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Most victims of human trafficking enter the US legally, study says

Most victims of human trafficking in the United States arrived in the country with a legal work visa, according to a new report by Northeastern University and the Urban Institute, and later became indentured servants after their immigration papers were taken away by traffickers and recruiters.

Those who brought the workers to the United States to work on farms, construction sites, in hotels, and as housekeepers or nannies threaten to have the workers deported or keep them in jobs that pay little or nothing after seizing their papers.

About 29 percent were smuggled into the United States, and most workers were not abused physically, which may not be the typical image of a trafficked person, said Northeastern criminology professor Amy Farrell, one of the report’s authors. Yet she said she found the level of psychological abuse startling in the 122 case files on trafficked workers that the report analyzed.

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Domestic workers, for example, “often didn’t have a room in a house, had to eat on the floor, and members of a family were instructed not to use their name or talk to them,” Farrell said. “After a long period of this, they felt less than human and unworthy of anyone finding out what was wrong.”

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In Massachusetts, more cases involving human labor trafficking, which involves workers who are held against their wills in jobs or forced to pay off debts to recruiters, have become public. Earlier this year, a couple from the town of Harvard were convicted in federal court of abusing and holding their Bolivian nanny against her will and were ordered to pay $150,000. Officials shut down two “farm labor camps” in Western Massachusetts last year after finding migrant workers who were underpaid, overworked, and living in squalor.

While policy makers and state officials have taken steps to crack down on the problem, the report found that victims faced deep fears of coming forward and often did not do so until years after they had escaped from a trafficking situation.

Also, law enforcement’s response to the problem has been passive and the cases are not a priority for some federal agencies, the report said.

Social service and employees’ rights agencies that work with victims in Greater Boston supported the release of the 209-page report.

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“I welcome any attention to this issue,” said Julie Dahlstrom, managing attorney at Ascentria Care Services, one of a handful of Massachusetts nonprofits that help trafficking victims. “There’s a lack of awareness about the very nature of trafficking among law enforcement, and there’s a sense that if it doesn’t involve physical violence, it’s not trafficking. So there needs to be greater education.”

Researchers from Northeastern University and the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research nonprofit in Washington D.C., researched the cases of 122 human trafficking victims at four unidentified social service agencies in the United States, including two in the Northeast.

The study also involved interviews with more than 150 people who had ties to the victims, including recruiters. The report cited relationships between human traffickers and US companies that hire foreign workers while often ignoring their circumstances.

In one case, an unidentified multimillion-dollar construction company sent its company agents and lawyers abroad with promises of visas for workers; the company worked with recruiters who had questionable motives and charged exorbitant fees.

“In some cases, US companies receiving the recruited foreign workers turn a blind eye to how workers are recruited,” the report said. “In other cases, they were more intimately involved in fraud and coercion during the recruitment process.”

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The findings also revealed that local and federal law enforcement agencies and the Department of Labor were rarely involved or had trouble helping victims extricate themselves from trafficking situations.

“Survivors mostly escaped on their own and lived for several months or years before being connected to a specialized service provider,” the report said.

It found victims were often recruited in their home country, learning about job opportunities from family and friends. In some cases the information is passed along innocently, and in other cases, members of a person’s family were part of the trafficking recruitment network, the report said.

Many of those recruiters work on behalf of third- and fourth-party employment agencies, including many with direct ties to groups and organizations in the United States. The report did not name those groups.

Many of the workers go into debt to pay recruiters for these jobs, the report said. Victims rarely come into contact with authority figures during recruitment and are usually coached by recruiters before meeting with a member of the US Embassy or Consulate as part of the visa application process, the report said.

Once in the United States, many victims had interactions with people other than their traffickers, such as police and co-workers, but never revealed that they were being held against their will, which researchers described as a lost opportunity for a rescue.

“Fear of deportation made victims reluctant to contact law enforcement,” the report said. “Most victims escaped by running away.”

Traffickers often continued to contact victims after they made their escape, threatening and harassing them and their families in their home countries.

Survivors in the sample often went months or years without receiving help, and their immigration status had lapsed. When they sought help from immigration attorneys, they found a lack of awareness about special visas granted specifically for trafficking victims that allow them to remain in the United States.

“Local law enforcement was reluctant to pursue immigration relief for a variety of reasons, including anti-immigration sentiment, lack of belief of victim statements, and challenges of working collaboratively with Homeland Security,” it said.

The report called for more training and resources to help officials identify the problem and address it.

“There are very few cases here or anywhere,” Farrell said about the number of legal cases brought. “Incredibly, it goes unidentified. And there are a lot of venues in New England where trafficking likely occurs.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.