A small army combating human trafficking

Angela Guanzon is soft-spoken, but unwavering in her message: “Open your eyes and be vigilant in your surroundings,” she told a room full of volunteers during an outreach event hosted by National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles (NCJWLA) on Jan. 24. 

When Guanzon was 28, she was given an offer she couldn’t refuse: a free ticket from her native Philippines to the United States. What she didn’t know was that when she arrived in Long Beach in 2005, she would be inducted into a human trafficking ring, in which she was forced to work 18-hour days, seven days a week, at a nursing care facility for meager pay — just $300 a month. Threatened into silence, she worked without a day’s break for two years, until a neighbor became suspicious of the nursing home’s dealings and contacted the FBI.

After a sting operation busted the business, Guanzon lived for 18 months in a California Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST) shelter, a transition house that helps victims like her get control of their lives. “CAST helped me get back on my feet and own myself again,” she told the room.

Guanzon, now 38, is an advocate for human trafficking prevention with CAST. 

In 2013, California passed Senate Bill 1193, which requires certain places of business, such as hospital emergency rooms, bus stops, adult clubs and bars, to display posters listing human trafficking hotlines in a visible area. Twenty-two states have enacted similar legislation. Since 2012, there has been a 250 percent increase of calls to the trafficking hotline because of the posters.

Cipra Nemeth, the volunteer vice president of legislative community engagement at NCJWLA, said human trafficking has always been on NCJW’s radar, since its founding in 1893. “One of the first things the group did was meet young women who came to Ellis Island,” Nemeth said, explaining that the group worked to eliminate exploitation of these fresh-off-the-boat women. “NCJW met them at the docks, created houses for them in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, gave them job skill training and English lessons so they could become self-sufficient and independent.” 

Today, NCJWLA is continuing the fight to eliminate human trafficking, because, as Nemeth pointed out, not only is it a major component of Jewish values, but because “this is an issue we care about because we feel we have a role to play and we have an obligation.” 

In order to implement the law, NCJWLA organized “Eyes on Trafficking: Night of Outreach,” recruiting nearly 70 volunteers to embark in teams of three to venture off into the city’s 15 districts, stopping at local bars, equipped with posters in hand. Los Angeles is the third-most popular port of entry for human traffickers in the United States.

Assigned to L.A. Council District 4, a team of volunteers trekked up Sunset Boulevard, carrying posters and paperwork, passing grungy tattoo parlors and smoke shops. The stops on their itinerary included Rock & Reilly’s Irish Pub, The Viper Room and The Comedy Store. For anybody else, this would have been one awesome pub crawl, but for volunteers Sandy DeLucci, Mariam Berry and Beth Edelstein, their mission was purely outreach.

The first stop was Rock & Reilly’s, a crowded pub with TVs blaring and conversation buzzing. The volunteers began their spiel with the hostess, what they’d been training for all afternoon. Earlier that night, Edelstein, an IKAR congregant, had joked about the intense training at NCJWLA: “It felt like traffic school.” But here they were, putting it to good use. “Is the manager around?” they asked. The hesitant hostess disappeared for a couple minutes before returning with the message: “The manager’s very busy.” 

The volunteers went into their rehearsed speech, telling the hostess that the business had received a letter from the city about the new bill, that they were just volunteers to help implement the law, and if the business didn’t comply, it would be subject to a hefty fine — $500 at first, eventually doubling.

Overwhelmed, the hostess finally said, “You can give it to us and we’ll put it up later.”

Underwhelmed, the volunteers left, to recalibrate outside the pub; they weren’t satisfied with the outcome. Edelstein suggested giving it a go one more time. “Do it, New York!” said Berry with enthusiasm (Edelstein, originally from Monsey, N.Y., earned the nickname from the group because of her go-getter attitude). A bystander taking a smoke break overheard the fuss before adding to the chorus, “Do it!”

DeLucci and Edelstein went back inside to confront the manager, with success this time. In one month, NCJWLA volunteers will return to Rock & Reilly’s and other designated sites to ensure the posters’ presence.

Next stop was The Viper Room, which proved to be more challenging when a man opened the door sheepishly and popped his head out, uttering the words, “I don’t care; I’m just the sound guy,” before taking a poster and shutting the door. Later that night, the group confronted the manager. The poster, he assured them, would be posted.

Last stop was The Comedy Store, which was remarkably compliant, leaving the volunteers very pleased. 

Walking back down Sunset, their job done, the volunteers discussed the day as a whole.

Berry, a North Hollywood resident and mother of three, said that she’s passionate about this human rights issue because of her children. 

“Human trafficking is modern-age slavery,” she said, and conducting her outreach on Sunset Boulevard, was crucial, considering the Strip’s notorious reputation. “This is a hub for human trafficking,” she said.

“It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless,” she said of her outreach, her voice rising at least an octave as she spoke above the cacophony of the traffic on the legendary Sunset Strip.