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Local ICE billboards focus on human trafficking

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has put up three Bay Area billboards – two in Oakland, one in San Francisco – as part of a 15-city outdoor advertising campaign to call attention to the evils of human trafficking.

The “Hidden in Plain Sight” campaign urges the public to take action if they encounter people who they believe are being sexually exploited or forced to work against their will. Other cities targeted by the campaign are Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., New Orleans, New York, St. Paul, Minn., San Antonio and Tampa, Fla.

“Most Americans are shocked to learn that in this day and age slavery still exists in this country, including here in the Bay Area,” Mark Wollman, special agent in charge of ICE’s Office of Investigations in San Francisco, said in a news release. “ICE is committed to giving trafficking victims the help they need to come forward so we can put an end to this reprehensible form of modern-day slavery. We are asking the public to help us recognize and identify these victims in our midst – domestic servants, sweat shop employees, sex workers and others lured here by the promise of prosperity, but then forced to work without the ability to leave their situation.”

Just last month, a Walnut Creek woman was convicted on federal charges for having smuggling a Peruvian national into the United States and making her work as a live-in nanny and domestic servant, without pay. Mabelle de la Rosa Dann, 46, faces up to 75 years in federal prison; her sentencing is scheduled for January.

But ICE says identifying victims and their persecutors is tough, as victims often don’t speak English while traffickers often seize victims’ travel and identity documents and threaten their families back home. Although ICE estimates 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked into the sex trade or forced-labor situations around the world each year, ICE launched just 432 human trafficking investigations – 262 involving the sex trade, 170 involving forced labor – in fiscal 2008; in that same year, ICE’s human trafficking investigations led to 189 arrests, 126 indictments and 126 convictions.

That’s under federal law. Here in California, the Penal Code defines someone guilty of human trafficking as “(a)ny person who deprives or violates the personal liberty of another” for purposes of prostitution, child pornography or extortion, “or to obtain forced labor or services” – the victim need not be an immigrant. Oakland’s problems with such trafficking are well-documented, and shocking.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed into law AB 17 by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, which boosts the financial penalties for those convicted of the human trafficking of minors and lets law enforcement seize their assets. Under this new law, half the money collected from such fines and seizures will go to community-based organizations helping underage victims of human trafficking.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    Child-trafficking is one thing, but smuggling some adult into the country to act as a housemaid and babysitter hardly would have shaken the 19th Century Abolitionists; they probably would have approved. The defendant in question, Ms Dann, certainly broke immigration law, acted without regard for proper working conditions and ignored the interests of the Peruvian woman who was treated as an indentured servant. But nothing in the U.S. attorney’s statement indicates physical cruelty or mistreatment other than making threats that played upon the ignorance and social isolation of the servant. Years in federal prison seems overly harsh. As for Oakland’s “well-documented, and shocking” human trafficking, it appears to involve minor girls and other neglected children, something not out of place in the poorest, most crime-ridden parts of urban America. The problem has been aggravated by people-smuggling, it didn’t start with people-smuggling.