Film Looks at Immigrants Caught in Slave Trade

The investigative documentary Lives For Sale unveils how many Latino immigrants crossing into the United States are forced into a modern-day slave trade. Farai Chideya speaks with film's executive producer, Larry Rich.

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TONY COX, host:

If you thought slavery was over, a new film about the human trafficking of Latino and Mexican immigrants will make you think twice. "Lives For Sale" is the investigative documentary that explores how each year, nearly 20,000 people leave their countries for the American dream only to end up in a modern slave-trade nightmare. The film's executive producer, Larry Rich, spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So this is a topic that has been in the news a lot. How did you decide and when did you decide to take it on?

Mr. LARRY RICH (Executive Producer, "Lives for Sale"): Well, we began working on this actually a bit over two years ago. The reason we took it on is because the organization I work with is Maryknoll, which is a Catholic mission organization, and the fact is that the people we work with are suffering from this kind of a situation. And it's one of a whole host of problems that occur that are driven by poverty and desperation.

CHIDEYA: One of the major players in human trafficking are coyotes, the agents who promised to help immigrants cross borders, but sometimes trick them into slave-like conditions. Let's take a listen to an actual coyote explaining what he does.

(Soundbite of film, "Lives for Sale")

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) Well, friends. They're merchandise, because they are just pounds of meat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) It's a game of cat and mouse. You get passed if you're lucky.

CHIDEYA: He was previously a coyote, I should have said. How did you get him to talk, though?

Mr. RICH: We had a contact in Florida, the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking that had contact with this man who spoke very openly to them, who was willing to testify about some of the things that went on. He actually has a master's in business, believe it or not.

CHIDEYA: And what kinds of people are coyotes? I supposed that, you know, if people have an image of them at all, it's usually of someone who's completely a bandit, a criminal. But this guy has a business degree, and it sounds like he viewed this very much like a business.

Mr. RICH: There are actually good coyotes and bad coyotes, just like in any business. They are a travel agent service, really, that's been created by the need for people to emigrate from their countries to the United States.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you turn to the people that coyotes are transporting, your film argues that 54 percent of immigrants worldwide are women, and many of them are forced into sex trades who travel illegally - that rape is so common that the women take birth-control pills before they try to cross borders.

Now, are their governments - the governments of their home-origin countries or U.S. governments - really doing anything to try to prevent either the sexual assaults along the way or the slave trade - the sex-slave trade?

Mr. RICH: Countries like Mexico do have police that try to stop people from getting on the train.

CHIDEYA: Now, besides sexual trades, prostitution, what other occupations can people find themselves in that are coercive or where they can't really have any control over their destiny?

Mr. RICH: There are a lot of things. There's domestic servitude. People work in nail salons, for instance, I was told by our contact in Florida. There are a lot of nail salons there. The workers are, in fact, enslaved. There's a large percentage of farm laborers. California is number one in the country for trafficked human beings, and Florida is number two. And while a lot of that is due to the sex trade, it's also because there's a very large agricultural industry in both of those states.

CHIDEYA: And the people who travel to cross borders without any legal papers, we might think oh, it's going to be a bunch of young men. But you also include a Honduran grandmother who takes care of her nine grandchildren, and she talks about being willing to take a dangerous ride on a freight train to come to the U.S. for a better life. Here she is.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Lives for Sale")

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) I know it's dangerous. Sometimes the train cuts off your legs or your arms, or it kills the people who fall off. But you have to risk it because of the need we have.

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit more about her.

Mr. RICH: Well, she was indeed a grandmother from Honduras, you know. She was left with the grandchildren because one parent died and the other abandoned the children. And she just didn't have any other choice. She could not make a living there, and so she was coming to the United States to try and eke out an existence to find some income.

CHIDEYA: Do you feel that this is a fair documentary in the sense that this is such a contentious issue, there are not just two sides to it. But there are people who say let's have work visas, let's have a fence, let's have an open border. There are so many sides.

Do you feel that this documentary humanizes the people who were subject to trafficking in a way that doesn't bring enough light to the other issues and the legal issues surrounding this?

Mr. RICH: I don't think so. I mean, I think we do try to point out some of the legal issues, you know. It is an hour-long documentary. There's only so much we can do, because we feel that the factor that has been missing in much of the heated discussion about this is the human element, and what really happens to real people. And that this situation, by the way, you know, in Central America and Mexico really stands in for a worldwide problem. Worldwide, there are, you know, hundreds of thousands of people who are trafficked.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned that you worked with the Catholic group, Maryknoll. What is the church or what is Maryknoll trying to do about this immigration situation? Obviously, Catholicism is one of the biggest religions in Latin America, as well as a large religion in the United States.

Mr. RICH: A lot of things are being done by the church in those countries. In the course of the documentary, we talked to a priest who's running a house -two priests, actually - run halfway houses for migrants, trying to help them from being exploited before they go across the border.

One of the most important things, I think, are alternatively programs. We see one in the - two actually in the documentary that are supported in part with -in one case, Presbyterian Church funds and another Catholic funds - where there are attempts to create economic models in these countries or ways to keep people out of poverty that allow them to stay in their home country, make a decent living and not have to emigrate. And the programs we look at are actually fairly effective at that.

CHIDEYA: What would you like to see come out of this documentary in the long term?

Mr. RICH: I would like to see people become aware that if we really want to do something about it, we have to address the trade issues and the economic issues that are at the base of it. People - most people don't really want to leave their home country. They largely come here not because they wanted to get rich. They come here because they just want to be able to make a living to survive.

CHIDEYA: Larry Rich, thanks a lot.

Mr. RICH: You're welcome. Thank you.

COX: That was Larry Rich, executive producer of "Lives For Sale," with NPR's Farai Chideya. The documentary airs this Sunday on the Hallmark Channel. Go to your - go to our Web site, www.npr.org, for airtimes near you.

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