Combating Sex Trafficking in New York City: Examining Law Enforcement Efforts — Testimony of Ivy O. Suriyopas, Staff Attorney, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) before New York City Council.
My name is Ivy Suriyopas, and I am a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). AALDEF is a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans. By combining litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing, AALDEF works with Asian American communities across the country to secure human rights for all. AALDEF’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative provides free legal assistance and representation to trafficked persons andeducates community groups and policymakers about the connection between human trafficking and the economic exploitation of low-wage workers.
Since 2005, I have represented trafficking survivors in their applications for immigration relief and served as a criminal justice advocate as they cooperated with law enforcement authorities in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases. I have also represented trafficking survivors in their civil actions for monetary damages, including Baoanan v. Baja in the Southern District of New York,Samirah v. Sabhnani in the Eastern District of New York, Ballesteros v. Al-Ali in the District of Rhode Island, and David v. Signal in the Eastern District of Louisiana. As a member of the New York Anti-Trafficking Network (NYATN) and Freedom Network (USA), I work closely and collaboratively with legal and social service providers throughout the country.
Human trafficking is about living in a climate of fear. When a person is trafficked, she or he experiences some type of force, fraud, or coercion in her or his work. Trafficking takes place in most low-wage industries, where workers are the least able to protect themselves. Trafficking can involve false promises or coercing individuals into different types of work, including sweatshops, household labor, restaurant work, farming, or brothels. The conditions in trafficking situations can include being kept in barely livable conditions, such as being tightly packed into rooms at night so they cannot sleep; not being allowed to eat, go to the bathroom, or have other breaks; extensive work days; exploiting their concerns about immigration issues; withholding of wages or documents; overt threats of harm to the trafficked person or a loved one; and physical or sexual assault. It is also crucial to learn about all the types of trafficking in order to be able to identify it.
Confusing sex work (a commercial exchange for sexual services) with human trafficking (coercion into forced labor of all kinds) harms both sex workers and the fight against trafficking. When it comes to trafficking, policies must be properly targeted to help people experiencing any kind of coercion (climate of fear), regardless of the type of work they are doing.
The 2007 New York Anti-Trafficking Law created two felony crimes in the penal code – labor trafficking and sex trafficking . Human trafficking is a complex, nuanced crime and cannot be stopped by focusing solely on one type of offense. Therefore, it is critical that both types of crime be identified to combat the scourge of human trafficking.
As an experienced criminal justice advocate that has worked with trafficking and crime victims, I urge the NYPD to consider shifting their anti-trafficking efforts from the organized crime control bureau/vice unit to the special victims division. The former focuses on matters related to unlawful firearms, prostitution, and organized crime syndicates, and it erroneously assumes that trafficking only occurs in large criminal enterprises, tends to focus solely on sex trafficking, and substantially heightens the possibility that victims will be arrested alongside perpetrators in large-scale raids. Meanwhile, the special victims division focuses on victims of sex crimes. This is a unit already trained in working with trauma victims, including minors. And this division does not have to overcome the inherent tension between assisting trafficking victims and arresting perpetrators.
Sex workers say they routinely experience violence at the hands of law enforcement officers, including harassment and assault. Moreover, the NYPD has admitted to routinely arresting young people engaged in the sex trade. Punishment is not the best approach — when young people are treated as criminals, the likelihood that they will engage in destructive behavior is greater. The most effective approach depends on the young person’s situation, and listening to him or her is critical. This group tends to be careful to appear tough and defiant, but if they are treated with respect and offered a safe and nonjudgmental space to express their feelings, often they will become empowered to make safe and healthy decisions about their lives. Support comprehensive, inclusive, client-centric, low-threshold services. Fund shelters. Currently there are approximately 4,000 unaccompanied youth on the streets of New York daily, while only a couple of hundred beds are available for the youth in shelters. And create opportunities for living wage jobs for the youth so that they can provide shelter and basic necessities for themselves.
Focusing on ending demand is shortsighted. It drives sex workers further underground and compromises their safety. Addressing basic human needs for education, equal opportunity, and a realistic array of economic options will help to ensure that no one who enters sex work does so because of force, false promises, or coercion. Addressing poverty or the right to earn a living wage, as well as fighting gender and racial discrimination, can broaden every individual’s options for a better life.
Furthermore, law enforcement should work collaboratively with the New York Department of Labor, especially in labor trafficking cases. In order to fight human trafficking, we need to address the factors that drive people into vulnerable situations. This means enforcing labor laws. In U.S. v. Sabhnani in the Eastern District of New York, federal prosecutors benefited greatly from working together with the U.S. Department of Labor. The Labor Department can train law enforcement and district attorneys on how to identify potential trafficking situations and assist victims. Members of the New York Anti-Trafficking Network (NYATN) have extensive experience training law enforcement and service providers on human trafficking. And the Freedom Network (USA) has a curriculum for training as well.
The Labor Department is experienced in addressing exploitative working conditions, and the NYPD’s special victims division is experienced in working with crimes involving abuse. In the spirit of collaboration, as a member of both the New York State Anti-Trafficking Advisory Committee and the New York City Anti-Trafficking Task Force, I welcome the opportunity to be involved in the training. Together, each agency would be able to complement the other’s strengths.
IMMIGRANT COOPERATION WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT.
U visas help law enforcement to identify perpetrators and prosecutors to indict offenders of serious crimes. It was created as humanitarian relief for a vulnerable population, most of which do not have lawful status in the United States. It provides legal status to victims of certain serious crimes who have suffered substantial physical or mental harm and can document cooperation with law enforceme
nt. To obtain a U visa, the victim-witness needs to show that she or he has been helpful, is being helpful, or is likely to be helpful to law enforcement authorities. Federal regulations require a designated signature to show that the victim has been helpful. However, despite extensive cooperation from victims, advocates have had substantial challenges in obtaining these much-needed signatures from the NYPD. Witnesses are less likely to come forward to cooperate in the investigation or prosecution if they fear or distrust law enforcement authorities. Local law enforcement needs to meet their responsibilities in respecting and supporting these crime victims’ rights. A consistent U visa certification process will combat crime, including human trafficking, and enhance public safety.
Finally, Secure Communities (S-Comm) is harmful to immigrant communities. It has the opposite impact that U Visas are intended to serve. It forces victims further into the shadows and allows perpetrators to continue abuse by perpetuating the fear of law enforcement. Persons who are trafficked are isolated and invisible, and they are generally afraid of the authorities. S-Comm reinforces the fear of law enforcement. AALDEF commends Governor Cuomo for joining the governors of Illinois and Massachusetts in withdrawing New York from the SComm program. Similarly, AALDEF commends Mayor Bloomberg for supporting the Speaker Quinn’s NYC Council bill that would limit cooperation between New York City and ICE.
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