It’s not enough that Jin Hua Cui took all of their earnings. The eight Korean women, who said they were promised jobs in nail salons but forced to work as prostitutes, would constantly be threatened with harm and blackmail, according to the Suffolk County DA’s office.
The eight said Cui – whom they called ‘Big Mama’ — would have them picked up from Queens and delivered to massage parlors across Long Island. Their fees for turning tricks – anywhere from $60 to $80 — all went to Cui, who owns a brick mansion in Flushing. The women were left to share the tips.
Under New York State’s anti-trafficking law, Cui could face up to 25 years if convicted of sex trafficking. But the women might also have been charged with the crime of prostitution and sent to jail, making it difficult for them to get a visa, or worse, making them likely candidates for deportation.
Now a new bill, recently passed by the New York State legislature and awaiting the signature of Gov. David Paterson, could nullify the prostitution charges, and give the victims a chance to start over. A07670, authored by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, proposes to “vacate” prostitution convictions for victims of sex trafficking. It passed the State Assembly March 8 on a unanimous vote of 139-0, and the State Senate June 15 on a vote of 41-20. The bill applies also to immigrant women who are sold into prostitution or forced to work in massage parlors or escort services to pay back their debts.
Sienna Baskin of the Urban Justice Coalition’s Sex Workers Project campaign said the bill would allow sex trafficking victims to “rewind the clock” and start anew. “Trafficked women have no control over their environment or who they choose to work with,” she said.
“It will provide them with a better opportunity to recover and move forward with their lives by removing potential obstacles, such as adjusting their immigration status, gaining legal employment, and obtaining housing,” explained lawyer Ivy Suriyopas of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).
Sex trafficking, according to the recently released Trafficking in Persons 2010 report, is a “smaller but still significant portion” of the overall scourge of human trafficking, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the modern “slave trade.” Perpetrators are typically people with means, power and influence; their victims people who, out of sheer poverty, become vulnerable to coercion or the beguiling ways of recruiters.
“Too often the victims of this crime are perceived to be society’s throwaways – prostitutes, runaways, the poor, racial or ethnic minorities, members of a low caste, or recent immigrants,” according to the report issued by the State Department.
Cui’s Korean victims, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, “did not speak a word of English, and most importantly didn’t even know where they were.”
Trafficking is the classic power game. The use of physical violence or threats make the victims compliant. For recent immigrants, the threats may involve surrendering travel documents to their recruiters, or exposing their families to harassment in their countries of origin where the traffickers are well connected.
“It’s a lot easier to have that kind of power and control by using threats,” said Suriyopas.
A comprehensive anti-trafficking law is just what New York needs, said Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now. “A large percentage of the estimated 14,000 to 17,000 women trafficked into the U.S. every year end up in New York. New York is a huge hub.”
Some of the victims come from the Philippines, said activist and novelist Ninotchka Rosca, a fact also noted in the State Department report.
“The traffic of women, largely Filipinas, into prostitution is an organized and large scale operation,” said Rosca, spokesperson of the Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Re-feudalization and Marginalization (AF3IRM). What makes sex trafficking exceptionally exploitative, she said, is how traffickers treat the human body as “goods” in their highly profitable trade.
“We do not use the phrase ‘sex worker’ as it hides the exploitative essence of prostitution, which we view as capital’s assault upon the human body,” she said.
Rey Koslowski, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Albany’s (SUNY) Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, said the Gottfried bill further strengthens the state’s already tough anti-trafficking law.
“I don’t know of any state, or maybe there are not that many states that have separate laws against trafficking. New York State is definitely ahead,” said Koslowski, who is also a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. “It makes it easier for the victims to cooperate with law enforcement.”
THE T VISA
One option available to immigrant victims of human trafficking is the T visa. The Department of Homeland Security website states that “the purpose of the T non-immigrant visa is to allow eligible victims of trafficking to legally remain in the U.S. and provide assistance with the investigation and prosecution of traffickers.” By issuing the T visa, the U.S. government provides the victims and their families protection against possible retaliation after the victims cooperate with law enforcement. The T visa “puts them on a path to obtaining U.S. citizenship,” according to the State Department report.
But getting a T visa comes with a price. The victim has to testify against her trafficker all the way to the point of prosecution. In some cases, the victim may not have the emotional, financial or psychological stamina to go all the way.
“It is not a process that victims engage in lightly,” said Suriyopas. “A lot of the victims have concerns about coming forward against the perpetrators, regardless if they have papers or not.”
Bien-Aime observed that in some cases, the victim who has been “brutalized and traumatized” is not willing to testify against her trafficker.
“Eligibility for T visa requires cooperation from the women, but often it is difficult,” she said. “Many times, she knows her trafficker from her community here or back home.”
Only about 500 T visas were issued to victims and their families in 2009.
While many are hopeful the Gottfried bill and the T visa will offer sex trafficking victims an opportunity to start over, immigrant women like the Korean victims of Jin Hua Cui, with limited job prospects and shaky immigration status, remain vulnerable. The law in New York may soon be on their side, but the reality on the ground could keep them chained to a life where they are constantly at risk for exploitation.