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July, 2022 Monthly Reflection

July 7, 2022

Land of the Brave? Yes. Home of the Free? Not really.

Theresa Flores

July has always been one of my favorite months. My family always held our annual Family Reunion on the 4thof July in Indiana and got together each year with those with whom we shared a blood bond. It felt safe, you didn’t need to explain yourself and it was fun to find out how similar we all were and what common traits we all held. Not to mention the amazing food like tomato pie, popcorn right from the field, fresh walnuts, pickled eggs (not my favorite) and even homemade wine—all freshly made by our farm family members. But as I sit here reflecting on my own family, so many of them lost in the past several years and knowing that it will never be the same again, I recall all the hundreds of survivors of Human Trafficking who I have met—many of them who have never been to a family reunion. They have never spent time running around a field with sparklers, water gun fights with cousins and crazy uncles, eating homemade ice cream they helped churn, or even going to a parade. Approximately 40% of survivors are trafficked by family members and when they are fortunate enough to escape, many are forced to leave their entire family.

In July, while we celebrate FREEDOM, most people don’t realize that there are still many who have never known what this word means. Victims of trafficking, enslaved to the will of others, including those not being paid for hours of back-breaking work in a tomato field, those being forced to do more than massages in a massage parlor, and children used as objects of gratification—none of them know freedom. Yes, right here in America. Victims and survivors of trafficking are certainly representative of who we are referencing when we talk about the Home of the Brave, but they are certainly not experiencing the Land of the FREE.

As we sit and watch a 20-minute firework display (on which thousands of dollars were spent), chatting with an aunt we haven’t seen in years, going up to the buffet line of the 4th of July potluck picnic, most of us don’t stop to question if the worker who harvested the tomatoes on the table was paid a fair price for his work, or if the shrimp was harvested by an ethical company. We take for granted the word Freedom and believe All are free. But unfortunately, this isn’t true.

My family moto on our crest reads “Justice Will Prevail.” I know this to be true in my bones but there were plenty of times I doubted it. Especially while being sold to men and forced into debt bondage as a teenager. Although my faith remained strong, even during the worst of the times, there were many occasions, even after escaping, that I wondered if this was really true. My attempts to prosecute the traffickers led to dead ends, finding qualified counseling to help me heal the trauma was fruitless, and I had no one to talk to about what I endured who could possibly understand.

So, what does justice look like to me now? To an Irish Catholic, middle aged woman (ok, maybe a little older than that) who once was not free? It looks like this: stronger laws in every state (with law enforcement and judges who will enforce them) to help stop the Demand for sex for sale, tougher penalties against the traffickers but also the perpetrators- the buyers. It looks like services for survivors who need a bed, trained counselors, drug addiction help, being reunited with the children that were taken from them, dental help for the teeth they lost at the hands of their traffickers, programs for gay youth who are kicked out of their homes and are now vulnerable and ‘sitting ducks’, and many good lawyers who will help survivors get restitution and their records erased.

Freedom isn’t Free. It requires a lot. It requires more than us dressing up in an “America is Great” t-shirt, eating our apple pie and going to see fireworks. It requires strong men uniting to fight against this injustice instead of being a part of the problem and being brave enough to call it out for what it is to other men. It means that we will view prostitution as an oppression instead of a profession.

It requires what it once did- fighting a war against what is UNJUST. It requires us to open up our eyes to truly see what is happening right next to us. And then doing something about it.

Let us not take Freedom for granted.

Los Angeles Paralegal Pleads Guilty To Role In Visa Fraud

July 3, 2022

A Los Angeles paralegal pleaded guilty Monday, June 6, to  participating in a scheme to violate U.S. immigration laws by preparing and filing bogus documents that sought permanent residency and citizenship for members of a Philippines-based church.

Maria De Leon, 73, a resident of Koreatown and the owner of a legal document service, entered her plea to a single conspiracy charge, which carries a sentence of up to five years behind bars, according to the Department of Justice.

Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 12.

The defendant admitted her part in the scheme with administrators of the church, which is known as the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above Every Name, according to her plea agreement.

De Leon acknowledged that for eight years she helped commit marriage and visa fraud with the leaders of the church, which has a facility in Van Nuys.

De Leon is one of nine defendants charged in November in a 42-count indictment that alleges a labor-trafficking scheme that used fraudulently obtained visas to bring church members to the United States, where they were forced to solicit donations for a bogus charity.

Read the full story on Los Angeles Daily News.

Opinion | Human Trafficking Threatens Our Society

June 30, 2022

In the United States, slavery may be remembered as an abolished practice of the past, but it is still happening here today. It has been carried on through a new, illegal outlet: human trafficking.

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Taking the definition a step further, the National Human Trafficking Hotline describes human trafficking as “modern-day slavery.”

