In Modern Slavery, Sad Echoes of Juneteenth

As African Americans celebrate the June 19 anniversary of the delayed emancipation of enslaved Africans in Texas, human bondage continues in our time -- and on our shores.

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Many Americans conceptualize modern-day slavery as a problem only in foreign countries. We recall images of young girls forced into brothels in Cambodia and Russia, or men mining for profitable metal in the Congo. But according to the U.S. State Department, between 14,500 and 17,000 people are trafficked in the United States each year.

In the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, an annual assessment of human trafficking around the world, the United States was included for the first time. "This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a letter upon the release of the report, which describes the United States as a source of and destination for victims, who are either trafficked in from other countries or taken advantage of because of uncertain immigration status.

Young girls and women have been forced into prostitution in cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles, enslaved farmworkers have been found picking tomatoes in Florida, and men and women have been discovered in bondage as domestic workers in hotels and restaurants all over the country. 

"A lot of times, victims are trafficked in from other countries, so they don't speak the language. They're in fear for their lives, their safety and their families back home," said Morris, adding that many forced laborers in restaurants and hotels are kept away from customers, where no one ever sees them. "It's super hidden. Because people don't know to look for it or ask certain questions, the perpetrators are able to get away with it."

Victims of sexual trafficking in the United States, however, also include American girls, with most victims under the age of 18. They are often coerced into prostitution by someone they know. "There are boyfriends, fathers and brothers forcing these young girls to prostitute themselves so they can make a profit. It's not typically a stranger kidnapping a girl off the street," said Morris.

The most vulnerable victims are people in poverty, and the issue crosses all racial barriers. Girls and women from middle-class communities, however, have also been forced into sexual slavery.

Fighting Back

One reason slavery persists in the United States is that the general public doesn't think it can happen here, so they turn a blind eye to the problem. Activist groups like Not for Sale educate  citizens about the signs to look for in their communities, and what to do. They also work with local governments and police forces to raise awareness of the issue.

Those efforts are paying off. This year, 12 states -- including Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts, Arizona and Virginia -- passed strong anti-human-trafficking laws. "States are passing laws in all different areas of human trafficking, from dealing with sex trafficking to supply-chain transparency," Morris said.

On a global level, different countries are also starting to look into the issue. "More importantly, we've seen corporations think about their supply chain -- for example, where the cotton comes from for the blue jeans they make," said Morris. "That changes the demographic not only for the consumer but for the workers in factories and manufacturers as well. We're starting to see the entire global trafficking industry wake up."

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