Often, human trafficking is confused with human smuggling. Although both criminal activities are in the pursuit of financial gain, human smuggling is usually with the consent of the person being illegally smuggled, and in exchange, the smuggler benefits financially or materially. Whereas in the case of human trafficking, victims are coerced, threatened, and mentally and/or physically abused to engage in activities involuntarily.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, California ranks first in the United States.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) reported a 185% increase in 2020 in urgent human trafficking cases in LA alone.
In an effort to extinguish this inhuman money-making racket, the California attorney general has launched new anti-human trafficking teams to apprehend perpetrators and support survivors.
Human Trafficking in California
California is one of the nation's top destination states for trafficking human beings. The following reasons can help shed some light as to why:
Populous Border State:
California is the country's most populous state, home to close to 40 million residents. It is bordered by three states as well as Mexico to the south and 1100 miles of coastline with the Pacific Ocean to the west.
It also has a number of airports and ports that provide a multitude of pathways for unauthorized immigrants to be transported in and out of the state by labor trafficking perpetrators.
Significant Immigrant Population:
California has more immigrants than any other state. It is home to almost 11 million immigrants—about a quarter of the foreign-born population nationwide.
The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that unauthorized immigrants make 7% of California’s total population and 9% of California's labor force. Undocumented immigrants could either be victims of international human trafficking or easy targets for traffickers because of their illegal status.
Additionally, the protections put in place in California in 2014 for temporary workers under SB477 only protect H-2B visa workers and leave others unprotected. This is yet another contributing factor to many trafficked victims remaining silent in fear of deportation, further enabling traffickers to keep them in forced labor.
The World’s Fifth Largest Economy:
California’s booming economy provides a multitude of labor-intensive jobs in industries that attract forced labor and sex trafficking. Victims of human trafficking are often undocumented migrants who come from deprived socio-economic backgrounds with low skillsets. Due to ease of access, common sectors where these victims end up exploited are domestic service, agricultural work, sweatshop labor, and restaurant or hospital work.
An Established Sex Trade Zone:
Sex trafficking in California is primarily made up of women and children.
According to a San Francisco CBS Local report published in 2018, more than 3,300 massage palour businesses engaging in illicit sex were discovered operating in California. The same report cites the National Human Trafficking Hotline disclosing (in 2017) trafficking related to massage businesses accounted for 2,949 cases, about 9% of 32,000 cases reported that year.
In a report released by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), during 2019-2020, California experienced a large increase in homelessness of about 14.6% or 3,276 people. 41 per 10,000 people were homeless in California, and in Los Angeles city and county, there were 63,706 people experiencing homelessness.
With regards to minor sex trafficking, there seems to be a direct correlation between homeless youth/foster kids and a risk of being subjected to trafficking. For example, according to citylimits.org, in 2010, officials in Los Angeles reported that 59% of juveniles arrested for prostitution were in the foster care system. When the system fails these children, they easily become seduced by the promises and lies traffickers use to entrap and sexually exploit them for profit.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, California consistently has the highest human trafficking rates in the United States, with 1,334 cases reported in 2020.
In 2020, the data also revealed the following information:
• 1,025 of the victims were in sex trafficking exclusively, as opposed to 129 in labor trafficking
• 43 victims were involved in both labor and sex trafficking
• Females made up the majority of the victims (1,106) when compared to males (155)
• Most victims were adults (904) instead of minors (268)
• The most common venue for sex trafficking was illicit massage/spa business – 97
• The top venue for labor trafficking was domestic work – 34
Human trafficking is a reality happening all over the US and the wider world. It is a heinous crime that needs to be put an end to.
Consider the impact of human trafficking in the following major Californian cities:
According to the nonprofit CAST, Los Angeles is a top point of entry into the US for victims of slavery and trafficking. The sheer immensity of the city, in combination with its diverse communities, makes it easier to hide and move victims, keeping both potential survivors and traffickers out of the law’s reach.
According to the 100 Most Populous Cities Report from the Human Trafficking Hotline (12/7/2007 – 12/31/2016), Los Angeles ranked in the second position with a total number of 884 cases.
The annual 2018 Homeless Count for Los Angeles County found that one in ten homeless individuals reported to be sex or labor trafficked.
In addition to this, the impact of Covid-19 has increased the risk of trafficking. In March 2020, Women’s Transitional Living Center (WTLC) received a 135% increase in calls to its 24/7 hotline number compared to the previous year (2019), and CAST’s 2020 Hotline reported a 111% increase in emergency call responses in 2020.
