Modern Slavery Emerges From the Shadows

In the United States, American citizens and foreign nationals are trafficked—subjected to forced labor, debt bondage and involuntary servitude through the use of force, fraud or coercion—in brothels and factories, in hotels and restaurants, on farms and in homes.

By Kira Zalan on April 2, 2013—”Ima Matul sat under the bright examination light in a Los Angeles hospital, while an emergency room doctor stared suspiciously at the wound on her head. She wondered if the doctor could really see her brain, like her employer said he could when he first saw the wound. “Tell them that you fell in the backyard and bumped your head on a rock,” she recalls being told as a condition of being taken to the hospital to get stitches. Now, the doctor was saying something she didn’t understand in English, and her employer was answering for her. Ima, an Indonesian national, knew the employer probably wasn’t telling the truth, that it was his wife who had split Ima’s head open that morning during another rage-filled tirade about her cleaning skills. By then, Ima had endured two years of emotional and physical abuse, while working in the family’s home without pay.

Soon after that incident, Ima wrote a plea in her limited English on a piece of paper: “Please help me. I cannot take it anymore.” She kept it hidden for months before overcoming her fear and handing the note to a nanny who worked next door. The nanny told her employer, who then contacted the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, which would arrange Ima’s desperate escape a few days later. While the family slept, Ima snuck out of the house and ran to a getaway car waiting down the street, carrying a small bag of clothes she had brought from Indonesia.

An estimated 21 million people are subjected to forced labor worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. In the United States, American citizens and foreign nationals are trafficked—subjected to forced labor, debt bondage and involuntary servitude through the use of force, fraud or coercion—in brothels and factories, in hotels and restaurants, on farms and in homes. In a speech where he acknowledged how widespread the problem is, President Obama called human trafficking “modern slavery” and announced additional anti-trafficking efforts in September. But despite increased efforts by the administration, service providers worry that stronger enforcement of immigration laws is keeping foreign victims silent.

Foreign nationals that become trafficking victims in the United States, like Ima, have a commonly exploited vulnerability: their immigration status. Victims’ advocacy groups say increased immigration enforcement has had a chilling effect on anti-trafficking efforts by fostering a climate of fear among the most vulnerable immigrant populations.”

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