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The State Department issues an annual report on human trafficking. It calls the practice the equivalent of modern-day slavery, including commercial sex exploitation and forced labor. This year, for the first time, the U.S. included itself in the document, saying the U.S. has a serious problem with human trafficking as a source country as well as a destination for victims.
Sara Lerner, of member station KUOW in Seattle, looked at the problem in Washington state. She has this report.
SARA LERNER: 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 last few years, theres been a flurry of legislative activity all across the country to address the issue.
Dozens of new laws increase criminal penalties for traffickers, and legislate better help for victims of coercion and force. Kathleen Morris heads the Washington State Anti-Trafficking Response Network, or WARN.
Ms. KATHLEEN Morris (Washington State Trafficking Response Network): You know, we think of trafficking as this huge network of organized crime, which it can be, but it can also just be, you know, a couple that wanted a nanny but didn't want to pay for it.
LERNER: 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. In a Seattle suburb, one woman from East Africa was tricked and ended up working here as virtually, a domestic slave. Sadly, her story is somewhat typical. She doesnt like to talk about it, but she's doing so now.
Unidentified Woman: Because I want other people who are going through this same situation that I had before to be careful about it.
LERNER: She can't say her name or even say which country she's from. If she reveals who her perpetrators are, they could come after her - or worse, hurt her family back in her home country, which is where this all began. There, 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 also from this same country. But she said no. She didnt want to leave her kids. Her boss persisted, but she kept refusing. Then, the woman offered to put her daughters in boarding school.
Unidentified Woman: Boarding school back home is very important, especially for girls. So I say, that sounds good. Putting my children in boarding school and then coming to visit them - oh, that's good idea.
LERNER: 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 familys meals, cooking, cleaning, gardening.
Unidentified Woman: I was responsible for everything, except only their body they washed by themselves. But I was responsible for everything.
LERNER: She worked almost 100 hours a week. The couple paid her $70 a month, and insisted she talk to no one.
Unidentified Woman: Why did these people do this to me? It really make me sad when I remember this story.
LERNER: But eventually, this woman did get away, and she got in touch with an immigration attorney. Charges were even brought against the couple she worked for, and she was able to recover her proper wages. Thats a rare good outcome for these kinds of cases.
Eric Breitzke heads the human trafficking unit for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He says human trafficking is one of the most hidden crimes in the U.S.
Mr. ERIC BREITZKE (Human Trafficking Unit, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Were 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, where there may be social caste systems in place, and where law enforcement may be generally distrusted.
LERNER: The State Department wont even give an estimate of how many victims there are right now in the U.S. But we know 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 its a matter of educating law enforcement on what to look for.
Mr. BREITZKE: Its very easy to understand force in terms of a physical assault. But what about psychological coercion? What about a threat against a family member? What about a threat against a child who's left in a home country? 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.
LERNER: Back in Seattle, Kathleen Morris, with Washington states anti-trafficking group, says shes hopeful these days.
Ms. MORRIS: There has been great movement in the United States over the last 10 years to address this issue. We're really at a good place right now as far as attention to it.
LERNER: Meanwhile, the woman who went through it all? She's made a new life for herself. She has a job in health care and after years without seeing her kids, theyre finally together again. She's at her own apartment in Seattle, making her daughters beef with ugali. It's a staple all over East Africa.
(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)
LERNER: For NPR News, I'm Sara Lerner in Seattle.
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