Arkansas is not exempt from needing to address the global problem of human trafficking, two local leaders recently said.
Men, woman and children being transported across borders for sex or forced labor are the faces of slavery in the 21st century. This is not a practice reserved for Thailand or the Philippines. It is happening in the United States and probably in Arkansas.
Unfortunately, because it is a very lucrative business, it is a growing trade.
Steven Burroughs, the supervisor special agent over the civil rights program for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the Arkansas district, said local FBI agents are not involved in any trafficking cases currently, but they are very interested to get information on credible abuse happening within the state borders.
The FBI has agents assigned to civil rights cases, including human trafficking and other crimes where people are violated because of their race, religion or age, he said.
"In Arkansas we do not have any human trafficking cases," Burroughs said. "We are actually looking for human trafficking cases."
To bring awareness of what human trafficking is, Burroughs coordinated a committee, including a representative from Catholic Charities of Arkansas, called the Arkansas Civil Rights Working Group.
The group will meet quarterly around the state to educate local and state law enforcement agents and community and religious leaders about these crimes.
"Many times the cases are illegal aliens," he said. "Many times they are afraid to contact law enforcement agencies."
"The focus is to educate the non-law enforcement people on what we do, what crimes are out there, so when people come in and say this is what is happening to me, they will tell them 'This is a crime,'" he added.
Burroughs agreed that local police officers and sheriff deputies are likely to hear about these cases but might not know about the immigration protections available to these victims.
Burroughs said he was interested in forming the committee after Sheila Gomez, director of Catholic Charities, approached the FBI.
"Sheila has a really good reputation in the community," he said.
Gomez said she was interested in the committee because she has met people who were victimized, but there has never been a network in the state to help them get their legal and social issues addressed.
"It would be a place that when and if a human trafficking case is discovered to best assist the victims and to enforce justice," Gomez said.
Gomez said she hopes the working group will have an impact on the state and help the victims who are overlooked.
"That is where my heart is," she said. "It is so evil. It needs to be exposed. It needs to be brought to the light."
Burroughs said the FBI has reported that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are victimized around the world each year.
In the United States, the FBI has seen an increase in trafficking convictions over the past five years. In 2001 there were 54 cases and 67 people were arrested. In 2005, there were 146 cases and 48 people arrested. Eighty percent of the victims were women and children.
In Arkansas it is likely the cases would involve men bringing foreign women into the state through "mail-order bride" Web sites. Once here, the men would be interested in illegal activities instead of marriage.
But for now, the FBI doesn't have any evidence this is occurring. "Is it rampant? In my personal opinion, I don't think it is. But one case is too many," Burroughs said.
Tips on human trafficking in Arkansas can be directed to the FBI office in Little Rock at (501) 221-9100.
If you suspect a trafficking situation that has not yet been reported or investigated, call the Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Task Force complaint line at (888) 428-7581 or the Trafficking Social Services Referral Line at (888) 373-7888.
Trafficking cases may also come to your attention through the media or after the police have become involved.
If you are aware of victims involved in an active law enforcement investigation:
1. Make sure that the local law enforcement involved in the case is aware of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the need for a referral to federal law enforcement in order to ensure that the person can be referred to the Department of Health & Human Services/Office of Refugee Resettlement for certification and eventually access services.
2. Help the person to locate a reputable pro bono attorney for advice on legal issues related to her/his immigration status and the prosecution of her/his case. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act gives the victim certain rights that local law enforcement may not yet be familiar with.
3. Call the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration & Refugee Services, Nyssa Mestas, (202) 541-3366.
If you are not sure whether a trafficking investigation is being pursued or whether the victim has been referred for certification and you cannot determine this information locally:
1. Contact the Department of Justice's Victim Witness Coordinator, Lorna Grenadier, at (202) 616-3807.
2. Call the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration & Refugee Services: Nyssa Mestas at (202) 541-3366, or Mary Ellen Dougherty at (202) 541-3256. If the victim is a child, contact Margaret MacDonnell at (202) 541-3462, USCCB/MRS can monitor the case.
In addition, USCCB/MRS needs to know of open cases in order to advocate effectively for improving the system of referral, certification and service for trafficked persons.
Source: USCCB Migration and Refugee Services' Office of Refugee Programs, August 2004
Rights and services available to victims
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a program to provide services through the Catholic social service network to both pre- or post-certified victims any time they surface.
Source: U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services Office of Refugee Programs, August 2004
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