By Jaden E. Terrell
For the past month, I've been working on the third Jared McKean book, which involves human trafficking and slavery in the United States. The research for this book has been eye-opening. We don't think of slavery as something that happens in the modern age, especially in the United States, but the truth is, while it is more common in some countries than in others, no country is immune.
Each year, 800,000 people become human trafficking victims and are transported across international borders. Of those, it's estimated that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. Most are women and children, but some are men who are put to work picking oranges or tomatoes or performing other manual labor.
Some modern slaves come here illegally, smuggled across the border by "snakeheads" (in the case of Chinese illegal immigrants) and "coyotes (in the case of Mexicans and South Americans, as Ben has so eloquently discussed elsewhere) and are forced into sexual slavery or manual labor. Others come on work visas, but their documents are confiscated, and they are forced into servitude. Lured by the promise of good jobs and the "American Dream," many victims of human trafficking don't realize they're being exploited. They're told that their trip here was costly and that because of this, they have incurred a heavy debt, which they must discharge by working for the debt holder. Somehow, though, the debt never grows smaller. The victims are charged for the minimal food and clothing they are given, and if they need medical care, the cost (if care is given at all) is added to their debt. Sometimes they are paid a minimal salary but must buy toiletries, food, clothing, and other necessities from a "store" owned by the "employer."
Some women are brought into the country to work as nannies and housekeepers; instead of the fair pay and good working conditions they are promised, they're beaten, starved, and fed horror stories about the cruelty of American law enforcement officials and even of their neighbors. Some are broken by being repeatedly brutalized. They become convinced that no one will help them and that there is no escape. Some "employers" even pretend to send money home to their victims' families so the victims, believing their families are depending on them to send money, are even more motivated to accept their lot. The "employers" are masters of manipulation, using a combination of fear, pain, hunger, and honor to keep their victims under control.
Cases have been documented in New York, California, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, and many other American cities. The chilling book The Slave Next Door by Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter describes a numer of them. In Nashville, Tennessee, there are at least two rescue groups dedicated to rescuing victims of trafficking and helping them deal with their trauma. The police department has formed a task force, and special training in identifying and helping trafficking victims has been given to local law enforcement as well as to the local branches of the FBI and TBI. This is serious stuff.
While reading A Crime So Monstrous by Benjamin Skinner, I was taken aback by the author's assertion that in any major city in the world, it was possible to buy a human being for less than $200. It's inconceivable to me that in this day and age, one human being can still treat another like chattel. Yet, every day, in virtually every country in the world, people are being bought and sold.
I'm just beginning to scrape the surface of the subject, but delving into it has been a little like turning over a big shiny rock and finding a nest of creepy crawly things beneath. It's my hope that human trafficking, like those creepy crawly things, will shrivel when exposed to light. How fortunate to be writing in a genre that can entertain while doing exactly that.