Breaking the Chains

The practice of slavery takes new forms – and those who fight it shape new strategies


Illustration by Jason Stout/public domain photos

In 2003, Maricela Martinez-Uresti was sentenced to 108 months in prison for transporting two girls from Mexico to Down­town Austin, where, instead of working in a restaurant for a short time to repay their $1,500 smuggling fee, the victims were forced into prostitution. More recently, Maurice Allen Scott was arrested in November 2014 on trafficking of persons charges, after he admitted to prostituting a 14-year-old girl, who told Austin police officers she was abducted. Also in November, Tabitha Donabella and Calup Tsandula were arrested in San Antonio, accused of purchasing a minor for $50 and prostituting her online.

These episodes are three of the handful of Central Texas human trafficking cases that have made their way into the media. Since 2007, 737 human trafficking-related incidents in Texas have been collected through the Human Trafficking Reporting System, a database available to several federally funded human trafficking task forces and approved law enforcement agencies. This total, of course, does not include the many human trafficking incidents that go unreported.

In light of crimes like these and many others, the city of Austin and the state are now collaborating to address the contemporary scourge of human trafficking. But the patterns have a very long history. In Central Texas, they date back to the mid-19th century; at that time, it was known, more simply, as slavery.


The Texas State Capitol building was constructed using slave labor. (courtesy of The Austin History Center)

The Long Shadow

The city of Austin itself is in part a product of white slave owners benefiting from the culturally sanctioned dehumanization – and forced labor – of African-Americans. Stephen F. Austin's father, Moses Austin, was among the first who planned* to immigrate to what is now Texas, lured by the land grants promised by the Spanish* government to encourage settlement. The number of people each settler brought with them determined the expanse of these land grants, and Moses benefited greatly from his assemblage of slaves, first in property, then in the labor needed to develop and work it. However, Moses died before fully carrying out the colony.* Stephen, in turn, inherited the land from his father. Eventually, a state capital was established, the Capitol building itself constructed using slave labor.

Today, when the word "slavery" is used to describe human trafficking, the qualifiers "modern-day" or "contemporary" generally accompany it, as if to distance the current incarnation from the slavery that robbed millions of their basic freedoms for four centuries, officially ending 150 years ago. In some ways, this distinction between today's trafficking and the mass enslavement of African-Americans is understandable; it acknowledges that the word "slavery" carries a unique historical context, and that slavery today is not necessarily driven by a racist belief that certain people are inherently subhuman.

Nonetheless, it's worth reiterating that slavery was never truly abolished in the first place. Human trafficking is not an entirely new form of subjugation, but rather an evolution of the timeless practice of exploiting vulnerable people for personal gain. And while "slavery" is no longer an unremarkable aspect of daily life, as it once was in the U.S. and Texas, contemporary slavery still recalls historical American slavery, despite its official abolition under the 13th Amendment.

James Stewart, founder of Historians Against Slavery and professor emeritus at Macalester College, explained that, although the 13th Amendment largely abolished slavery in 1865, it did not completely end it, due to an exception allowing the enslavement of those who had been convicted of a crime. This exception led to the re-enslavement of many briefly free men and women, through the widespread use of minor or even false convictions.

"That slavery looks just like today's slavery," Stewart said. "Before 1865 is in violent contrast to the slavery we have today, but after that, the slavery that everybody refuses to acknowledge – except for African-Americans, because it's their grandparents who experienced it – is very similar to contemporary slavery. If you look around at what most of the discussion of what modern-day slavery is, it is a discussion that black people do not participate in. ... You can't have a modern-day slavery movement in one way or another without acknowledging black slavery."

Acknowledging black slavery is not only a critical piece of understanding the dynamics of power and exploitation that exist in human trafficking, but it is also vital to an appreciation of how contemporary U.S. slavery can be traced to its 19th century roots. These patterns are discernable on a large scale across the world, and on a much smaller scale within Central Texas.

Following the Civil War, as Stewart recounts, many slave owners gathered their slaves and headed south through Texas into Brazil and other South American countries where slavery was still legal. Slavery continued in the U.S. as well in less obvious forms, disguised as chain gangs, prison farms, and whole families trapped in debt bondage never meant to be repaid.


James Stewart, founder of Historians Against Slavery

Patterns of Exploitation

Slave labor had become a foundation underlying the entire American economy, and it was a commodity that few slave owners were willing to relinquish. Texas eventually found another source to feed this insatiable demand: immigrants from Central America.* As Stewart pointed out, the enslavement – or human trafficking – of people from Central America is an issue that dates back to the Bracero Program of imported agricultural labor and its "Operation Wetback" law enforcement counterpart in the Forties and Fifties.

