All across the U.S., victims are forced into commercial sex and forced labor—from the teen forced to sell sex at a truck stop to the worker living in squalor on a potato farm. In order to build a targeted response to human trafficking and provide specialized support to survivors, we must understand which distinct types of trafficking exist in our communities.
Meet The Survivors
Kept in the house
Irene applied for a job through an international recruitment agency that connected household workers with families in the U.S. She accepted a job with a California couple who promised they would pay her $1,500 a month and sponsor her temporary work visa.
Upon her arrival, they forbade Irene from ever leaving the home, always arming the security system to keep her confined. For 18 hours a day, Irene cooked, cleaned, and cared for the children, but was never paid.
“HELP,” she wrote on a piece of paper one day when a repairman visited the house. Alarmed, the repairman contacted the National Human Trafficking Hotline, who worked with the police to help Irene escape and arrest her traffickers. Irene was connected to a local service provider, and ended up returning home to her family.
Traveling Sales Crews
"Sell or get out"
“I’m not going to stay here anymore,” Sam told his managers after his tenth month selling magazines door-to-door. He had joined the traveling crew after dropping out of college, but his managers didn’t pay him and frequently said that they would abandon him on the side of the road if he didn’t meet his quota. Sam was terrified of this threat because he had seen other members of the crew abandoned before—usually in unfamiliar cities and towns without any money or resources to get back home.
Sam tried to follow the rules, but when he didn't make quota, he was left in a small town in Ohio without any money. Sam had to walk for hours before he could find a bus station and contact a cousin for help. By the time he got home, he hadn’t eaten for three days.
Locked in a hotel
Rachel was 19 when she met Martin on Instagram. After struggling with poverty and being abused by her parents her whole life, Martin was the first person who made her feel special. “You’re so beautiful, I can get you a modeling contract,” he promised.
Rachel moved in with Martin in Chicago, but soon found out that all his promises were lies. There was no modeling contract, and his affection for her was just an act. Martin began advertising her for commercial sex on Backpage.com and got her addicted to drugs. He threatened to withhold the drugs and beat her if she refused to see 10 or more customers per night. Rachel could never leave the hotel room. When she was caught attempting to contact friends and family back home, she was sold to another trafficker.
Jobs at a cost
Prateek was hired by a marine services company to repair shipyards after Hurricane Katrina. He came to America through the guestworker visa program, having paid $10,000 in recruitment fees after being promised a good job and permanent residency for him and his family. “After I work in America for awhile, you can join me there,” he promised his children.
But when he arrived, Prateek learned that things were not as promised. He was forced to work around the clock and had to pay over $1,000 a month to live in a crowded labor camp with other workers. Anyone who tried to leave was threatened with deportation.
Prateek was finally able to escape, and together, he and his co-workers won one of the largest labor trafficking stories in history.
Abuse in your food
“But I was promised $11 an hour,” he protested. Manuel had been recruited in Guanajuato, Mexico to work on a potato farm in North Carolina. The recruiters charged Manuel and 40 other Mexican males $1,200 each for their H-2A visa, despite these fees being illegal.
When Manuel and his coworkers tried to complain, their supervisors physically abused them and threatened to have them deported. By the end of the season, despite his 12-hour workdays, Manuel hadn’t even earned enough money to cover his recruitment fee.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline connected him with a pro-bono lawyer who helped to obtain Manuel’s back wages. Manuel is now an advocate for other survivors of human trafficking.
Deported or dead
The gangs that ruled the streets of El Salvador had been threatening Fernando to join them. When he continued to resist them, they went after his family, killing them. “You have no choice now,” they told him.
Afterwards, Fernando had nowhere to live and had to escape the country. He met a smuggler who charged him $5,000 for help getting to the U.S. "Don’t worry, I’ll get you a good job. You’ll be able to pay me back soon."
Fernando traveled for 12 straight days until he reached the Texas border, where a restaurant owner was waiting to purchase him and four other young men. The victims have never received a dime in the five years they've washed dishes at the restaurant. Frightened of being deported back to a violent fate back home, Fernando and the others continue to work there today.
