by Sharon Peyus
Unit Chief, Investigative Support Unit, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations
A 15 year-old, branded with her pimp’s street name tattooed across her chest, was ordered to engage in sex acts for money with dozens of male clients. Each day, the teenager and three other adult women had to meet a quota set by their trafficker. The teenager was required to work more than 12 hours a day with only one daily meal, and if she resisted, she was beaten.
Regrettably, this real-life story is not uncommon scenario U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has witnessed. ICE HSI is a critical investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security that combats criminal organizations and criminal exploitation, including domestic and international cases of human trafficking.
ICE utilizes a victim-centered approach to combating human trafficking, which places equal value on the identification and stabilization of victims, and the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. Victims are key to the successful investigation and prosecution of traffickers. Because victims may be fearful of law enforcement or reprisal from their traffickers, it is paramount to ensure that victims feel safe and secure, and are able to access the social services they require for stability, safety, and recovery.
ICE’s Victim Assistance Program is supported by Victim Assistance Specialists across the country who provide victims with a wide range of local resources from early in the investigative stage through prosecution. Working together with hundreds of collateral duty Victim Assistance Coordinators, the Victim Assistance Program connects victims of human trafficking and other crimes with non-governmental organizations in order to meet the victims’ basic humanitarian needs. Providing a channel for victims to fully disclose their stories in a non-threatening environment is vital to our victim-centered process.
Everyone has a role to play in combating human trafficking. DHS and ICE rely on individuals, families, and communities to learn the indicators of human trafficking and how to report human trafficking once suspected or identified. Knowing the red flags is a key step in identifying more victims, so they can be rescued and have their traffickers brought to justice.
The ICE HSI Task Force, which includes local law enforcement, identified this teenager as a victim of human trafficking. ICE HSI’s Victim Assistance Specialist then assessed her needs, and the needs of the additional victims who were subsequently identified. Victim assistance efforts were provided throughout the criminal investigation – including referring this teenager to a tattoo artist and arranging an appointment to remove her tattoo. The teenager was kept apprised of the judicial process, and provided ongoing care and case management without interruption.
Last month, her trafficker was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison followed by 20 years of supervised release. Upon release, the trafficker is also required to register as a sex offender. This teenager is now reunited with her family and enrolled in school – offering hope that she will not turn back, but become a survivor instead.
If you suspect something, do not at any time attempt to confront a trafficker directly or alert a victim to your suspicions. Instead, contact local law enforcement directly or call 1-866-DHS-2-ICE (1-866-347-2423) to report suspicious criminal activity. This Tip Line is also accessible outside of the United States by calling 802-872-6199. To get help from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).