When I was in high school, I visited St. John’s church in Richmond, Virginia, the site of the Second Virginia Convention.
It was there, on March 23, 1775, that delegates from all over Virginia met to discuss a course of action against the oppression of King George III. War was on everyone’s mind, but most knew the colonies didn’t stand a chance against the British Empire, which at that time was the world’s foremost military power. But then, a young lawyer from Hanover County, who’d once likened King George III to the likes of Brutus and Oliver Cromwell, got up to speak.
Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
When Patrick Henry sat down, everyone in that church knew that reconciliation was no longer an option. Virginia would fight for her liberty—or die in the process.
The United States began as a fight for freedom, and Americans have been fighting and dying to protect that freedom ever since. We declared our freedom from British rule with the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and in 1865, four million Americans living in slavery were freed when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
This is the land of the free. We’ve fought and died to make it so, but today, people are being bought, sold, and exploited within our borders.
Trafficking in the United States
There are no official estimates of the number of trafficking victims in the United States, although it is estimated that 15,000 people are actively trafficked throughout the United States each year. With 100,000 children estimated to be in the sex trade in the United States, it holds that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands.
In 2013, The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, operated by The Polaris Project, received reports of 3,609 sex trafficking cases and 929 labor trafficking cases, and the problem is getting bigger. Every year, The Polaris Project receives more reports of human trafficking on its nationwide hotline.
Human trafficking occurs in every state, although the states with the most trafficking are California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Virginia. Trafficking victims are moved along “circuits” or a series of cities where victims are forced to work.
One example would be the West Coast circuit of San Diego, Las Vegas, Portland, and the cities between. The term can also refer to a chain of states such as the “Minnesota pipeline” by which victims are moved through a series of locations from Minnesota to markets in New York.
Two Kinds of Trafficking
The two most common kinds of trafficking in the United States are sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Under US federal law, sex trafficking and labor trafficking are defined as:
Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.
Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
Sex trafficking is the most common kind of human trafficking in the United States and the world. Two-thirds of all trafficking victims are women, most of whom are forced to work in the sex industry.
Traffickers target the vulnerable, regardless of their background. Traffickers target U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals, men, women, children, LGBT individuals, the rich, the poor, the educated, the high-school dropout—anyone. Those most at risk are homeless and runaway youth, victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, refugees, illegal aliens, the unemployed, and racial minorities.
Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, and debt bondage to force their victims to engage in acts of commercial sex against their will. Many traffickers trick vulnerable people by promising them a well-paying job or pretending to fall in love with them. Once the victim has been tricked, the trafficker will employ a variety of tactics to keep them from leaving, including sexual assault, confiscation of ID and money, violence, isolation from systems of support, and giving victims a new name.
Sex trafficking happens everywhere, from residential brothels, strip clubs, and escort services, to city streets, truck stops, fake massage parlors, and motel and hotel rooms.
In street-based sex trafficking, victims are often expected to earn a nightly quota, ranging from $500 to $1000 or more, which is confiscated by the pimp. Women in brothels disguised as massage businesses typically live on-site where they are coerced into providing commercial sex to 6 to 10 men a day, 7 days a week.
The Polaris Project
Traffickers use violence, threats, debt bondage, and lies to force labor trafficking victims to work against their will, often for little or no pay.
U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals can be victims of labor trafficking, even those who have permission to work in the United States. Immigrants, people in debt, the isolated, the impoverished, and those working in industries without strong labor protection are especially vulnerable to labor trafficking.
Most victims of labor trafficking work as domestic servants, farm workers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen, carnival workers, and health and beauty workers, but labor trafficking is not restricted to these industries. Many American companies use slave work in their overseas supply chains. Some of the most common industries to use forced or child labor are electronics, retail, coffee, and chocolate. Another common trafficking industry is hospitality—many of the resorts where Americans vacation force locals to work in terrible conditions for little or no pay.
Labor trafficking occurs in every state in the United States. Last month, a New Orleans jury awarded 5 Indian workers $14 million in one of the largest labor trafficking cases in U.S. history. After a four-week trial, the Atlanta-based ship-building company Signal International was found guilty of labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination. In 2005, Signal lured 500 Indian workers to New Orleans to repair oil rigs and facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, they discovered that they would not receive promised residency documents. Signal also charged the men $1,050 per month to live in guarded labor camps where up to 24 men lived in single 1,800-square-foot (167-square-metre) units, according to the suit.
Kathy Finn for Reuters News
The War Isn’t Over
When Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech in St. John’s church 240 years ago, the United States was just a collection of colonies unified by a desire for freedom. Today, America is known as a land of freedom and opportunity, but I’m ashamed to say that my country is no freer today then it was in 1775.
Until the United States ends the exploitation of human trafficking, the war for freedom will never be won. Like Patrick Henry proclaimed so many years ago, standing idle isn’t an option—either we fight for the liberation of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, or the promise of America is dead.
It’s time we finished Patrick Henry’s war. It’s time we kept Abraham Lincoln’s promise. It’s time America really was the land of the free.