The Human Rights Society named Sacramento as the “Second Worst City in the US for Human Trafficking.”
According to State Senator Dr. Richard Pan’s office, Sacramento County is being targeted by human traffickers because of its proximity to larger cities. The other reason is homelessness. Homeless children and women are low-risk victims due to lack of family support, making them attractive prospects to perpetrators who wish to take advantage of their situation.
The Sacramento Life Center continually treats and works with many pregnant patients and sufferers of STDs that have been identified as victims of exploitation.
In a recent article in the Times of San Deigo, the FBI announced that San Diego is ranked as one of the 13 worst regions in the United States for human trafficking, with 3,000 to 8,000 victims trafficked each year.
Vulnerable teens (runaways, previously abused or in foster care) are being trafficked in broad daylight in what would generally be considered “good” communities.
Accredited organizations such as San Diego Youth Services make a difference in the lives of these youths. They help thousands of children and young adults who are at risk for trafficking, as well as those who have already been trafficked to overcome the trauma they have experienced, heal, and lead productive and healthy lives.
In a 2017 report on Human Trafficking in San Francisco, 22 agencies provided data about trafficked persons and alleged traffickers. Agencies identified a total of 673 cases. 70% of cases were individuals under 25, 31% of whom were minors trafficked in commercial sex. 51% of the victims were recruited in San Francisco.
Brian Wo, co-founder and Chief Program Officer of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, believes the ease of transportation in combination with the area’s varied demographic are major contributors to the thriving sex trafficking practices in the city.
California’s Outstanding Anti-Trafficking Efforts
California Statewide Efforts
Victims of slavery and trafficking are protected under California law. The state of California is making tremendous efforts towards preventing human trafficking, protecting victims, providing resources to survivors, and seeking and prosecuting offenders.
• The Establishment of Collaborations such as Coalitions, Task Forces, and Working Groups:
47 victim service agencies are listed in the National Human Trafficking Referral Directory in California.
• Creation of Anti-Human Trafficking Teams:
The California attorney general Rob Bonta has launched two new anti-trafficking teams consisting of 13 special agents and two crime analysts.
Organizations like The Ugly Truth in San Deigo help to educate and create public awareness on the facts and myths of human trafficking.
• Trafficking Hotlines:
Local hotlines run by nonprofit Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking and community action groups such as Alameda County HEAT Watch Tipline help prevent and combat human trafficking.
Advancements from the new Regional Human Trafficking and Sexual Predator Apprehension Teams (HT/SPAT) Within the California Department of Justice
“Plain and simple: Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery. Whether it’s forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation of children, there is no place for these kinds of crimes in California or anywhere.” Attorney General Bonta.
According to data taken from the state of California Department of Justice website, HT/SPAT has taken action to enforce efforts through:
• Nearly 300 on-the-ground address checks of potential suspects and high-risk sex offenders.
• The development of dozens of investigative leads, conducting suspect and survivor interviews in conjunction with law enforcement partners.
• The execution of nearly two dozen search warrants.
• Outreach to nonprofit organizations that provide services to survivors.
• Assisting in and directly securing arrests related to human trafficking and other violations of California’s laws.
California’s Legal Considerations and Current Anti-Trafficking Laws
California has key legislation in place to ensure that the victims of trafficking, domestic violence, and other serious crimes get adequate protection and assistance. These provisions offer the following protection:
• Grants to Qualified Nonprofit Organizations:
Senate Bill 84 (Enacted June 24, 2015) – State government created the Human Trafficking Victims Assistance Fund and requires that the money in the fund be used by the Office of Emergency Services for the distribution of grants to qualified nonprofit organizations providing services to human trafficking victims.
• Mandatory Training and Education:
Under SB 970, Atkins. Employment: human trafficking awareness 2020, an employer must provide human trafficking awareness training and education once every two years to each employee likely to interact or come into contact with victims of human trafficking.
• Victim Compensation:
Under 2019 AB 629, the Crime Victims Board is authorized to provide compensation equal to loss of income (in an amount not exceeding the value of the victim’s labor as guaranteed under California law for up to 40 hours per week) or support that a victim incurs as a direct result of human trafficking.
• Crimes Against Minors:
Updated in 2019, penal code AB 662 states that it is an offense to lure a minor to participate in prostitution or illicit sexual activities.
Ultimately, agencies providing trafficking victims with assistance and emergency services, law enforcement teams, health providers, and the general public need to partner together to bring perpetrators to justice and secure a lasting impact on survivors, particularly children.
