even receive full wages. A landmark survey of undocumented Los Angeles workers found that more than three-quarters frequently worked off-the-clock or did not receive overtime pay. (The National Employment Law Project, 2013).

 This wage theft is rampant among undocumented employees, but they can rarely fight back. Increased enforcement of immigration laws in the United States has made it easier for employers to threaten deportation in order to manipulate workers. With one simple call to local police, an employer can spark deportation proceedings that lead all the way up to the Department of Homeland Security.

 José, a day laborer, was hired by an independent contractor to pave the parking lot of a local business. After ten hours of hard work, he asked for his pay. But the employer threatened him and drove off, returning soon after with the police. He falsely accused José of stealing from him, and José was taken into custody. Although he was eventually cleared of these bogus charges, the police still turned José over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now José worries he’ll be forced out of the country, all because he asked for his fair pay.

Workers like José know that a small complaint about an employer can put more than just their job at risk—they risk their family’s entire livelihood in America. With mouths to feed back home, most laborers simply endure abuses at work in order to continue providing for their families. They choose to stay silent if the alternative is losing their income, or even being deported away from their children.

 Mistreatment for migrant workers extends beyond just wages. Women working in low-pay agricultural or factory jobs are at greater risk for sexual harassment, coercion, and even assault. A recent PBS documentary called the sexual exploitation of female agricultural workers an “epidemic.” Corrupt supervisors threaten firing, violence, or deportation in order to take advantage of female workers. These women are forced to sacrifice their dignity for the sake of their jobs and families. (Frontline, 2013)

The Fight for Human Dignity

 Undocumented men and women come to America for better opportunities, only to find that many Americans view them purely as criminals. Yet when they face criminal exploitation from corrupt employers, they have nowhere to turn for help. Some organizations are working to change this, seeking to pass or enforce laws that protect undocumented workers from employer retaliation. Others fight for immigration reform so that exploited workers no longer have to live in fear.

Chicago 2012-BeckyAt Women at Risk, we seek to build circles of protection around exploited people, ensuring safety and dignity for the women and families who are denied basic human rights in our own country. Our Civilian First Responder conference offers people like you the chance to be an advocate for those in your community who are at risk of exploitation. By attending a conference, you can learn to recognize risks like these, hiding in your own community.

 If there are immigrant families in your community, build relationships with them. Find out ways you can help them feel more at home—perhaps they have experienced unfair treatment at work. Or maybe they’d simply like to be welcomed in their neighborhood. From the organizational to the individual level, we all play a part in making America a place of “justice for all.” Each one of us can be a voice for the voiceless.

Sex Tourism: The Dark Side of Spring Break

Spring Break provides an ideal excuse to escape from home. With the kids out of school, you can trade dreary, gray and brown landscapes for palm trees and azure skies. Boots can be tossed into the corner and exchanged for flip flops. Sand castles replace snowmen, beach chairs substitute for office chairs, and thundering seas displace frozen puddles of slush. For seven days, your world is filled with warm sunshine, frosty drinks, and the unmistakable scents of chlorine and sun screen.

As wonderful as spring break is, it offers a potential for sinister activities, like sex tourism. This industry treats sex as just another visitor attraction, and it can also open doors for human trafficking. Some tourists venture away from home for the purpose of going to bed with strangers; others buy prostitutes on an impulse. Whatever the case, perpetrators can be male or female, and victims can be men, women, or children.

Sex tourism exists in several different countries, but some common destinations include Thailand, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, and the Netherlands (specifically Amsterdam). But it’s more than an international problem; it can also occur in our homeland, particularly in sensual cities like Las Vegas and Montreal, Quebec (also known as the sex tourism capital of North America) (Baklinski 2013). In some of these areas, prostitution is legal (countries that permit prostitution may see higher rates of human trafficking, evidence suggests [Cho, Dreher, and Neumayer 2013]). In other areas, laws are lax and easy to evade.

Perhaps the most troubling segment of sex tourism is that which sells children under the age of 18. And it’s not just pedophiles that purchase sex from minors. Most child sex tourists are “situational”—that is, they are not exclusively attracted to children (as are pedophiles). Rather, they are experimenters. Traveling to other countries or cities offers them the perfect opportunity to do this because of the “anonymity and impunity” it entails (The Code). Those who pursue these activities may try to rationalize them by assuring themselves, “This is helping [the victim] survive/make a living” or “Things are different in this country.”

