The term “human trafficking” often conjures up images of foreign-born victims in remote, underdeveloped parts of the globe. But every day, people are being trafficked throughout the United States — many of whom are U.S. citizens. 

In its recently released 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, the State Department called attention to the prevalence of trafficking on American soil by including the United States for the first time in the report’s 10-year history. According to the report, which rates countries around the world on their efforts to combat human trafficking, the United States is a “source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children,” with most victims being forced into labor or prostitution. 

While the report ranked the United States as a tier one country — meaning it fully complies with minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — the document still cited a number of areas in which the country could improve or strengthen efforts to identify victims and stop traffickers. 

Nationwide concern 

The State Department estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 foreign-born individuals are trafficked within the United States each year. Although the government has not released statistics on American-born victims, studies find that as many as 100,000 U.S.-born children alone are being trafficked at any given time. 

Among those at the forefront of the efforts to fight trafficking in the United States is the U.S. bishops’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services, which has been active in anti-trafficking work for more than a decade. According to Nyssa Parampil, associate director of the USCCB’s anti-trafficking services program, they have identified victims within the United States from more than 68 different countries of origin, primarily in South America and Southeast Asia.  

Parampil told Our Sunday Visitor that both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens are falling victim to traffickers in all parts of the country. 

“Obviously, the big metropolitan cities like Los Angeles and New York and Miami, there’s been more attention given to those areas, and they are going to identify more victims there,” she said. “But we have also seen cases throughout the Midwest, the South and the islands. So, really, it is everywhere.” 

That includes Kentucky, where Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Louisville operates the statewide Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Program. Since it was founded two years ago, the program has already served more than 100 trafficking victims, about half of whom were trafficked for prostitution and half for forced labor. In nine cases, victims were trafficked for both. More than 70 percent were foreign-born.  

“Kentucky doesn’t seem like an obvious place to be the destination for trafficking of so many foreign nationals,” said Marissa Castellanos, who manages the program. “And it is not by chance that they ended up here. There was someone here waiting for them who was planning to exploit them.” 

One of the most important tasks in combating trafficking is to educate the general population to be able to recognize and report potential cases. 

“One of the hardest things about identifying trafficking is that the victims don’t self-identify,” Castellanos told OSV. “So, it is reliant on a third party intervening, identifying it and reporting it. That’s why our public awareness efforts are so important.” 

Raising awareness 

In addition to the agencies working around the country to reach out to victims, a large number of Catholic religious orders have dedicated themselves to raising awareness of human trafficking. Orders nationwide have joined anti-trafficking coalitions, lobbied state and local legislatures, notified major corporations of trafficking concerns and circulated information to educate the public on the prevalence of human trafficking. 

“Raising awareness is extremely important because a lot of people have no idea that it exists,” said Sister Mary Beth Hamm, social justice coordinator for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, who are among the many orders to take a stand against trafficking. 

She cited cases that have been uncovered in suburban neighborhoods that on the surface do not appear to be trafficking situations, such as workers in nail salons or children living with wealthy families who are being forced into servitude. Since victims may not be native English speakers or may be too frightened to come forward, she said, it is important for citizens to be on the lookout for possible instances of trafficking. 

“It is really such a hidden kind of crime,” she said. “Sometimes it is right in your backyard and you don’t know it.” 

Road to recovery 

Church organizations also help rescued victims find necessary services to address a wide range of needs, from physical safety to emotional well-being.  

Since 2006, the U.S. bishops’ office has contracted with the Department of Health and Human Services and with social service agencies nationwide to provide case management for victims. Similarly, Catholic Charities agencies help victims by providing access to food, shelter, health care and legal services. 

“These are complicated victims to work with, because it is a very difficult process to really begin to rebuild your entire life,” said Castellanos. 

“But we’ve seen that it can happen,” she said. “Once they start feeling safe and feeling like they have their basic needs met, they really are resilient.” 

Room to grow 

According to Parampil, the growing number of victims who have been identified in the United States is a sign of the effectiveness of anti-trafficking programs. “Like with anything that is in a way new, it is going to be a long road to figuring out what are the best practices,” Parampil said. “I think we’ve found good things, and we’re doing good things, but I think we can always grow.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

By The Numbers (sidebar) 

12.3 million - Number of adults and children in forced labor, bonded labor and forced prostitution around the world  

56% - Number of victims who are women and girls 

1.8 in 1,000 - Number of persons worldwide who have been trafficking victims 

49,105 - Number of victims identified worldwide in 2009 

5 ,606 - Number of attempted prosecutions of traffickers in 2009 

4,166 - Number of successful trafficking prosecutions in 2009 

$54 million - Amount of federal grant funds awarded to support international anti-trafficking programs 

104 - Countries that still do not have laws, policies or regulations to prevent deportation of victims 

Source: U.S. Department of State 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report