/Out of the fire, into the dark

Chapter 3.

Joseph knew something was wrong when his passport and visa were taken away. He was angry when he discovered that he had been lied to about how he would work and live, about his wage, and about previously undisclosed food and lodging charges. But it never occurred to him that he might be a victim of labor trafficking.

Nine months after arriving in Duluth, Joseph’s work visa expired. For the next three months he waited for an extension. But eventually he knew it wasn’t going to happen. It was a false promise, just like the rest of them.

Fearful of what might happen if he contacted the police, and with no connection to anyone in the Duluth community, Joseph picked up a pay phone and called an uncle living in California. Hearing his plea for help, Joseph’s uncle wired him money for a bus ticket to Los Angeles and offered a couch to sleep on.

That night, in a brief moment when no one was looking, Joseph slipped out the hotel’s back door and into the night.

Many hurdles make it difficult for labor trafficking victims to escape, including heavy surveillance, isolated labor settings, language barriers, the rarity of law enforcement–led investigations, and, of course, traffickers’ fear-inducing threats.

Still, 59 percent of the victims surveyed for this study escaped their traffickers by running away. For many the decision simply came down to being out of options.

“[There] were two things on my mind at that time,” said a woman who was physically and psychologically tortured while forced to work as a domestic servant in a northeast household. “If I ran away and I was safe, then I would for sure meet my kids again. If I got caught, I was sure that I would die.”

Like Joseph, 20 percent of the victims surveyed used their existing social networks to plan an escape. However, these opportunities were primarily limited to victims who worked in venues with more opportunities to communicate with others, like hotels and restaurants.

The most common means of escape occurred when a member of the community — such as a neighbor, taxi driver, or perceptive stranger — helped a victim run away. Indeed, in 38 percent of cases victims reached out to community members for help.

In 21 percent of cases, service providers were able to help victims escape.

Identification by law enforcement was more of a mixed bag.

In 19 percent of the cases studied, police identified and removed victims from the situation and connected them with services. This contact was often made after community members, service providers, or recently liberated victims tipped off authorities.

In 7 percent of cases, victims self-reported to police, and the police were able to provide immediate help. But in 14 percent of cases, victims were arrested by authorities — usually on immigration charges — and later identified as victims of labor trafficking. In these situations, detained victims were confused and upset at being mistaken for culprits, or even put through deportation proceedings. It’s unknown how many victims are never identified after arrest.

Even after escaping, for some the victimization didn’t end. In approximately 15 percent of cases, traffickers used force against victims during or after their escape. And in 26 percent, traffickers used coercion in an attempt to compel victims to come back.

Some traffickers went to victims’ new job sites and harassed them. Others searched shelters for victims. Some even threatened to, or actually did, attack family members living abroad if victims did not come back.

“She [sent] me a text while I was at the shelter,” said a Kenyan woman forced to work in a rural northeastern household. “‘We know where you are and I know where your kids go to school. And I know where your parents live. If I don’t get you, I’ll get the kids.’”

Traffickers’ ability to penetrate safe spaces like shelters heightens fear for victims who already have difficulties trusting people and are scared of being discovered as unauthorized residents. Threats made to family members further isolate victims, in many cases forcing them into hiding.

And when victims go underground, they often stay there for a long time.