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Waging war against human trafficking in San Antonio — what you can do

by Carol Sowa
Today's Catholic

Editor’s note: This is the final in a four-part series covering selected presentations during St. Mary’s University President’s Peace Commission’s program “Trafficking in Humans,” March 21-23.

    SAN ANTONIO • Work that is being done on the local level to combat human trafficking, the 20th and 21st centuries’ version of slavery, was highlighted by St. Mary’s University’s (StMU) President’s Peace Commission on March 22. “Responding to Trafficking: Communities Taking Action” featured a panel from the South Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking (COAHT) describing the community’s role in building awareness of this modern day horror that exists on our very doorstep.

    Serving on this panel was Sister Barbara Paleczny, SSND, recipient of the President’s Peace Commission 2006 Art of Peace Award, who is founder of the South Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking and coordinator of the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s Shalom Network, which promotes peace, justice and the integrity of creation.

    Other panelists from COAHT included: Hilary Chester, employed by the International Catholic Migration Commission and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to oversee and coordinate services to unaccompanied children in federal custody; Regina Rodriguez, an organizer of human rights awareness events at StMU, when studying there for her master’s in International Relations, and who is currently director of community relations at the San Antonio State School; and Miranda Gue-
rrero, children’s advocacy specialist with the Battered Women’s Shelter of Bexar County.

    Chester opened by noting trafficking is a global problem, with most trafficking victims in the United States being brought in predominantly from Southeast Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe. “Really, there is no part of the world that is immune from human trafficking,” she added.

    Sister Barbara observed that the state of human rights over the last century has often not been heartening. “Sometimes when we look at the weight of injustice around the world, we say, ‘God, where are you?’” she said. However, the last century has also seen amazing historical happenings. “There have been solidarity movements and movements for nonviolent resistance that have been rising up around the globe,” she continued, “not just in South Africa and Poland and the nonviolent resistance to slavery in the United States, but also in Chile and in other countries.” She sees the hand of “a force more powerful” at work here.

    “None of us can do it alone,” she said, referring to stemming the rising tide of human trafficking in South Texas, and it was this realization that led to the establishment of COAHT, which is composed of both law enforcement agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The government’s Rescue and Restore program, with its three-pronged goal of protection, prevention and prosecution regarding human trafficking, has been a significant factor in their work.

    COAHT’s law enforcement and service provider branch is now firmly established, Sister Barbara noted, and the education and outreach branch is growing. “But we need a lot more people,” she said. “We need people to reach deep in their heart and to respond.”

    Similar coalitions have been gaining strength and momentum in Houston, El Paso, Austin and Dallas — the latter being mobilized by a raid in Fort Worth four years ago in which 125 Honduran girls were rescued from human traffickers. However, much work remains to be done, she said.

    Guerrero added the public can learn much from visiting COAHT’s Web site,, where information is available on how to spot human trafficking, how to approach a victim and how to prosecute the perpetrators of human trafficking. The site also offers helpful links and the opportunity to become involved in the educational outreach branch, which is open to the public. This outreach includes distributing handouts with the Rescue and Restore hotline number and tips to spotting and helping trafficking victims.

    She noted questions to ask possible victims include: Are you paid for your work? Are you held against your will? Are you allowed to wander off on the job site? Have you ever been hurt because you haven’t performed your work?

    “What we’d like to see in the future,” Guerrero said, “is a neighborhood poster blitz.” This would help make persons who observe the daily comings and goings in their neighborhood aware of suspicious behavior that could involve human trafficking.

    “One of the biggest obstacles that we have is creating community awareness,” said Regina Rodriguez, who told of the outreach committee bringing their message to local university campuses, community groups and neighborhood organizations, educating them not only on issues and laws regarding human trafficking but how they can help.

    Help is needed big-time in distributing the posters, which are targeted towards specific groups, such as healthcare professionals, social service agencies or neighborhood stores. There are also brochures available in English, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Korean.

    Chester noted that San Antonio and the South Texas area are part of the larger human trafficking picture. While major trafficking destinations such as Houston, Galveston, Atlanta, New York and Washington, DC, are known for their high-profile trafficking busts, human trafficking is also prevalent in rural areas.