"While there's always been this very strong anti-immigrant feeling that shows up, there is a tremendous amount of desire to use immigrant labor to keep labor prices down," Stewart said. "Once you start thinking of labor as nothing more than a spigot you turn on or off in your backyard, you're thinking of it not as people, but as a bundle of legs or arms."

At varying rates but in an unending stream, labor continues to flow into Texas, as do the inherent vulnerabilities of language and destitution that undocumented workers crossing the border generally bring with them. The likelihood that these people will be exploited is further aggravated by the militarization of the Texas-Mexico border. According to Kayvon Sabourian, an attorney with the Equal Justice Center, the border's ongoing militarization has created conditions under which people who want to reunite with family or minors, and do not have any other means to do so, are forced to rely on smugglers and traffickers.

"Our immigration system doesn't fulfill the labor needs of our employers," Sabourian said. "Those guest worker programs that we do have to fulfill those labor needs are, first, inefficient, and second, the ways in which they allow employers to have complete control over those workers' employment conditions incentivize or make it more likely that those employees do not come forward [to complain about working conditions]."

Immigrants routinely trafficked for labor purposes are an aspect of the broad range of human trafficking, although not headlined as often as "sex trafficking." Nevertheless, sexual exploitation is common on the Central American immigrant routes and within U.S. immigrant labor, Stewart points out, and has always been deeply entrenched in the practice of slavery. The same power dynamics of both sex and labor trafficking are recognizable in domestic and foreign cases today.

Experts routinely describe these dynamics: a pattern of vulnerability, manipulation, and exploitation. However, when it comes to the statistical details – for example, the precise number of people annually trafficked in Texas, or the precise effectiveness of current preventative efforts – contemporary slavery remains a nebulous phenomenon, existing in the social and cultural shadows, but not often generating the data, or the specific people and faces, to convince the skeptical of its pervasive existence.


Kayvon Sabourian of the Equal Justice Center (photo by Jana Birchum)

Mapping and Cataloging

Advocates and researchers are beginning to fill that gap: creating visibility for an otherwise obscured crime, and developing knowledge, legislation, and services to protect survivors of the contemporary versions of slavery. At the forefront of Austin's community effort is the nonprofit Allies Against Slavery, founded in 2010 as a group of concerned advocates from various disciplines who met regularly to learn from, and network with, other advocates and service providers. In the little more than a year since its 2014 incorporation as a nonprofit, Allies has formulated big plans, now in their quiet launch phases.

Realizing that no substantial progress against slavery could be achieved unless advocates and activists from different sectors placed a greater emphasis on collaboration, Allies CEO John Nehme has worked with other stakeholders to launch the Slave-Free City Network, to serve as a complement to the Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a group of service providers that acts as a safety net for trafficking survivors.

Nehme hopes to map the system currently in place in Austin – from discovery and intervention to recovery – especially as it pertains to domestic minors. The network will identify services already provided and determine how to integrate those services for a sustainable plan of action that begins with preventative measures and ends with a trafficked person's recovery and reintegration into society. Nehme also hopes for Allies and the Slave-Free City Network to eventually persuade the city of Austin to adopt a resolution to become slave-free.

In an initial effort to better understand the extent of slavery across the state, Allies has partnered with the UT-Austin Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) and the Bureau of Business Research to create the Texas Slavery Mapping Project. This initiative, funded by a $500,000 state grant, aims to catalog available services for trafficking survivors, to map instances of human trafficking, and to assess the effectiveness of current anti-trafficking programs.

With these projects still in their early stages, Allies Against Slavery is emerging as a face of the community efforts against human trafficking in Austin, but it is not the only local nongovernmental resource dedicated to anti-trafficking efforts. Austin has a growing tapestry of agencies and nonprofits that offer their services to survivors, from Refugee Services of Texas to LifeWorks and SafePlace. Yet community groups and nonprofits such as these can only do so much within existing legal and law enforcement frameworks. In Austin and its surrounding areas, the issue is being addressed from all three of these necessary perspectives: nonprofits, legal entities and task forces, and law enforcement. Govern­ment-led human trafficking task forces exist on nearly every level of jurisdiction in Texas, starting on a countywide level with the Travis County courts.


Allies Against Slavery CEO John Nehme

Project Phoenix

Human trafficking has become a focus of Travis County courts and the office of the district attorney, thanks in part to a state prostitution diversion mandate that took effect in 2013. It requires every county with a population over 200,000 to implement a program to provide any prostituted person the necessary counseling and treatment to enable a transition out of the sex industry. In Travis County, the program is informally referred to as Project Phoenix. When the potential of creating a prostitution diversion program became a discussion point at the Travis County Attorney's office, Asst. D.A. Mack Martinez of the family and domestic violence division asked that the project fall under his division.