These are convenient lies. The sex tourism industry is toxic for victims caught in its web, imparting onto them multitudes of problems: dangerous pregnancy, STDs, psychological trauma, substance addiction, bodily damage, and poverty. It is nothing short of abuse. And it doesn’t matter where in the world perpetrators are, nor does it matter what a specific country’s policy is; thanks to the PROTECT Act, U.S. citizens are considered criminals when they exploit children, and those found guilty will be imprisoned for a maximum of thirty years.

In spite of legislation, a fourth of the world’s international child sex tourists come from North America, according to End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) (as cited in Martin, 2013). We have made progress, but our work here is far from over.

There are several ways you can help during this spring break. Supporting Threads of Hope, located in the Philippines, is one. In a country where sex tourism thrives, this organization offers an empowering alternative to walking the streets at night: weaving beautiful bracelets, which you can purchase through the WAR Chest Boutique. When you knot the ends around your wrist, you can rest assured that you have granted a new life to a human soul.

If you are involved in the tourism industry, you have a special and unique privilege to combat this form of human trafficking. When working directly with clients—or speaking with those who do—inform them about sex tourism and encourage them to take action alongside of you. Your company can also join organizations like the Code, which will provide you with tools and resources to fight child sex tourism. Flight attendants and other airline workers can help, too, by educating themselves about the signs of human trafficking and watching for potential victims.

Whether you decide to stay home or venture abroad this spring break, make sure to enjoy some quality time with your family. But also seize the opportunity to boycott sexual exploitation. Say “no” to pornography, casual sex, strip clubs, wet t-shirt contests, and other activities that objectify people. The heart of human trafficking—the mechanism by which it continues—is the demand for commercialized sex. So refuse to fuel it, and encourage others to do the same. In doing this—or anything else to stop sex tourism—you will begin to loosen the chains of modern-day slavery.

Foster Care and At-Risk Children

Cassie was just an infant when her biological parents abandoned her. From that point on, she was carted from abusive foster family to abusive foster family, never able to find a place to call home—until someone adopted her. But she didn’t find safety and respite within her new household. Instead, she was once again abused, even trafficked. The trauma she faced planted roots of mental illness within her.

Cassie’s story has a happy ending; she was rescued from her situation and is healing within the refuge of a domestic safehouse. However, her situation is not unique, and other stories may not end on a positive note like hers does.

Children with experience in foster care are at particularly high risk of sex trafficking; they make up the majority of individuals preyed upon (The Polaris Project; ACYF). The foster victim to non-foster victim ratio is uncertain, due to the hidden nature of the crime; but 2013 statistics from the Polaris Project estimated that, of the runaways who were believed to be trafficking victims, 67 percent came from foster care backgrounds.

Why such high numbers? What puts these children at this degree of risk? There are a few different reasons and factors.

Children are placed in foster care for a good purpose: because they have suffered abuse and/or neglect at the hands of their biological parents. This creates an inherent risk; children who are abused—especially sexually—are more likely to be trafficked. But the physical and emotional damage does not always end with the child’s mother or father. Foster parents—the ones who are meant to protect, cherish, and rehabilitate—may also abuse the child, as Cassie’s did. This is not always the case, of course, but it does happen. In such instances, families slice into preexisting scars.

Past experiences—as well as the stress of relocation and parental separation—can also hinder relationships between foster children and families. Many of the children suffer developmental, social, academic, emotional, and/or mental issues. While some families rise to the challenge and succeed, others find that they are not properly equipped for such a responsibility. Sometimes those in the latter group feel forced to back out for this reason, leaving children feeling unwanted.

Even if the fostering relationship works out, system policies may force children to flit from home to home. With each move, a new fissure streaks through the floors beneath them. The result is a life of instability.

These factors make foster children particularly easy targets for sex traffickers. Pimps can step in and draw victims into a net of slavery, luring them with things they’ve always wanted but never experienced: love, dependability, acceptance, and affirmation.

Kindhearted people like you, however, can also give at-risk children the affection, attention, and care they so desperately need. Donating your time through mentorship is one way to do so. Befriend a girl between the ages of 12 and 14—the average age of prostitution entry (The Polaris Project)—and you will provide her with appropriate love and affirmation, which she may not receive at home. The offers of a trafficker will then lose their power. There are many organizations through which you can mentor, from the nationwide (e.g., Big Brothers Big Sisters of America) to the local (e.g., Barnabas Ministries in West Michigan). Even if you don’t have a knack for mentoring, you can simply create a haven of hospitality for your children’s companions. Extend warmth and friendliness to them, and assure them that you are present and available if ever they need someone. Perhaps they won’t respond, but perhaps they will.

