Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Can it Happen Here? Understanding Human Trafficking

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

HISTORIC TRIANGLE — Should citizens in the Historic Triangle be concerned about human trafficking?

In December 2022, two Williamsburg residents were indicted on labor trafficking charges defined as “engaged in a conspiracy to harbor, transport, and benefit from the employment of undocumented noncitizens” at their commercial laundry business, Magnolia Cleaning Services in Williamsburg.

Bad things are not supposed to happen in your own “backyard,” but many fear it could happen to those they love. Others may have the impression that human trafficking is either a plot twist to a movie or a political hot topic being used to create controversy. The federal case against these local business owners, however, proves otherwise.

What is human trafficking?

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services defines human trafficking as “a criminal activity in which people profit from the control and exploitation of others. Two forms of human trafficking are sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Human trafficking can occur anywhere, within and across U.S. borders, victimizing both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, both children and adults and across all gender identities.”

Magnolia Cleaning Service was found guilty of harboring more than 100 illegal El Salvadorian citizens. According to court documents, one defendant, Ana Patricia Landaverde, forced people to work against their will, threatened to have the family members of her employees killed and physically assaulted employees who disobeyed her orders.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline states it has received 6,398 reports via its reporting sources since it opened in 2007 identifying 1,689 cases of human trafficking and 3,573 victims in Virginia.

Legislators take action

During the 2024 Virginia General Assembly session, the House unanimously passed Bill 633 Labor Trafficking.
As reported by the Virginia Mercury, the labor trafficking bill presented by Del. Mike Cherry (R-Colonial Heights) “would give the state power to prosecute individuals who traffick other people or purchase them to provide labor against their will”.

The new bill will allow Virginia attorneys to bring labor trafficking cases to trial on their own, as opposed to the current process where cases must be referred to federal prosecutors. It also extends civil action for trafficking in persons from seven years to 10 years.

Gabriel Mahoney with the University of Virginia School of Law’s State and Local Government Policy Clinic stated to the  Virginia Mercury that “federal prosecutors may or may not prosecute a case based on their available resources and typically take longer to bring a case to trial.”

Cherry’s bill would “give local prosecutors the tools they need to bring labor traffickers to justice,” Mahoney continued. “It’ll help victims of labor trafficking by promoting swifter prosecution and public awareness and deter potential trafficking activity in the commonwealth.”

All have a role in tackling human trafficking 

Those prosecuted in the Williamsburg case were identified through tips and a lengthy investigation led by the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force.

The Department of Homeland Security has set up Blue Campaign, a national public awareness campaign designed to educate the public, law enforcement, and other industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases.

“Human trafficking is a unique crime, and one that is often hard to identify, investigate, and prosecute. Human trafficking activities often occur in conjunction with other crimes, which may mask the trafficking components of the activities. Victims of human trafficking may be unwilling or afraid to cooperate with first responders, law enforcement, and victim advocates. Language and cultural barriers can hinder even voluntary communication with trafficking victims,” states the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services webpage.

To report human trafficking, many sources are available through the Virginia State Police or the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

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