Stories, Cases, and Successful Operations
In 2005, California enacted its first anti-trafficking law establishing criminal penalties for traffickers seeking to profit from labor or sexual exploitation. Here are examples of human trafficking cases that have been tried in the state of California.
- People V. Madison—On Feb 8th 2021, Jonathan Madison of San Diego apprehended by the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force, pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of sex trafficking children. He admitted to knowingly soliciting teenage girls to engage in commercial sex acts. He has been sentenced to a ten-year mandatory minimum and a maximum of life in prison.
- People V. Lettermen— In August 2021, Police apprehended Antonio Lettmen, who was later charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office for commercially sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl with violence and kidnapping her baby for ransom. He is currently held in a correctional facility on a $2 million dollar bail awaiting trial.
- Case Study of Labor Trafficking—In Feb 2020, a dozen church leaders were indicted in a forced labor conspiracy. According to the US Attorney’s Office, Jose Gaytan, 47, and Sonia Murillo, 51, former members of an Imperial County church, pleaded guilty to labor trafficking of homeless people in San Diego as a means to raise funds for their church. Victims were made to sign contracts, held in church- owned properties against their will, and threatened. Summary of charges includes maximum penalty with fines amounting to $1,000,000.
- Operation Reclaim and Rebuild— In Feb 2021, “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild” involving 100 federal, state and local law enforcement agents, rescued 39 victims (including 13 children) of commercial sex and labor trafficking, and made 450 arrests. According to City Councilman John Lee, criminal street gangs are now more involved in human trafficking than drugs or weapon trafficking as it proves to be a highly lucrative business.
In a report funded by the Department of Justice titled: The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County, the nature and scope of gang involvement in sex trafficking in San Diego County was highlighted. This evidence based report relied heavily on data collected from 154 criminals, 140 victims, and 141 staff members of 20 high schools, which led to the discovery of 110 gangs from a wide variety of neighborhoods and racial/ethnic backgrounds.
Organizations, Coalitions, Task Forces, and Universities
Many organizations and task forces across California are committed to providing support to victims/survivors of trafficking. They also take actionable steps to prevent and educate on modern-day slavery issues and bring traffickers to justice.
• The Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition:
Incorporated in 2002 as a 501(c)3, BSCC is an alliance of over 60 government and nonprofit agencies in the US and Latin America with the sole aim of preventing and combating human slavery and trafficking. BSCC, in conjunction with its coalition members, runs projects and services for victims, law enforcement, and the community.
• California Against Slavery:
A collaborative effort between 22 organizations and agencies that work to find shelter faster for survivors of human trafficking.
In 2012, 10 million voters passed Proposition 35 (the CASE Act), making California Against Slavery the most popular initiative in the fight against human exploitation. Their mission statement is simple but clear: “Our mission is to defend the freedom of every person by empowering the people of California to fulfill their obligation to stop human trafficking and encourage statewide collaboration.”
• Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST):
An LA-based nonprofit organization, CAST works relentlessly to transform the lives of thousands of trafficking victims through counseling, hotline and emergency response, legal resources, finding shelter, and youth and training programs.
Raymond was recruited from Mexico to work on a farm in the US. He lived in a single room with 34 other men and was trapped in a camp by his traffickers, who coerced him into forced labor. CAST helps survivors like Raymond find their voice to help build awareness and demand protection for temporary workers who come to California.
Getting over the trauma of sexual exploitation can take a very long time. GenerateHope, a nonprofit based in Coronado is a place for survivors of sex trafficking to heal and find restoration in long-term housing and trauma-informed therapy, education, and vocational support.
• Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force (OCHTTF):
OCHTTF is a collaborative relationship of different lead agencies and community partners committed to combatting human trafficking in our communities. Since its inception in 2004, the task force has been working with the simple aim to stamp out human exploitation.
• The California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force:
The task force was established to review California’s response to human trafficking and report its findings and recommendations to the governor, attorney general, and legislature. Due to the intricate nature of trafficking, service providers often fail to recognize victims of trafficking. Such in-depth reports offer insights and identify lost opportunities which help raise awareness and ultimately develop a better system to track and apprehend traffickers and provide further assistance to survivors.
• Human Rights Center UC Berkeley School of Law:
HRC’s anti-trafficking research initiative aims to learn and improve existing innovative models of anti-trafficking efforts in California to stem trafficking and prosecute perpetrators.