"There is a difference between [prostitution and domestic violence], but there is a lot of overlap," Martinez said. "Women being prostituted are often intimately involved with the people prostituting them. They are often in a position of intimidation, afraid to testify, and afraid to leave the relationship. They may protect their abuser, so there are many similarities with the dynamics, even though they are different situations. My domestic violence lawyers are better trained in dealing with those issues."

With the program still in its early stages, Martinez said that stakeholders are working through some differences in perspective, related primarily to the determination of just who is a trafficking victim, as opposed to a free agent. "As far as I'm concerned, force, fraud, and coercion are a legal definition of trafficking," Martinez said. "The reality is that if somebody is telling you how and when to work, who the johns are, and how much you charge, then [you are] being coerced ... that's trafficking, because somebody else is making all the decisions about it." Some of those differences in perspective remain to be resolved, but Martinez said everybody involved with Project Phoenix agrees that its purpose is to give people who have been victimized a meaningful path for leaving prostitution.

Working on a regional level is the Central Texas Human Trafficking Task Force. This task force, established in 2004 and coordinated by law enforcement agencies in and around Austin, aims to train area law enforcement in identifying victims of human trafficking, and to increase the successful prosecution of human traffickers. The task force is composed of 21 entities representing various federal, state, and local interests, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Texas Office of the Attorney General, Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin Police Department, Hays County Sheriff's Office, San Marcos Police Department, and more.

On a statewide level, legal resources are available through the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force. This task force was established through legislation in 2009, and was renewed and expanded in 2013; it is overseen by the Office of the Attorney General, and includes nearly 50 stakeholders and more than 400 work-group members across Texas. These people are working to develop preventative policies, collect and publish statistical data, and provide a biannual report of findings and recommendations, among other tasks.

The most recent of these reports was published in December 2014, and identified data collection as an initial focus. According to the report, "quantifying human trafficking remains – and will remain – a challenge because of the hidden nature of the crime." The report also recommended exploring more training or education programs to help individuals understand, identify, and prevent human trafficking, and a coordination of services similar to the one that the Slave-Free City Network hopes to achieve locally.

This state task force is set to expire in September, but legislation to extend its purpose, HB 10, authored by Rep. Senfronia Thomp­son, D-Houston, was signed by the governor on June 9 after being passed by both the House and Senate. Thompson is a persistent advocate for human trafficking legislation; her most recent victory removed the statute of limitations for the crime of compelling prostitution of children, and added prostitution-related offenses to the sex-offender registry, among other various changes to trafficking-related statutes.

Although the HB 10 bill analysis states the bill seeks to ultimately eliminate human trafficking, Thompson said the end of slavery is a remote goal. "The problem is so systemic and deep-seated, it will take years to stamp out," she said. "But we're not letting up, we're not giving in, we're constantly fighting back to eliminate it."


Rep. Senfronia Thompson (photo by Jana Birchum)

A Whole Community

The final prong of the local three-pronged approach to human trafficking is law enforcement, primarily through the Austin Police Department's human trafficking and vice unit. The unit, which was established (under a different name) in 2004, splits its time between enforcement, holding community meetings, and leading trainings on Internet safety against trafficking. Accord­ing to Sergeant Robert Miljenovich, who heads the unit, his team devotes the bulk of its time to trafficking-related crimes. For every operation and arrest the unit makes, hours of preparation and investigation are devoted to gathering intelligence and putting cases together. While the unit is focused on direct criminal enforcement, Miljeno­vich said he doesn't want to see law enforcement battling enslavement alone. "One thing we try to emphasize is, these types of issues are more community issues," he said. "If communities allow the commercial sex industry to be very active, or tolerate that activity, the more the community allows that type of stuff, the more opportunities there are for people to be victimized. We really value the community involvement in these issues."

James Stewart recalls Frederick Douglass' judgment that to be an abolitionist is also to recognize that slavery can never be truly abolished – but "without a struggle, there can be no progress." Whether these local advocates, working in the abolitionist tradition, find their conviction in grand ambitions or in the persistent, daily efforts toward something better – the struggle against slavery, in all its forms, continues.


Oops: This story originally reported, in error, that the Mexican government promised Moses Austin land grants to encourage settlement in Texas. In fact, it was the Spanish government that delivered this promise. And while Moses Austin planned to create a colony in Texas, he died before fully carrying out the mission. Additionally, Texas does not immediately border Central America. *This story has been amended since the original publication.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

human trafficking, slavery, Allies Against Slavery, Equal Justice Center

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