Just looking through the news, I have come across countless stories — some just hours old — updating the world about ongoing human trafficking instances. For example, an incident occurred on May 26, only a state away in Oshkosh, Wisc. Slightly south of Green Bay, the area’s local ABC channel covered the ongoing inspection of a spa where victims and evidence of human trafficking have been discovered.

The FBI breaks down human trafficking into three forms. While all three involve the use of “force, fraud, or coercion,” they have different, inhumane purposes.

Historically creating the highest number of victims, sex trafficking forces victims to “engage in commercial sex acts.” Children and women are often the most vulnerable to this type of trafficking. These victims may suffer serious trauma, leading to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping disorders or eating disorders. Along with reproductive problems, victims may also contract infectious diseases from unsanitary living environments.

Labor trafficking, much like it sounds, forces victims to perform labor or service. This type of trafficking is the most similar to the historical, unethical practice of slavery here in the United States. It falls into two categories: bonded labor and forced labor. Bonded labor is when the victim is in debt to the trafficker, while forced labor is when the trafficker violates the victim’s free will.

Lastly is domestic servitude, in which the victims are often held in a household and “appear to be domestic workers,” like nannies and housekeepers but are really being controlled through force. People most likely to be subject to this type of trafficking are immigrants or people of color. They make up 65% of all domestic workers in the United States. Immigrants are often blackmailed by traffickers, who threaten deportation when the immigrants do not yet have full citizenship.

Read the full story by Maggie Knutte on The Daily Illini.

FBI Working To Protect Children From Human Trafficking

June 28, 2022

MIDLAND, Texas — Finding children who have either run away or been trafficked is becoming a bigger concern for law enforcement.

It was just a few days ago that 70 children were found and recovered in Midland, Ector, El Paso and Tom Green counties after a three week long operation.

Many of those children were runaways and some were also victims of abuse and trafficking.

Missing children, whether they are running away or being trafficked, are a big concern for law enforcement. This is why government agencies such as the FBI will work hand-in-hand with local law enforcement.

“We work very closely with our local law enforcement partners,” Aida Reyes, the FBI’s Supervisory Special Agent of the Violent Crimes Against Children and Human Trafficking Squad, said. “So whenever there is an effort to locate children or to try and find to avert a disaster of somebody taking a child or engaging in sexual activity with a child, we do collaborate amongst all of us and put resources into making sure that we find these children.”

Read the full story by Jonathan Polasek on News West 9.

Three Men Sentenced To Federal Prison On Charges Related To Human Trafficking

June 26, 2022

Each admitted to role in forced farm labor in Operation Blooming Onion

BRUNSWICK, GA:  Three men have been sentenced to federal prison in separate but related cases in which they admitted providing forced labor for south Georgia farms.

Javier Sanchez Mendoza Jr., 24, of Jesup, Ga., was sentenced to 360 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to Conspiracy to Engage in Forced Labor; Aurelio Medina, 42, of Brunswick, was sentenced to 64 months in prison after pleading guilty to Forced Labor; and Yordon Velazquez Victoria, 45, of Brunswick, was sentenced to 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to Conspiracy, said David H. Estes, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. Mendoza and Medina are citizens of Mexico illegally present in the United States and are subject to deportation after completion of their prison terms.

There is no parole in the federal system.

“These men engaged in facilitating modern-day slavery,” said U.S. Attorney Estes. “Our law enforcement partners have exposed an underworld of human trafficking, and we will continue to identify and bring to justice those who would exploit others whose labors provide the fuel for their greed.”

The cases were charged as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation, Operation Blooming Onion, which tracked a wide-ranging conspiracy to bring farm workers from Central America into the United States under the H-2A visa program under fraudulent pretenses and to profit from their labor by underpaying the workers and keeping them in substandard conditions. The case has been designated as a Priority Transnational Organized Crime Case under the OCDETF program.

As described in court documents and testimony, Mendoza admitted that from about August 2018 to November 2019, in Glynn, Wayne, and Pierce counties, he was a leader in a venture to obtain and provide labor and services for farms and other businesses. He did so by recruiting and unlawfully charging more than 500 Central American citizens to obtain H-2A visas – specifically granted for temporary agricultural labor – and then withholding the workers’ identification papers and threatening them and their families in their home countries to force them to work for little or no pay and in deplorable conditions.

A key victim testified during sentencing that Mendoza selected her from another work crew after her arrival in Georgia from Mexico and brought her to live with him, maintaining control through threats and intimidation and raping her repeatedly for more than a year – including deceiving her into believing she had married him. When she escaped, he kidnapped her at knifepoint from a home where she was babysitting children who were playing in their front yard. Law enforcement agencies tracked her to Mendoza’s Jesup mobile home, where after her rescue the officers found a shrine to Santa Muerte – “Saint Death” – decorated with her hair and blood in what was believed to be a prelude to her murder. Mendoza faces pending state charges for aggravated assault related to that incident.

