At her weekly press conference following the Houston City Council meeting on Aug 29, Mayor Annise Parker proclaimed September as Human Trafficking Awareness month, and announced the appointment of a Committee to Study Human Trafficking. The committee will be comprised of a dozen specialists from law enforcement, charitable assistance agencies, and immigration law professionals including Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia. The new chair will be Maria A. Trujillo, MA, Executive Director, Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. Other members include Wafa Abdin, Vice President for Immigration Legal Services, Catholic Charities Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance, Laura Boston-Perez, Director, Houston Interfaith Worker Justice, Russell Etherton, Neighborhood Centers Inc Ed Gallagher, Deputy Criminal Chief, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Texas, Naomi Jiyoung Bang, Attorney, Foster Quan,LLP , Mandi Kimball, Director, Public Policy & Government Affairs, Children at Risk, Officer Rafael Pantoja, Houston Police Department, Jeff Watkins, Executive Director, YMCA International Services.
Mayor Parker’s press release stated:
“The Mayor’s Committee on Human Trafficking will work in collaboration with the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and community partners to formulate a strategic plan to educate citizens about the problem and how they can help combat this crime. The Mayor’s Committee on Human Trafficking is an initiative of the Office of International Communities, a division of the Department of Neighborhoods. For more information, visit www.houstontx.gov/neighborhoods.”
Mayor Parker explained that human trafficking is essentially a modern form of slavery. The victims are males and females of all ages, citizens and immigrants. According to the Mayor’s press release:
“Human trafficking is a crime that has a significant impact on many U.S. Cities. An estimated 18,000 foreign nationals are victims of human trafficking each year, according to the Rescue & Restore campaign administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Major points of illegal entry into the U.S. serve as human trafficking portals. These include southern and central Texas, Southern California, Tucson, Arizona and areas of New Mexico.
“The Houston area has been identified as an emerging portal for international traffickers. A major factor is Houston’s close proximity to the Texas-Mexico border, along with its port and international airport. Further, the Interstate 10 corridor, which cuts through the region, has been identified as one of the main routes for human traffickers by the U.S. Department of Justice. Also linked to the incidence of human trafficking is the region’s huge immigrant population, whose demographics can put this sector at risk for exploitation.”
Along with the Mayor, Sheriff Garcia, and Ms. Trujillo discussed various aspects of the issue, and what citizens can do to help identify victims of trafficking. Frequently, victims demonstrate a very limited ability to interact with others when asked ordinary questions about their jobs, days off, or freedom to spend their salaries because of debts to their “employers.” While a part of the problem involves the illicit drug and sex trades, other aspects include domestic servitude and forced labor. They may be nannies in a public park, waitresses, or hairdressers. Law enforcement efforts in Houston, working with rehabilitative rescue missions, have assisted several hundred victims of human trafficking in Houston in recent years. Some have been able to go on to have normal lives, acquire an education hold jobs and contribute to the community. Others who were transported here from other countries have been able to return home.
Sheriff Garcia also took questions in Spanish for the benefit of the Hispanic media.
As reported in 2010 by NPR, the US Justice Department reports that Houston has become known for years as a major hub of human trafficking. It has been estimated that 25% of the modern slave trade takes place in Houston. Mayor Parker stated that because Houston is a “gateway city” for lawful commerce and industries and tourism, it also becomes a focal point for illegal activities.