BLOOMINGTON — When local law enforcement officers encounter potential victims of human trafficking, one of their first calls is likely to federal immigration agents.
Known primarily for its work as a monitor of federal immigration laws, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also works with local communities to combat human trafficking, a $150 billion industry that surpasses illegal gun sales as the second largest crime in the world.
Last week, 15 officers from the McLean County Sheriff’s Department attended a human trafficking training program sponsored by the Peoria-based Center for Prevention of Abuse.
“Human trafficking is a growing problem. We wanted our officers to be able to identify those circumstances when they come across them,” said Sheriff Jon Sandage.
“ICE would be a partner on those calls. We would notify them because they have the programs in place to protect victims,” he said.
Rural areas like Central Illinois are not immune to human trafficking, said Sandage. Businesses, including restaurants, massage parlors and large agricultural operations, sometimes employ people who are the victims of human trafficking.
Illinois reported 202 cases of possible human trafficking in 2016. Two new cases were filed recently in Urbana by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois against people accused of participating in a sex-trafficking ring.
Sara Dillefeld-Sefried, director of human trafficking services for the Center for Prevention of Abuse, said efforts to reduce human trafficking requires cooperation among police, ICE and private agencies.
The misconception that human trafficking only happens in large metropolitan areas is important to recognize, said Dillefeld-Sefried, who conducted the training for the McLean County officers.
Central Illinois’ location at the crossroads of several major interstates that link Chicago and St. Louis leaves communities along the route vulnerable to human trafficking, said Dillefeld-Sefried.
“We sit at a pretty good spot for human trafficking to occur, between two large hubs,” she said.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage describes booking procedures Thursday, July 26, 2018, at the McLean County jail in downtown Bloomington. Fifteen of Sandage’s officers have attended training on dealing with human trafficking, a growing problem, he said.
The 25 people who received services from the Center for Prevention of Abuse related to human trafficking in the past 18 months range in age from 12 to 62, according to center data. The majority are women who are the victims of sex trafficking.
With training, law enforcement and other first responders can intervene in what is sometimes considered a hidden crime. “It’s not hidden if you know what you’re looking at. It’s just underneath the surface,” said Dillefeld-Sefried.
Federal immigration agents also assist the Center for Prevention of Abuse when human trafficking is suspected.
“They really are the experts and are very dedicated to helping this population of individuals,” said Dillefeld-Sefried.
The work by federal agents in local communities has not drawn praise from everyone.
As the heated debate over deportations and the separation of children from their families rages across the country, critics of ICE have argued that it’s time to abolish the agency and start over.
Such suggestions are short-sighted, said Sandage.
“People don’t think of the unintended consequences of abolishing ICE. They need to look at all the functions and the work ICE does,” said Sandage, including cooperation with other agencies to investigate child pornography and sex trafficking involving children.
Don Carlson, director of Illinois People’s Action, said the Bloomington-based agency has not taken a formal position on scrapping ICE, but the group has concerns about alleged harassment of undocumented residents by Bloomington police.
According to Carlson, police records obtained by the group indicate BPD officers made referrals to ICE of four families based solely on their immigration status with no allegation of criminal conduct by the individuals.
“Bloomington would be better off if they (ICE) weren’t there. ICE has become the federal deportation arm of the Trump administration,” said Carlson.
Former Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner previously said the 200 pages of e-mails over three years drew a small number of concerns for IPA and showed no evidence of any effort to deport people.
The Bloomington City Council has taken no action on a proposed Welcoming City ordinance that would limit police cooperation with ICE and require an explanation for officers’ interaction with immigrants.
In July, Mayor Tari Renner asked Chief Clay Wheeler, who has succeeded Heffner, to develop a policy on officer contact with immigrants. Wheeler said BPD’s interactions with ICE are rare, but agreed to develop “some policy that will protect (immigrants’) interests and safety and include them in the community.”
Wheeler said last week that “occasionally ICE conducts investigations into criminal activity being committed by undocumented immigrants. The investigations have included organized drug crimes, human trafficking and child exploitation. ICE can also be a resource for us when looking for an undocumented immigrant that has a warrant for committing a serious crime in our community and has fled our jurisdiction.”
The town of Normal recently adopted a policy that assures residents that officers will consider their interactions with ICE and explain why citizenship information is requested from immigrants.