Not For Sale

With more than 300,000 cases of human trafficking in Texas, chances are, at some point, you’ve encountered a victim.

By Danielle Lopez

Photos by Anna Donlan

O n the second floor of the Refugee Services of Texas building, just off I-35 in Northeast Austin, a group of women chat and laugh as they craft handmade dolls. Dressed in vibrant outfits with skin and hair of all colors, the dolls are reminiscent of the women who so tentatively created them. One woman from Thailand bounces around, her long, orange-dyed hair trailing behind. There’s a woman dressed in black working quietly who only speaks Spanish. And there’s a Kenyan woman who hasn’t sat down or stopped smiling since the moment I walked in. Though they’re from opposite corners of the world, they all share one thing in common: They’re survivors of human trafficking in Texas.

Each woman is relatively new to RST, a nonprofit that provides support for refugees, asylees, victims of human trafficking, and other vulnerable populations. Some of them were once victims of sex trafficking while others were exploited for labor. They’re making these dolls, partially for therapeutic reasons, but also to sell when a traveling community bazaar called Market of Hope reaches Austin in late March. “These classes bring purpose to survivors,” says Rachel Alvarez, BSW ’11, RST’s Survivors of Trafficking Empowerment Program Supervisor. “We believe that for the healing process to work, the survivors need to feel like they belong somewhere.”

But while they and other survivors — male and female — across the state spend their days searching for a place in their new communities, it’s easy for most Texans to mistake their plight for a faraway injustice. These survivors are here because Texas, with its size, highways, varying industries, and proximity to the border, has become the ideal breeding ground for human trafficking.

According to a report published in February by a group of UT researchers at the Institute of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, there are currently more than 300,000 minors and adults across Texas who have been subjected to some form of human trafficking — a crime recognized by the United States Department of State as “modern slavery.” The department broadly defines human trafficking as when prostitution, forced labor, or domestic servitude is induced through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Broken down, the IDVSA report says that there are approximately 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking in Texas and 234,000 labor trafficking victims, making the state one of the most embattled in the U.S.

As I talk with the survivors about their dolls, another woman walks into the room. Her face is kind and she’s wearing a bright blue blouse, with her hair tied back in a slick bun. She greets the room in Spanish and cracks a joke, igniting the room with laughter. But when I introduce myself to her, she gives me a strained “hello,” while gently wringing her hands. We wave goodbye to the women and walk down the hall to another room. She’s about to tell me her story.

When Lucy* was 16 years old, living in her native Honduras, she met a man. It was 1996 and she was a high school student with a difficult home life, a bad stepfather, and a mother who wouldn’t leave him. She found herself searching for a way out or, at the very least, someone who would listen. That’s when he came along. He was older than her but friendly. She remembers the day he introduced himself while she was walking home from school, the nights he told her she was pretty, the first time he brought her flowers, and how he’d sing to her when the occasion called. And he was there for her when she cried. She thought to herself, he loves me and I love him.

But as the weeks went by, everything began to change. Although they never officially married, she thought of him as her husband and she left her family to live with him. Soon afterward, he forced her to go to Costa Rica, where he sold her to a brothel. And when she told him she was pregnant with his son, he said he didn’t want a family. She was good business. So every day, for several days, he beat her. “My baby died,” she tells me, before deeply sighing.

Afterward, he said he was sorry. Again, he told her he loved her and promised never to hit her. She’s not sure why, but she trusted him. She says she thought that’s what being in love with someone was. She says she thought maybe one day he’d change.

And for a short while, things did seem better. When Lucy got pregnant a second time around a year later, they moved back to Honduras so that she could give birth to her now-17-year-old daughter near family. But once their daughter was born, he hurt Lucy again. He forced her back into prostitution, passing her through countries like Guatemala and Mexico. She had nothing to her name and could not see her mother. Eventually, she was smuggled into the U.S., where he sold her to one prostitution ring after another through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. Then, in 2008, she was brought to Texas.

Traffickers live in people’s ignorance; they delight in that darkness,” Kirsta Melton, MPA, JD ’98, tells me over the phone. She’s the Deputy Criminal Chief of the Texas Attorney General’s Human Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime Section and she’s explaining how traffickers operate.

Although Lucy wishes she had left her oppressor sooner, leaving is not an easy move for any victim of human trafficking to make. Melton compares the psychological trauma of people who’ve been commercially sexually exploited to victims of domestic and sexual abuse. “Traffickers obtain and maintain control through flowers, charms, and gifts, which keep victims caught,” she says. “But sex trafficking cases have additional damage — victims see themselves as fundable, replaceable items.”

