Migrant workers in eastern Washington at risk of human trafficking

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Federal investigators see more human trafficking cases involving forced labor on average than sex trafficking, but in eastern Washington migrant farmworkers can be victims of both.

Steven Schrank, Deputy Special Agent for Homeland Security Investigations for the Pacific Northwest, said he has seen many instances where people are lured into the United States under false pretences.

“They believe they come for one thing and ultimately become a victim of trafficking later on,” Schrank said.

Illegal marijuana operations target migrant workers seeking jobs in Oregon, eastern Washington

Schrank said they are seeing a growing number of cases in Oregon and eastern Washington where workers are promised employment in a legitimate agricultural field and find themselves stranded in another country on an illegal operation of marijuana.

In these cases, workers are either prohibited from leaving the property or told they can leave, but all of their identification is in the hands of their employer.

“They are miles away from civilization on a farm, potentially surrounded by armed guards, without their papers, without their phones and forced to work and perpetuate an illegal operation,” Schrank said.

Schrank said they were likely in a dangerous and uncontrolled environment, where there was no oversight or standard to protect them from injury or illness.

“There are often chemicals and fertilizers and things they never imagined they had to deal with when they thought they were coming here to work in a legitimate agricultural industry,” Schrank said.

Schrank said they frequently receive reports from potential victims of trafficking, but can only remove perpetrators if they have the victims’ full cooperation and trust.

“We want to keep beating the drum to make sure the community knows that victims can come forward without fear of retaliation or action from the federal government,” Schrank said.

That’s why HSI has moved to a victim-centered approach, where investigators are careful not to prioritize the prosecution of traffickers over the safety and well-being of their victims.

“We work closely with victims and suspected victims of human trafficking, helping them obtain the services needed to reintegrate into our communities and be a viable contributor outside of the horrific situation in which they often have been forced,” Schrank said.

Schrank said it’s important for everyone, but especially migrant workers, to know that they will not be penalized for their immigration status if they report they are victims of forced labor or trafficking. sexual.

“Even if someone has been trafficked into the United States and is otherwise unlawfully present, if they are a victim, different visa statuses may be applied to victims as part of our investigations” , said Schrank.

Sex trafficking cases in eastern Washington often start with a minor online

Schrank said they also see many underage sex trafficking cases in eastern Washington that start with someone preying on young people online.

Abusers rarely ask what they want when first contacting a child and are more likely to first try to gain their trust as a potential mentor, co-worker, friend or romantic partner.

“And in reality, it’s a pervert or an individual who wants to hurt them often from somewhere else in the country or from somewhere else in the world,” Schrank said.

Schrank said that once trust is established, they often convince the minor to send them sexually explicit photos or videos via social media and later extort them, threatening to make those images public unless the minor agrees. do what he wants.

“[The person] then forces them to pay money, forces them to send in additional photos and videos or risk their permanent exposure on social media or in other ways,” Schrank said.

Sometimes what the abuser wants is for their victim to start engaging not only in sexually explicit images, but also in sexual acts. Schrank said any commercial sex act by a minor is considered trafficking.

“Parents should be very careful about minors’ interaction with others online and talk to their children about sextortion and the real risks that can be associated with sending photos or videos of themselves to others. ‘others online,’ Schrank said.

Schrank said any child, regardless of their circumstances, can become a victim of sex trafficking. He said parents should know that even if it doesn’t happen to their child, it could easily happen to one of their friends.

“It’s not just about having communication with your children, but making sure our children are aware of the existence of trafficking in case they see it with their friends and in case they see it with other people at school and in their communities,” Schrank said.

Want to help? Learn to spot the signs of a potential victim of human trafficking

Schrank said they are working to expand their reach in the Yakima and Tri-Cities areas and hire a new victim assistance specialist to help handle trafficking cases in eastern Washington.

However, Schrank said they cannot tackle this problem alone and rely heavily on information provided by community members about potential victims of sex trafficking and forced labor. He said that in either case, people should look for someone who:

  • Seems afraid to talk to strangers or seems to have been coached on what to say.
  • Redirects even simple questions to the person in charge.
  • Seems like their decisions are made for them or they couldn’t leave if they wanted to.

Another red flag to watch out for with victims of forced labor is if an employer retains their identification documents, which can be a means of preventing them from leaving the property.

For victims of sex trafficking, it’s also important to watch for signs of physical abuse and antisocial behavior, such as avoiding engaging in what would be considered “normal” conversations with transportation or hospitality workers. .

Schrank said that if you see something, it’s important to say something, even if you think it’s nothing, fear overreacting, or fear drawing the wrong conclusions.

“To be honest, most of the time when we get a report, it’s not necessarily a victim of human trafficking,” Schrank said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t connect them with community organizations and NGOs who can provide additional advice or meet basic needs.”

You can report signs of human trafficking by calling the Homeland Security Investigations Hotline at 1-866-347-2423.

If you are a victim who would like further assistance or information, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text HELP or INFO to 233733 , or via live chat at humantraffickinghotline.org.

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