USCCB adopts new model to fight human trafficking

Human trafficking is a nightmare thousands of victims endure every day in the shadows of America’s urban and rural communities. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wants to recruit local parishes and communities in a new effort to banish the darkness that traffickers need in order to sell their victims for labor or sex. 

The Amistad Movement is the name of the initiative developed by the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) to get parishes and immigrant communities directly involved in the fight against human traffickers. The program takes its name from The Amistad, a 19th-century slave ship bound for America, where the slaves rose up, took over the ship and won their freedom to return to Africa. 

“We’re launching a national campaign to meet victims where they reside in their communities,” said Nathalie Lummert, MRS Special Programs director. “We’re raising awareness, education and coalition building so immigrant populations can raise up leaders among themselves to identify and help victims of trafficking.” 

Lummert said the USCCB is applying more than a decade of anti-trafficking expertise to developing a new anti-trafficking model that empowers communities with the know-how to fight human trafficking and get victims the social services and law enforcement help they need.

Victim outreach program

The USCCB had managed a $15 million victim outreach program serving more than 2,700 victims and 500 family members over five-and-a-half years on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services. A Washington Post investigation revealed senior political appointees at HHS overruled internal recommendations to renew the USCCB’s contract over the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control and abortion. 

Nearly 17,500 men, women and children enter the United States each year as victims of human trafficking, according to the USCCB. The victims of trafficking — the largest criminal activity next to the illegal drug trade — live in America’s cities, small towns and rural communities. 

“When people don’t hear about cases in the community, people naturally can feel like it really isn’t a problem,” Hilary Chester, associate director of the MRS Anti-Trafficking Unit, said. 

But data the USCCB gathered from managing the HHS program paints a far different picture: traffickers are not just selling and hiding their victims in America’s metropolises, they’re moving them into America’s hometowns. 

“We noticed a shift to a much more dispersed pattern,” Chester said. “We identified victims living all over the country: rural areas, small towns, cities and even suburban communities.” 

Chester said the MRS found that 70 percent of victims are trafficked for labor, while the rest are trafficked for sex or a mix of both.  

Victims sell their services or their bodies for little or no pay, and traffickers secure victims’ silence with violence, shame, debts they can never pay off and threats of harm to family at home. 

Traffickers blend their victims into communities where immigrant populations work in many unregulated industries, such as restaurants, agriculture, hair salons and domestic work. But Chester said it’s the immigrants in these communities that can make all the difference in the fight against trafficking. 

“We want to reach people in immigrant communities that might be able to identify victims, help them and prevent others from becoming victims themselves.”

Focused leaders, efforts

The Amistad Movement will help vulnerable communities create and sustain by themselves an anti-trafficking outreach program.  

The USCCB will send trainers with a specially designed curriculum to train new leaders to identify and reach out to victims in the community. 

But the advantage of the program is that trained leaders will be able to pass on their expertise to others in the community. 

“It’ll be us training the trainer, so those community leaders can pair up with existing anti-trafficking coalitions,” Lauren Rymer, anti-trafficking education and outreach coordinator at MRS. 

Rymer said trained leaders will also learn how to accompany victims and help them overcome their fear to engage law enforcement and access the social services they need. 

“You need someone who doesn’t take no for an answer, and the victim often is not that person,” Rymer told OSV. 

Lummert said the pilot phase of the program will roll out in recent Hispanic, indigenous Maya, and Haitian communities in South Florida and the Gulf Coast states. She said the focus groups they conducted show these groups are more than ready to take charge of this fight. 

“They are excited that we are just coming in and training them, so they can become resources for their own community,” Lummert said. 

Rymer conducted the focus groups in Miami and south Florida and said that the different responses of various ethnic communities showed Amistad’s success depends on making the curriculum adaptable. 

The Haitian and Hispanic focus groups identified different work areas (other than domestic work) where they would expect to find members of their communities being trafficked. 

She said they also had different ideas about what outreach efforts would be most effective in their communities.  

The Haitian focus group believed that tying education efforts to music, art and food gatherings would best get their communities excited about taking care of the victims among them. 

“The Central American group was interested in exploring media outlets, such as radio or broadcasting, as their best option,” Rymer said. 

New initiatives

Both groups, however, agreed that they should concentrate their efforts on training youths in their respective communities to play a leading part in fighting trafficking. 

But Rymer said she learned from the focus groups that Christian churches and Catholic parishes may give leaders some of their best chances to meet victims and educate them about the resources available to help them escape. 

“A lot of people being trafficked are Catholic or Christian. Churches might be the only place they are allowed to go, and that’s where we can get them this information,” Rymer said. “It’s a very powerful resource we have.” 

But Amistad is about preventing new victims as much as it is about saving current victims. Chester said that means educating people about the red flags of a potential trafficking situation. 

Chester said one rescued Nicaraguan woman in Miami revealed that had she known about the red flags of trafficking, she would never have experienced the trauma of sex slavery. She would have realized that the car driving her out of Miami into rural Florida was not taking her to the cleaning job she applied to. Instead she could have escaped when the men stopped to refill the tank with gas. 

“We’ll never know how many people would be saved by having this knowledge,” Chester said. “In the end, if people are prevented from becoming victims, that is a great success.” 

Rymer said the training curriculum should be finished by this month or the beginning of April. She hopes that after the program gets off the ground in these communities, that they will network and share their experiences and learn best practices from each other. 

“A lot of people in these communities want to do the right thing. They don’t want any more victims and neither do we. We’re tired of it,” Rymer said. “They know they can do this themselves with the right tools and education.” 

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from New York.