Typically, victims of sexual exploitation don’t come forward. Melton, a former prosecutor in Bexar County, says people subjected to slavery don’t often recognize they’re victims, leaving it up to others to make their case known. In some cases, victims are afraid of having nowhere to go, being thrown in jail, or worse. During the 10 or so years that Lucy was forced into slavery, she would futilely try to report the prostitution houses to law enforcement. But she couldn’t confide in any of the women around her for fear it would get back to her trafficker, whom she knew might kill her.

With labor trafficking victims, it’s not much different. Traffickers use fear tactics to coerce people, usually undocumented immigrants, who might be in need of money and shelter. Melton says they promise them green cards, living wages, and a whole new life in exchange for a large sum of money — but once they’re smuggled into the U.S., they’re exploited for labor. These labor victims become indebted to their traffickers and believe if they report their situation, they will inevitably be deported. Many survivors don’t know that they’re protected under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. The act establishes human trafficking and related offenses as federal crimes and grants survivors — including Lucy — a T visa, which allows victims of human trafficking and their families to become temporary U.S. residents and eligible to become permanent residents after three years.

Alvarez, who says RST most often sees cases of labor trafficking in Austin, remembers a case where a group of Chinese nationals were subjected to both sex and labor work at a massage parlor in Round Rock. They lived in the business’ building, slept on the massage tables, and weren’t allowed to leave. In another case, a Nigerian woman in Houston — the most slavery-ridden city in Texas — was forced into domestic servitude and was enslaved as a nanny for a family in the suburbs. A neighbor had noticed her walking the children around the block and, thinking there was something off about the arrangement, befriended her. Then one day, the Nigerian woman appeared on the neighbor’s doorstep. She had escaped from her home, where it turned out the family she lived with refused to give her proper food, didn’t allow her to sleep, and regularly beat her.

“You have to care about who is around you in your own community,” Alvarez says, noting that everywhere she goes, she makes an effort to get to know the people she interacts with. “It’s about taking time to see who is doing your pedicure, who is washing your hair, or who is cleaning your house.”

The internet has also contributed to the rise of traffickers of all kinds. Melton says those involved with labor exploitation use the internet to spread job postings and coordinate meetups. And though prostitution still happens on the streets and by word of mouth, sex traffickers also sell men and women through online advertising and websites like, a classified advertising site that recently came under fire amid allegations of facilitating prostitution and human trafficking. But on either side of the trafficking spectrum, the use of the internet is prolific because it allows for nearly complete anonymity. “I could drive to a seedy part of town to pick someone up or I could have them delivered as quickly as Amazon,” Melton says. “The internet has made it easier for traffickers and people who might not have otherwise risked arrest.”

Five years before Lucy landed in Texas, in 2003, UT social work professor and IDVSA director Noël Busch-Armendariz was working on Austin’s first efforts to combat human trafficking. The city had just seen its first known case which involved three female immigrant minors from Mexico who had been forced into prostitution. When community leaders realized that there were few resources available to the young women, even after they’d been rescued, they felt the issue needed to be addressed.

“We needed to understand systematically or empirically how to generate information for service providers so that we could meet survivors’ needs,” Busch-Armendariz says of the task that eventually led to the creation of advocacy groups Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Allies Against Slavery. Now, she’s one of seven researchers behind the UT Human Trafficking Report which makes up phase one of the Texas Slavery Mapping Project, a collaboration between the IDVSA, UT’s Bureau of Business Research, and Allies.

Busch-Armendariz and her team have been working on the project for more than two years. In 2014, the Office of the Governor, under Rick Perry, commissioned the Mapping Project, granting researchers $500,000 to evaluate the state. The IDVSA report focused on the prevalence of human trafficking in Texas, which communities appeared most at risk, and its economic impact. The project is meant to serve Texas legislators by providing them with an understanding of the issue so that they may determine how to best allocate resources.

Aside from the glaring human rights violations, the research team found a striking economic cost, too. The state spends nearly $6.6 billion in estimated lifetime costs of minor and youth sex trafficking victims and loses an estimated annual value in wages of $600 million to labor trafficking. The most high-risk sex trafficking community segments are usually children who suffer child abuse or maltreatment, youths being served by the Department of Family Protection Services, and the homeless. High-risk labor trafficking segments included migrant farmworkers, cleaning services, construction, kitchen workers in restaurants, and landscaping and groundskeepers. “People think this problem belongs to somebody else out there far away,” Busch-Armendariz says. “But really, it belongs to our own.”

One of the major challenges the researchers faced was that there are relatively few statistics on human trafficking in the U.S. — or the world — because such a small fraction of cases ever come to light. In 2012, the U.S. State Department estimated that there were at least 21 million slaves around the globe (of which only only 7,000 cases were prosecuted for a crime). That’s more than at any other point in history.

