IMAGINE YOU LIVE in a country riven by war or poverty or both. There is no work. There is not enough food to feed your family or money for medicine when someone gets sick or injured. Education is nothing but a pipe dream. If you are a woman, your value is even more tenuous; you have probably been beaten or abused in some other way by a father, a husband, or an employer. You’re smart enough to understand that this life promises to be the only one you will get. It will last for another thirty or forty years, with no improvement. And that will be it.
Then one day someone says he can help you escape to the United States, where you can be free and make plenty of money for yourself while supporting your family back home. Well and good, but who has the money to get there? No problem—you can escape on the installment plan. All you (or your parents, if they are sealing the deal) have to do is sign a contract that promises to pay back the money you have borrowed by working for the agent’s connections in the U.S. at a restaurant or a factory. The going rate is about $30,000, which sounds like a lot of money, but in America everyone gets rich. And so you sign, ignoring a clause that says your family will be held responsible for your debt if you cannot pay it.
You get on a gigantic airplane—most likely you’ve never flown before—and land in a brand-new country where you cannot read the signs. If you have any identification documents at all, they are phony ones that you paid a fortune for back home, most likely adding to the debt you are already trying not to worry about. Someone picks you up and drives you away, and leaving the airport, you catch a glimpse of your future: teeming freeways, skyscrapers so tall they block out the sun, shopping malls that would dwarf your entire village. Your new “boss” buys you lunch, and you cannot believe the size of the portions put in front of you. All around you are people who want for nothing.
While you are in this state—dizzy, disoriented—your boss takes you to a place that isn’t a restaurant or a factory and tells you to unpack your few belongings in a dingy back room. He tells you that this is where you will work to pay off your debt. You will be a prostitute, he explains, and by the way, you will be charged for room and board while you are paying off that $30,000. When you protest, he beats you, starves you, or keeps you awake for days on end. Then, just to make himself clear, he holds up a picture of your son or your parents or your sister and tears it in half. Or maybe he just says, “We hear your father has a bad heart.”
At that point, your predicament becomes very clear. You do not speak or read the language. You do not have a cent to your name. You have no idea where you are in this vast country, and you have no way of finding out because no one lets you go anywhere alone. What do you do? Most likely, you do what you are told.
This scenario is as common as it is surreal. The people who work with trafficking victims hear it all day, every day, from women and children brought to Houston from Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, Latin America, and Africa.
(Read the entire article in the April edition of Texas Monthly.)