© 2006 The Associated Press
NEW YORK — Raids that uncovered more than 70 suspected sex slaves focused on 20 brothels in the East, but they illustrated a long-ignored national problem found in towns large and small, experts say.
"It's a very overwhelming subject for a lot of people to recognize that there is slavery at this time in our country," said Carole Angel, staff attorney with the Immigrant Women Program of the women's rights advocacy group Legal Momentum in Washington. "It's hard for us as humans to contemplate what this means."
The concept of slavery in the 21st century is foreign to most people, agreed Jolene Smith, executive director of Free The Slaves, a Washington-based organization dedicated to ending slavery worldwide.
"Americans are conditioned to believe that slavery was a thing of the past," Smith said. "We have to reeducate ourselves about this reality."
On Tuesday, federal and local law enforcement raided brothels disguised as massage parlors, health spas and acupuncture clinics in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia, arresting 31 people on trafficking charges.
Authorities said they also freed more than 70 sex workers, taking them to undisclosed locations for questioning and to provide basic services such as health care and food. Authorities said it might take weeks to get the Korean immigrants to trust them enough to discuss their ordeal.
"Human traffickers profit by turning dreams into nightmares," said U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia in Manhattan, where the majority of the traffickers face prosecution. "These women sought a better life in America and found instead forced prostitution and misery."
Angel said the raids should not give the impression that trafficking is limited to immigrants, who are often enticed into coming to America for legitimate jobs but then forced to work in brothels, sweatshops and restaurants to pay off debts of up to $30,000 to their traffickers.
"There are so many faces on this," she said. "It happens in rural communities, big cities. It spans all education levels, different countries, different races."
Such forced labor also thrives in agricultural and domestic work, as well as in sweatshops or unregulated industries, said Laurel Fletcher, law professor at the University of California at Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic.
Fletcher was one of several authors of a 2004 report believed to be the first comprehensive study of forced labor in the United States.
That study, by Free The Slaves and the Human Rights Center of the University of California at Berkeley, concluded that at least 10,000 people are forced laborers at any time across the United States.
The State Department estimates there are among up to 800,000 trafficking victims worldwide.
The Berkeley study concluded that forced labor victims came from more than 35 countries, with the most from China, followed by Mexico and Vietnam. It found reports of forced labor in at least 90 U.S. cities, most often in areas with large immigrant populations.
Fletcher cautioned that trafficking in smaller communities is likely harder to detect.
The study also concluded that prostitution and sex services accounted for 46 percent of the documented forced labor. Domestic service made up 27 percent, agriculture 10 percent, sweatshop factory work 5 percent and restaurant and hotel work 4 percent.
Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the federal government has begun numerous investigations and seized tens of millions of dollars from traffickers.
With increased investigations, the number of arrests has risen more than 400 percent in recent years, Myers said. And the amount of assets seized from human smugglers and human trafficking organizations has gone from almost nothing in 2003 to nearly $27 million in 2005, she noted.
Myers said criminals look at the slaves as a commodity.
"But we know that the victims of trafficking and smuggling are not cargo," Myers said. They are human beings who often have been mentally and physically broken down in every way possible."