Medina admitted that from about April to October 2020, in Glynn and Effingham counties, he charged foreign workers to obtain H-2A visas and then withheld their identification documents. Victoria, a naturalized U.S. citizen, admitted he conspired with Medina and allowed Medina to use his name to apply for the use of H-2A workers, and then transported those workers from housing to work for which Victoria was paid $600 per week.

The investigation into forced labor in agricultural communities, in south Georgia and beyond, continues through U.S.A. v. Patricio et al, in which 23 defendants are charged in the labor trafficking, visa fraud and money laundering conspiracy. The defendants are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. Two of those defendants are fugitives.

“These defendants are being held accountable for the horrors of human and labor trafficking that they inflicted upon their victims, in the name of profit,” said Special Agent in Charge Katrina Berger, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) operations in Georgia and Alabama. “Thanks to the great work done by our agents, along with our state, local and federal partners, this case was successfully investigated and prosecuted preventing more innocent people from being victimized.”

“Customs and Border Protection takes great pride in fostering collaboration with our partner government agencies to diligently combat human trafficking and forced labor as part of our overall duties and responsibilities in protecting and preserving our national security,” said Henry DeBlock III, Area Port Director for CBP Savannah.

“This sentencing sends a strong message: DSS pursues those who fraudulently use worker visas, like the H-2A, for personal gain, making sure that those who commit human trafficking face consequences for their criminal actions,” said Jessica Moore, chief of the criminal investigations division of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). “We are firmly committed to working to prevent situations where vulnerable individuals are exploited in human trafficking schemes such as this. DSS’ global presence and strong relationship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement partners was essential in the pursuit of justice for these victims.”

“Mendoza, Medina and Victoria misused the H-2A program in order to enrich themselves at the expense of foreign workers and American employers,” said Mathew Broadhurst, Acting Special Agent-in-Charge, Atlanta Region, U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General. “We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to vigorously pursue those who commit fraud involving foreign labor programs.”

“The United States abolished slavery and involuntary servitude over 156 years ago, yet these men engaged in the heinous crime of forced labor and chose to exploit their fellow human beings for profit,” said Philip Wislar, Acting Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta. “The FBI is committed to working with our partners to purse justice on behalf of victims of human trafficking and prosecuting perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.”

“This investigation is an excellent example of a partnership between federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies working together to bring down individuals involved in a human trafficking conspiracy,” said Tommy D. Coke, Inspector in Charge of the Atlanta Division. “The hard work and countless hours put forth by all has prevented so many victims from being further victimized by the defendants who have caused considerable emotional harm.”

The cases are being investigated as part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF) operation. OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach.

Agencies investigating the cases include Homeland Security Investigations; Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Fraud Detection and National Security; the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General, and Wage and Hour Division; U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and the FBI. The cases are being prosecuted for the United States by Assistant U.S. Attorney and Human Trafficking Coordinator Tania D. Groover, and Assistant U.S. Attorney and Criminal Division Deputy Chief E. Greg Gilluly Jr.

Press release originally posted by U.S Department of Justice.

A Simple Act That Supports Survivors of Human Trafficking in Worthwhile Wear Programs

June 25, 2022

PHILADELPHIA, May 27, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Over 25 million people are trafficked worldwide, leaving many survivors with inadequate resources for dealing with trauma, abuse, and addiction. But despite these odds, there’s hope and a way for everyone to be a part of the solution.

Now, through July 30, everyone, everywhere is invited to walk, bike, run, swim or even kayak to support survivors of human trafficking through Worthwhile Wear’s national “Act Challenge.” For every mile logged at WorthwhileWear.org or shared on social media using @WorthwhileWear, Act Challenge sponsors will make a financial donation per mile that helps provide safe housing and restorative programming to survivors of human trafficking in America. The Act Challenge is a free event and open to all ages and abilities.

Schools, businesses, gyms, churches and even other organizations are capitalizing on the opportunity this event offers. Educate students, clients and colleagues on the issue of human trafficking, and then host a walk/jog/ride to make a positive impact in the life of someone affected by trafficking.

The goal of this year’s Act Challenge is to complete 30,000 miles by July 30, “World Day Against Trafficking.” Join everyone in raising awareness about the issue of trafficking and help expand housing capacity and outreach programs for survivors by logging miles today.

To join this effort, follow these steps:

  1. Track: Log miles while walking, running, biking, swimming, kayaking, etc.
  2. Record: Submit completed miles on the submission form at www.worthwhilewear.org or post on social media and tag @WorthwhileWear
  3. Repeat: Miles may be submitted every day through July 30.

