This year, for the first time ever, the U.S. included itself in the State Department's annual report on human trafficking. The report said the U.S. has a serious problem with human trafficking — a practice they call the equivalent of modern-day slavery, including commercial sex exploitation and forced labor — as a source country, and as a destination for victims.
"We think of trafficking as this huge network of organized crime, which it can be, but it can also just be a couple that wanted a nanny but didn't want to pay for it," says Kathleen Morris, who heads the Washington state Anti-Trafficking Response Network.
Human trafficking victims do more than just sex work. In fact, the majority work as forced laborers in all kinds of industries, from construction to agriculture or housekeeping.
Seven years ago, Washington became the first state in the nation to make human trafficking a crime on the state level. Now 44 states have a similar law and — just in the past few years — there's been a flurry of legislative activity all across the country to address the issue. Dozens of new laws increase criminal penalties for traffickers and require better help for victims of coercion and force.
An Offer That Seemed Promising
In a Seattle suburb, one woman from East Africa was tricked and ended up working virtually as a domestic slave. She can't use her name or even say which country she's from. If she reveals who the perpetrators are, they could come after her or, worse, hurt her family back in her home country, which is where this all began.
Sadly, her story is somewhat typical. Although she doesn't like to talk about it, she is doing so now "because I want other people who are going through this same situation that I had before to be careful about it," she says.
In her home country, she took care of a wealthy woman's house. They got along so well that the woman asked her to go to the U.S. and work for her relatives, who are from this same country.
But she said no. She didn't want to leave her kids. Her boss persisted, but she kept refusing. Then, the woman offered to put her daughters in boarding school.
"Boarding school back home is very important, especially for girls," she says. "So I said, 'That sounds good, putting my children in boarding school, and then coming to visit them — oh, that's a good idea.' "
So the family organized her documents and brought her all the way to Seattle. But things were bad. Her duties far exceeded those of the job back home. She took care of a 2-year-old and a baby and all of the family's meals — cooking, cleaning, gardening and more.
"I was responsible for everything, except only their body they washed by themselves. But I was responsible for everything," she says.
She worked almost 100 hours a week. The couple paid her $70 a month and insisted that she talk to no one.
"Why did these people do this to me?" she says. "It really make me sad when I remember this story."
But, eventually, this woman did get away and contacted an immigration attorney.
Charges were brought against the couple she worked for, and she was able to recover her proper wages. That's a rare good outcome for these kinds of cases.
U.S. Has To Be Better At Identifying Victims
Erik Breitzke, who heads the human trafficking unit for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says human trafficking is one of the most hidden crimes in the U.S.
"We're dealing with foreign-born victims, who are often in the United States illegally, may not speak the language, come from a country where their cultural norms and mores are different or there may be social caste systems in place, and where law enforcement may be generally distrusted," he says.
The State Department won't give an estimate of how many victims there are right now in the U.S. But this woman is among about 300 people who last year received a visa specifically designated for human trafficking victims.
The State Department says the U.S. has to do a better job at identifying these victims. Breitzke says it's a matter of educating law enforcement about what to look for.
"It's very easy to understand force in terms of a physical assault, but what about psychological coercion? But what about a threat against a family member, what about a threat against a child who's left in a home country?" he says. "We want to make the light bulb go off and to recognize that something might be going on here that they need to follow up with."
Back in Seattle, Kathleen Morris with Washington state's anti-trafficking group says she's hopeful these days.
"There has been great movement in the United States over the last 10 years to address this issue," she says. "We're really at a good place right now as far as attention to it."
Meanwhile, the woman who went through it all has made a new life for herself. She has a job in health care. And, after years without seeing her kids, they're finally together again. She's at her own apartment in Seattle, making her daughters beef with ugali — a staple all over East Africa.