Bars, Clubs, & Cantinas
Beer & girls for sale
“Give me your tips,” Marisol's trafficker demanded.
Fifteen-year-old Marisol had been living in Texas for eight months, working as a waitress and forced to sell sex at a cantina. She had come from Mexico, promised a job that would earn her enough money to support her family back home. She was smuggled across the border by an organized network and housed in a cramped apartment with ten other girls and women.
Every night, she went to the bar and tried to convince men to buy the overpriced drinks. Then, she was forced to lead them to the back room to sell sex. If she refused to comply, she was beaten severely.
So, Marisol handed over her tips. It was the only way she felt she could survive.
Illicit Massage Businesses
Not a happy ending
Mei Ling jumped at the chance to work in the U.S. when she saw a newspaper ad for a cleaner at a suburban spa. Mei Ling met up with a recruiter in rural China, who told her, “you’ll be paid four times what you make now."
But when she arrived in the U.S., she was told she wouldn’t be cleaning—instead she would have to provide massages and commercial sex to customers. She’d also have to live and work in the building along with three other women. She wasn’t allowed to keep any money she made in the first year, and was told that she would be deported if she did not comply.
“If you ever try to leave, the police will just throw you in jail," her employers told her. Because of her language barrier and fear of the police, she has remained at the storefront brothel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Residential Sex Trafficking
Addiction & abuse
Tyler was thirteen when he found leftover oxycodone in his parents’ medicine cabinet and got high for the first time. Over the next four years, he became addicted to drugs, eventually switching to heroin. His cousin Dwight was a drug dealer, and told Tyler if he wanted to keep getting drugs, he would have to work for it.
That’s how Tyler ended up living in Dwight’s house and selling sex for drugs. Dwight didn’t give him any of the money he earned, and forbade him from telling the rest of their family what he was doing. When Tyler tried to leave, Dwight threatened him—and then took advantage of Tyler’s addiction to keep him there.
Tyler’s sister eventually learned what was happening and called the National Hotline. Dwight was arrested, and Tyler entered rehab. (Photo: Timo Kohlenberg / Flickr)
Health & Beauty Services
Pedicures at a price
“I can’t breathe through all these chemical fumes,” 26-year-old Thuy told her manager at the nail salon.
Thuy was still in her “internship period” and not receiving an hourly wage for the 15-hour days she was working. This was very different than the lucrative job offer she received back in Vietnam where she was promised a Green Card. She had been shuffled between salons in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for over a year and never heard of this promise again. She relied on her bosses for food, transportation, clothes and more, since she did not speak English and had no knowledge of her surroundings.
Once the salon came under investigation by city code enforcement, it was closed due to safety violations and a local nonprofit provided Thuy with support.
He said it was love
Jasmine was 18 years old when she ran away from her home in Missouri with her 19-year-old boyfriend Steven. “Now that we’re going to live together, you’ll need to earn some money,” Steven told her. And then he drove her to a truck stop on a local interstate.
Every night, Jasmine was taken to a different truck stop and forced to go door to door offering commercial sex. Steven took away her cell phone and her ID, and waited for her in the parking lot so she couldn’t try to escape. He told her that he loved her, and threatened to leave her if she stopped trying to make money for him. After two weeks, a trucker who saw her contacted the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Law enforcement arrested Steven, and Jasmine was connected to a therapist and other support.
Peddling & Begging
Helping the family
Shaun was in middle school in his hometown of Orlando, FL when his mother, who worked two jobs to barely make ends meet, told him to find an after-school activity while she worked evenings.
“You should join this club I’m in,” his friend Lawrence told him. “They organize trips and help with school.”
Shaun joined, but soon learned that he would have to work selling candy at a nearby shopping center to earn his spot. Shaun worked outside in the winter from 4pm-midnight on school days, and up to 13 hours on weekends. Shaun never got a portion of the donations, and the promised enrichment activities never materialized. The organization started paying Shaun for every person he recruited, and he now relies on this income to help support his mother.
The stories above are based on typical human trafficking experiences, but names and identifying details have been changed to protect the identities of the survivors we serve. Photos are used for illustrative purposes only.
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