When I ask Busch-Armendariz if she feels optimistic about her work, she says yes, but that there’s a long road ahead before Texas fully eradicates human trafficking. “Mostly I get exhausted thinking we’re not moving fast enough,” she says. “But occasionally you get this breeze of revival because you know you’re part of a bigger mission and this research is pushing the agenda forward.”

Before Lucy was directed to the RST in 2011, she trusted no one. The man in her life had betrayed her, her family was far away, and every time she reached out to law enforcement for help, they would dismiss what she had to say. Though there are too many to count, Lucy kept a log of all the prostitution houses she worked in and their addresses from Florida to Texas. Every time she’d leave a brothel, she’d call the police and tip them off. But either law enforcement wouldn’t take her seriously, or they’d see grown women and not recognize that they were victims. Or sometimes, the traffickers just moved too quickly.

It wasn’t until she was exploited in Dallas that Lucy finally caught a break. She was giving tips to a local officer about another victim when he started asking questions about Lucy and he realized she was a victim, too. When she finally told him her story, the officer immediately got her help, and recommended she go to Austin. That’s when she found RST and met Alvarez. “There was just something about her that I trusted,” Lucy says. “I knew this place was right.”

The people I spoke with — Lucy, Alvarez, Melton, Busch-Armendariz — all have ideas about what needs to be done to help eradicate human trafficking in Texas. Most of them stress the importance of victim services like RST, Safe Place, and American Gateways. And although Texas leaders have put forth effort, money, and policy toward alleviating human trafficking — like the creation of the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team — they tend to be reactionary, making penalties tougher for traffickers, creating shelters, or keeping prostitution convictions off of victims’ records. “We need those things, but what these victims need most is access to targeted trauma-informed services that meet them where they are,” says John Nehme, director of Allies Against Slavery and co-author of the IDVSA report. “Something where they can be paired with an advocate who can demonstrate that recovery is possible and begin to mirror some sort of life other than what they’re in.”

Melton strongly encourages further training of law enforcement, prosecutors, first responders, CPS workers, and others who become key players in intercepting traffickers. Since the HTTOC was created a little more than a year ago under Att. Gen. Ken Paxton, the program’s prosecutors have conducted more than 60 human trafficking trainings for more than 7,000 individuals across Texas and will host the first statewide human trafficking conference for prosecutors in the fall of 2017. “We have to understand the very nature of the crime,” Melton says. “We cannot disregard someone who is here illegally. Does that make it OK for a person to be exploited? We cannot have open season on any of these vulnerable people.”

Busch-Armendariz is constantly trying to break down commonly held myths surrounding human trafficking. She says people often think human trafficking requires movement across borders but in many cases, people are exploited in their own communities regardless of their demographic. The IDVSA report shed light on the fact that the types of exploitation also intersect, meaning victims are frequently subjected to both sex and labor work. And, what makes mapping trafficking even trickier, is that some of these victims might not be trafficked 100 percent of the time — victims cycle in and out.

Although it’s important to remember that each of the numbers in the report denotes an individual person, Busch-Armendariz and Melton say the numbers are also representative of systemic problems — from poverty to education to health care access to CPS — that cannot be ignored. They believe society needs to break the culture of silence that surrounds experiences of those dealing with trauma.

“There are so many roles people can play,” Melton says. “I think the question is: Where are you? In the space that God has given you, what are you going to do to help?”

Back at RST, Lucy stands up when she’s done telling her story, exhausted, sad, but still smiling. She hugs Alvarez, who’s been sitting in on our conversation. As we walk back to the room where the women are crafting dolls and playing music, she shakes off the memories she shared with me. That’s not her life anymore.

Now, she’s a leader. She’s someone the other survivors look up to. Since she first got involved with RST and met Alvarez, she’s earned her high school diploma, learned English, and received her certified nursing assistant license. She has five kids now, the youngest of whom is a 3-year-old girl. She speaks often of God and his blessings, including her current husband. She says he’s a good man who helps mentor some of the male victims at the RST center. “He learned it all from me,” she says with a grin.

Lucy often spends her free moments going to areas of Austin where she knows people might be vulnerable to trafficking. She scopes out flea markets and offers rides to men and women who look like they need help, hoping that she can save at least one. She has aided law enforcement in carrying out arrests and prosecutions. She carries Department of Homeland Security cards at all times and leaves them on cars, buildings, anywhere. She’s pleased when she finds somebody has taken one because maybe now they understand there is a way out. Three survivors have come through RST’s doors in the last month because of this.

“She took her story and became a major mentor to survivors here,” Alvarez says. “She’s taken them into her own home and helped them restore their lives.”

On the last day that I see Lucy, she walks in with her head held high and exciting news to share: As of today, she is a legal resident. Felicidades, or congratulations, are thrown about as she hugs those around her. In Spanish she tells us, with her arms raised to the sky and laughing, “Finally — I can go on vacation.”

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