Human trafficking, which can include sex trafficking or forced labor, is not just something that happens in big cities or other countries, U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, said Wednesday.
“It happens here locally,” LaHood said after hosting a roundtable discussion on the issue at the Stratton Building in the Capitol complex in Springfield. “It happens in rural areas. It happens in medium-sized cities like Springfield or Bloomington or Peoria or Decatur.”
LaHood said his time as a state and federal prosecutor has made him passionate about the issue.
“Sometimes it’s people that are very vulnerable, people that have just come into this country,” he told reporters after the roundtable, which was held behind closed doors with people from agencies including the FBI and ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — as well as social service providers, other law enforcement officials and hotel owners.
“Sometimes it’s young people,” LaHood said. “Sometimes it’s people within their own family that are forcing them into labor, into working below labor standards, and not being on the radar of anybody.”
Carol Merna, executive director of the Peoria-based Center for Prevention of Abuse, told reporters after the meeting that victims served by her agency have ranged in age from an 11-year-old girl who was placed into sex trafficking by her mother, to a 62-year-old woman who was a “labor trafficking victim” in “domestic servitude.”
Sometimes, Merna said, “people can be duped” into what amounts to slavery.
A Washington, D.C.-based anti-trafficking organization called Polaris has found that traveling door-to-door sales crews’ work can be a form of forced labor.
“It’s the number one venue for labor trafficking in Illinois,” Merna said. “Kids may be approached and they say, ’We’re going to travel the country. We’re going to pay you a great wage. It’s going to be a wonderful experience.”
But she said the organizers of those sales often confiscate documents, drivers’ licenses and phones, and those doing the sales may be given quotas, which if not met yield physical abuse or other punishment — like having to sleep in a van.
“Eventually, if you are an unsatisfactory salesperson, they will oftentimes leave you in the middle of nowhere with no documentation and no way to contact anybody,” Merna said.
“Slavery has never ended,” she added. “And truly there are more people in slavery today than any time in history. It’s an iceberg. We see the tip.”
Education — through discussions like the one held in Springfield Wednesday — are a way to help, Merna said. Her organization works to train first responders and hospital personnel to better identify trafficking victims.
“Police departments need to look at cases with different eyes in many instances,” Merna said. “It’s not just a prostitution case. Perhaps that person that’s been caught has a child in the next room that’s being held against their will and that’s been threatened. So there are a number of things that folks need to know.”
Merna said victims can contact her agency, the FBI or the national human trafficking hotline, 1-888-373-7888.
“It affects 25 million people globally,” Merna said. “We need to reach those folks that are hurting. There’s a lot of people that are being exploited, especially young people.”
LaHood said local agencies and hospitals also can be contacted, and he said he sees part of his role in Congress as seeking more resources, raising awareness and continuing to seek ideas on the best ways to combat trafficking.