Read the full story on Globe News Wire.

Humanitarian Crisis In Ukraine Is Turning Into Human Trafficking Crisis: UN Envoy

June 24, 2022

New York [US], June 6 (ANI/Xinhua): The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is turning into a human trafficking crisis, warned Pramila Patten, the UN secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, on Monday.

From the outset of the conflict, heightened risks of trafficking in persons, including for purposes of sexual exploitation and prostitution, have been alarmingly evident, Patten said.

The lack of consistent vetting of accommodation offers and transportation arrangements is a serious concern, as well as the limited capacity of protection services to address the velocity and volume of displacement, she told a UN Security Council meeting on conflict-related sexual violence and human trafficking in the context of the Ukraine conflict.

There are also concerns regarding the multiplicity of volunteers, with limited vetting, and little or no training or experience, she added.

In her visit to a Tesco supermarket-converted receiving center for Ukrainian refugees in Przemysl, Poland, she found “grave security and protection concerns” in a facility run by volunteers, and with only a “bare-bones presence” of UN agencies.

Humanitarian staff at the site gave credible anecdotal accounts of attempted human trafficking, said Patten. With minimal security screening, a man registered as a volunteer at the Tesco center in the afternoon and entered the “French room” where refugees were waiting for transport to France. At that time, he made contact with a 19-year-old woman, whom he later woke up in the sleeping hall at 2 a.m., offering a ride to France, she said.

Read the full story on The Print.

Cardinal Nichols: Ukrainian Mothers & Children Rescued From Human Traffickers

June 9, 2022

Nearly 30 mothers and children were rescued after a bus intending to traffic them was stopped when a mother called a number she received from an anti-trafficking leaflet.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, shared this as an example of a best practice implemented to combat the scourge of anti-trafficking as part of the efforts of the Santa Marta Group.

The English Cardinal who leads the Santa Marta Group was speaking at a press conference in Vatican Radio’s headquarters, following the Group’s encounter with Pope Francis on Thursday morning in the Vatican.

Enormous challenge

Responding to the question from Vatican News on how the war in Ukraine has impacted human trafficking and their best practices, Cardinal Nichols recalled very informative and inspiring reports from the police forces of Poland and Lithuania.

“It is just an enormous challenge,” he noted, stressing the war in Ukraine has caused the largest movement of people in a short time across borders in Europe for 60 or 70 years.

“A positive” aspect which the Cardinal shared was “that because of some of the partnerships that have already been established, within a matter of hours, leaflets had been prepared warning those who were crossing the border against the dangers of being trafficked.”

Saving real people

Those leaflets, he noted, had a contact number, and one of them was passed out to a Ukrainian woman who then narrowly avoided falling into the hands of human traffickers.

This, he said, is a specific example of the many “stories of speedy action attributed to existing patterns of cooperation.”

The Cardinal warned that authorities are fighting an uphill battle.

“It was pointed out to us that, to begin with, the better-educated, probably better-off people, were those able to get to the border,” he noted, explaining that “those coming now are the poorer people who have less resilience and fewer resources.” He acknowledged that “the strain is being felt everywhere.”

Read the full article by Deborah Castellano Lubov on Vatican News.

A 17-Year-Old Boy Died By Suicide Hours After Being Scammed. The FBI Says It’s Part Of A Troubling Increase In ‘Sextortion’ Cases.

June 7, 2022

(CNN)Ryan Last received a message on a school night in February from someone he believed to be a girl.

Within hours, the 17-year-old, straight-A student and Boy Scout had died by suicide.

“Somebody reached out to him pretending to be a girl, and they started a conversation,” his mother, Pauline Stuart, told CNN, fighting back tears as she described what happened to her son days after she and Ryan had finished visiting several colleges he was considering attending after graduating high school.

The online conversation quickly grew intimate, and then turned criminal.

The scammer—posing as a young girl—sent Ryan a nude photo and then asked Ryan to share an explicit image of himself in return. Immediately after Ryan shared an intimate photo of his own, the cybercriminal demanded $5,000, threatening to make the photo public and send it to Ryan’s family and friends.

The San Jose, California, teen told the cybercriminal he could not pay the full amount, and the demand was ultimately lowered to a fraction of the original figure—$150. But after paying the scammers from his college savings, Stuart said, “They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him.”

At the time, Stuart knew none of what her son was experiencing. She learned the details after law enforcement investigators reconstructed the events leading up to his death.

She had said goodnight to Ryan at 10 p.m., and described him as her usually happy son. By 2 a.m., he had been scammed, and taken his life. Ryan left behind a suicide note describing how embarrassed he was for himself and the family.

Read the full story by Josh Campbell and Jason Kravarik on CNN.