Eastern Washington migrant workers at risk for human trafficking

Federal investigators see more human trafficking cases involving forced labor on average than sex trafficking, but in Eastern Washington, migrant farm workers can be victims of both.

Steven Schrank, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations for the Pacific Northwest, said he’s seen many cases where people are lured to the United States under false pretenses.

“They believe that they’re coming in for one thing and, ultimately, do later become a victim of trafficking,” Schrank said.

Illegal marijuana operations target migrant workers seeking jobs in Oregon, Eastern Washington

Schrank said they’re seeing an increasing number of cases in Oregon and some in Eastern Washington where workers are promised a job in a legitimate agricultural field and end up stranded in another country on an illegal marijuana operation.

In those cases, workers are either forbidden to leave the property or are told that they can leave, but all their identification is in the hands of their employer.

“They are miles from civilization in a farm, potentially surrounded with armed guards, without their documentation, without their phones and forced to work and perpetuate an illegal operation,” Schrank said.

Schrank said they’re likely in an unsafe and uncontrolled environment, where there’s no oversight or standards to protect them from injury or illness.

“There’s often chemicals and fertilizers and things that they’ve never imagined having to deal with when they thought they were coming here to work in a legitimate agriculture sector,” Schrank said.

Schrank said they get reports of potential trafficking victims frequently, but can’t put perpetrators away unless they have the full cooperation and trust of the victims.

“We want to continue to beat the drum to make sure the community knows that victims can come forward without fear of reprisal or action from the federal government,” Schrank said.

That’s why HSI has shifted to a victim-centered approach, where investigators make sure not to prioritize the prosecution of traffickers over the safety and welfare of their victims.

“We work very closely with victims and suspected victims of human trafficking, in helping them obtain the necessary services to reintegrate into our communities and be a viable contributor outside of the horrific situation that they have often been forced into,” Schrank said.

Schrank said it’s important for everyone, but especially migrant workers, to know that they will not be penalized for their immigration status if they come forward to report they are a victim of forced labor or sex trafficking.

“Even if someone was trafficked into the United States and are otherwise unlawfully present, if they are a victim, there are different visa statuses that can be applied to victims in support of our investigations,” Schrank said.

Eastern Washington sex trafficking cases often start with a minor getting online

Schrank said they also see a lot of a sex trafficking cases involving minors in Eastern Washington that start with someone preying on young people online.

Perpetrators rarely ask for what they want when they first contact with a child and are more likely to first try to gain their trust as a mentor, colleague, friend or potential romantic partner.

“And in reality, it’s a pervert or a individual wishing to do them harm often from elsewhere in the country or elsewhere in the world,” Schrank said.

Schrank said once that trust is established, they often convince the minor to send them sexually explicit photos or videos through social media and later extorts them, threatening to make those images public unless the minor does what the want.

“[The person] then forces them into paying money, forces them into sending additional photos and videos or risk their permanent exposure over social media or by other means,” Schrank said.

Sometimes, what the perpetrator wants is for their victim to start engaging not just in sexually explicit imagery, but sexual acts as well. Schrank said any commercial sex act by a minor is considered trafficking.

“Parents need to be very mindful of minors’ interaction with others online and speak to their kids about sextortion and the real risks that can be associated with sending photos or videos of themselves to others online,” Schrank said.

Schrank said any child, no matter their circumstances, can become a victim of sex trafficking. He said parents should know even if it doesn’t happen to their child, it could easily happen to one of their friends.

“It’s not only having the communication with one’s kids, but making sure that our kids are aware of the existence of trafficking in case they see it with their friends and in case they see it with other individuals at school and in their communities,” Schrank said.

Want to help? Learn how to spot signs of a potential human trafficking victim

Schrank said they’re working on expanding their reach in the Yakima and Tri-Cities areas and on hiring a new victim assistance specialist to help deal with trafficking cases in Eastern Washington.

However, Schrank said they can’t combat this problem alone and they rely heavily on tips that come in from community members about potential victims of sex trafficking and forced labor. He said in either case, people should look for someone who:

  • Seems fearful to speak to strangers or appears to have been coached on what to say.
  • Redirects even simple questions to the person in charge of them.
  • Seems like their decisions are being made for them or that they couldn’t leave if they wanted to.

Another red flag to look out for with forced labor victims is if an employer holding on to their identification documents, which can be a way to prevent them from leaving the property.

For sex trafficking victims, it’s also important to watch for signs of physical abuse and antisocial behaviors like avoiding engaging in what would be considered “normal” conversations with transportation or hospitality workers.

Schrank said if you see something, it’s important to say something, even if you think it might be nothing, are worried you might be overreacting or concerned about drawing the wrong conclusions.

“To be honest, much of the time when we do receive a report, it is not necessarily a victim of human trafficking,” Schrank said. “But that does not mean that we can’t connect them with community organizations and NGOs that can provide additional counseling or basic needs.”

You can report signs of human trafficking by calling the Homeland Security Investigations tipline at 1-866-347-2423.

If you’re a victim who wants help or additional information, you can reach the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, by texting HELP or INFO to 233733, or through a live chat at humantraffickinghotline.org.

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