In addition, WAR, Int’l partners with several other organizations that help at-risk children, such as New Life—a rehabilitative and life-restoring home for youth who have nowhere to go or have suffered abuse, neglect, trafficking, and more. They offer services such as counseling and skills training. Support their work, and you will lift a young person out of his/her circumstances, as well as join him/her on the journey toward recovery and empowerment.

Lastly, if you feel called and equipped to do so, consider opening your home to a foster child. Throughout the United States, the demand of foster children exceeds the supply of foster families. By giving an abused or neglected child a structured, stable home and all the love in your heart, you will give him/her a safe place to heal, as well as reduce his/her risk of being trafficked. Whatever you choose to do, your charitable act can make a difference, giving a child a hand up rather than a handout.

Wear the Story, Share the Story

Join the journey of rescue!

It’s easy to feel discouraged when you think about the millions of people who are trafficked worldwide. But even small steps can make huge differences in the lives of survivors. WAR, Int’l invites you to walk with us as we work to create circles of protection around at-risk women and children.

We believe that stories are a powerful way of spreading awareness and hope. They humanize a statistic, infusing blood and flesh into a number. That’s why every purchase you make at the WAR Chest Boutique includes a story card. Each card describes the program from which the product came. Flip it over to find a true tale of redemption, the story of a program participant (whose name has been changed for privacy protection). Read it, remember it, and take a look at other WAR stories if you so wish (you can even download them and tack them to the fridge). If a friend mentions your new product, seize the opportunity to share the story attached to it.

When you shop at the WAR Chest Boutique, you don’t just empower an individual in a practical, tangible way and join her on the journey toward healing. You also receive the opportunity to spread the word about a woman like her—a woman whose life has been restored. You receive the opportunity to wear the story, share the story.

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Gray Wool Men's ScarfSamita Stripes Blue Scarf Wear the Story

One Dress, One Month, & One Mission

Taking action during trafficking awareness month

When the alarm clock forces your feet to escape their cave of warm blankets, the same old question comes to mind; “What am I going to wear?” Normally the choice is made from a large pile of pants, shirts, and skirts. But many men, women, and children across the globe have no choice at all. From the clothes on their back to their food and their daily work—everything is controlled. According to the US Department of State, an estimated 27 million people live as modern-day slaves. This dark reality, commonly known as “human trafficking,” continues to thrive as the third largest criminal enterprise (USDS). But during the month of January, groups and individuals alike will open closed doors, unveiling this hidden evil as a part of Human Trafficking Awareness Month. One individual, Megan Cowley, is raising awareness in her own unique way—by picking out a dress.

Pearl NecklaceThe Plain Dress Project

During Human Trafficking Awareness month, Megan, a mother and teacher, will become a voice for the silenced through necklaces, scarves, and bracelets. “I am going to be wearing the same ‘Plain Dress’ every day and accessorize it with items I have acquired from various organizations that address the issue of human trafficking” said Megan, “Most of my jewelry and scarves are WAR products and near the end of the month we are going to host a WAR product party.”

As friends, family, and co-works ask Megan about her repeat dress, she will pass out a WAR Scarfsmall card with information and organizations, like Women At Risk, who address the global issue of human trafficking. “I am hoping that people will be moved from apathy to
awareness and then action. If I am able to generate awareness I will feel like that is a seed planted…” Such seeds have the power to challenge our daily living, call communities to action, and even offer rescue to the at-risk. Megan herself first became aware of human trafficking while watching a movie. When she later heard Becky McDonald speak at a conference, that seed became something powerful and life-changing.

WAR ShawlYour January Mission

During this month WAR, Int’l wants you to clothe those at-risk in dignity and worth, planting your own powerful seeds. Whether you are a doctor, teacher, parent, runner, or other, there is always a way to take action against injustice. “I believe that I can engage people in these relationships—to have conversations, to build awareness, to pray, and to support organizations at local, national, and global levels, both financially and through volunteer service” stated Megan, in the hopes that many others will join her in this mission.

During Human Trafficking Awareness Month only, you and a friend can each host a product party and receive a US Training Center necklace as our thanks to you. Or commit this month’s coffee funds to a necklace at the WARChest Boutique, to a WAR, Int’l partner, or even to the US Training Center right at WAR Headquarters, where your donation will be doubled. You can also follow Megan’s journey on Instagram @megancowley1 or by following #plaindressproject.

Let us know if you create your own project for Human Trafficking Awareness Month! We want to see how you’re taking action against Human Trafficking in January and beyond!