    Texas’ porous border makes it a prime area for illegal entry into the United States, with the largest number of illegal entry apprehensions occurring in the Laredo district, said Chester. San Antonio is in a high traffic zone and known as a location for “drop” houses, where trafficking victims are held on their way to other destinations.

    Sister Barbara described area victims being forced to work on ranches (where locked gates make detection hard), as well as in domestic jobs in wealthier sections of town and in restaurant work.     Whatever the situation, the victim is being forced to work at the discretion of the trafficker to pay off the debt they owe for being brought into the country. She asked people to be observant in spotting these “hidden” cases and to call “1-888-3737-888,” the Rescue and Restore hotline, when they do.

    “If you think there’s even a possibility of somebody being held as a slave, please call,” she said. “It’s anonymous, you are protected.” She added, “Rather call too often than not enough,” and told of a woman getting her hair cut asking the stylist, “Are you finished for the day now?” The girl replied, “Oh, no. Now they come and get us in the van and they take us downtown to work the night.” That, said

    Sister Barbara, was definitely a time to call the hotline. Victims can be handed the number on a card or even shown the number written on your hand, if necessary, she said.
    She noted that whenever someone in our area disappears, there is always the possibility and fear, if no body is found, that they are being held in slavery somewhere.

    Previous panels detailed trafficking victims forced to work in miserable conditions on farms and construction sites, as well as in the commercial sex industry.
    “There are sisters who have found slaves by giving the numbers to those who are working the streets at night,” said Sister Barbara. “You meet them on the street, you shake their hand and you give them the number to call for help.”

    Chester noted the government is making every effort to go after perpetrators and doing educational outreach to local and federal law enforcement, with a variety of agencies now networking with one another. “Almost every law enforcement branch has a victim service specialist,” she said, “and they are the department that is trained to learn how to identify trafficking victims and then what to do in response to that.”

    COAHT’s members include representatives from the Bexar
County Sheriff’s Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office and an organization of police chiefs from the surrounding area, along with a number of social service providers.

    Victims are given protection by law enforcement if they are willing to testify against their exploiters, she related, noting that the StMU Legal and Social Justice Center (a member of COAHT) does a wonderful service in providing pro bono lawyers. Victims are also eligible to receive a trafficking or “T” visa, which allows them to remain in this country, and are given a safe place to live, as well as medical and other assistance.

    Chester related that to be considered a victim of trafficking, one must be held against their will in servitude, either by coercion, fraud or trickery, and be unable to freely leave their job. “And in a lot of cases they’re not being paid or they’re being paid but then money is being taken back out again for their room and their board and all kinds of exorbitant costs,” she said. Signs to look for include both physical and mental abuse, the latter evidenced by people being afraid to talk about their work situation.

    She related that in her work with unaccompanied children who have been apprehended, the majority come from Central America, since Mexican nationals are returned to Mexico within about 12 hours to the Mexican version of Child Protective Services. Chester also deals with unaccompanied children from China and India, noting these are immediately placed in secure, confidentially located shelters due to the high risk of their being trafficking victims.

    “We have a special process for dealing with those cases,” she said. “There are incredibly organized smuggling rings coming out of India and China.” These trafficked child victims can owe their trafficker from $50,000 to $90,000 dollars and fake families have been known to step forward attempting to claim them.

   Smuggling rates are rising now for children from Central and South American countries, increasing these young victims’ debt bondage, and Chester also finds herself working with children from Africa and parts of Southeast Asia.

   Rodriguez stressed the importance of the outreach committee. “We can only go so far, we can only see so much,” she said. “That’s why it’s up to the community to get involved and have their eyes open and know what to look for and know what questions to ask, know who to contact when they do see something that’s questionable.”

    “One of the biggest contributions that we make to these traffickers,” she said, “is our ignorance and our apathy. If we know about it and we don’t do anything about it, we’re allowing it to continue, we’re allowing them to get the money in their pocket, to profit off of the suffering and the torturing of these other human beings.”


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