November 21, 2018

The fight against human trafficking

The National Council of Jewish Women-CA (NCJW-CA) is the organizational co-sponsor of two bills concerning human trafficking that were approved Aug. 29 by the California State Assembly and now await Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

Assembly Bill 1761, authored by Assembly member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), protects victims of human trafficking who commit nonviolent crimes while enslaved. If they can show they were victims and were in danger when they carried through with the crime, the charges would be dropped. 

Under Assembly Bill 1762, authored by Assembly member Nora Campos (D-San Jose), human trafficking victims would have their convictions vacated for nonviolent crimes they committed while they were slaves. 

“There are slaves living among us,” said Maya Paley, director of legislative and community engagement at the NCJW/LA. “They might even be our neighbors. It’s very real for the Jewish people and they’re obligated to care about it. We have a responsibility to speak up and stop it. The Torah says to protect a stranger in our midst.” 

According to a National Survivor Network survey, 90 percent of trafficking victims had criminal convictions. Twenty percent had been arrested more than 10 times, and 10 percent had been arrested more than 30 times.

Paley said that arresting and convicting victims hasn’t reduced the cycle of crime, but perpetuated it. 

“These victims are afraid of law enforcement in California. And while California is usually a leader in protecting victims, we are behind with the defense of human trafficking victims.” 

According to statistics cited by the National Survivor Network, an estimated 29.8 million people are enslaved around the globe today, and between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked in the U.S. each year. 

Overall, NCJW/LA’s strategy has been a mix of advocating for legislation, working to give victims the tools to call out for help and making Angelenos more aware of the existence of human trafficking in the city and state. 

In 2012, NCJW-CA successfully pushed through Senate Bill 1193, which mandates that certain types of businesses publicly post human trafficking hotline information. These businesses include massage parlors, bars and strip clubs, airports, light rail stations, emergency rooms in hospitals, urgent care centers, roadside rest areas and privately operated job recruitment centers, according to Paley. 

To ensure that these posters were actually being handed out and posted in Los Angeles, NCJW/LA created a team, the Human Trafficking Outreach Project (HTOP), and trained almost 500 volunteers over the past 2 1/2 years to visit businesses and make sure that signs were hung.

“It’s so great that there is this committed group of advocates across the L.A. area, going door to door, making sure that all these posters go up,” said Eliana Kaya, a board member, advocacy committee member, and lead trainer on the HTOP. “It’s more important that they stay up.”

The posters are having an effect, according to Paley.

“In California, the poster has the number for the local and National Human Trafficking Resource Center,” Paley said. “The local hotline has had a 250 percent increase in calls, which has been linked to poster viewings.” 

Aside from sending volunteers to check that the posters are up, NCJW/LA has been trying to persuade cities within L.A. County to make sure that Senate Bill 1193 is being carried out. On Sept. 13, the Santa Monica City Council is expected to vote on a resolution in support of ensuring that it’s enforced in Santa Monica. Paley said she hopes the city of Los Angeles will become more proactive in enforcing the law as well. 

Another method that NCJW/LA uses to raise awareness about human trafficking is to hold informational gatherings at people’s houses, according to Donna Benjamin, vice president of advocacy on the board of directors. 

“My goal is to get people educated and learning about human trafficking,” she said. “We’ll make calls to the appropriate senators and assembly people to get the word disseminated.” 

For two years, the organization has been partnering to host an annual Community Seder to Combat Human Trafficking. Paley said, “It’s very successful in raising awareness and increasing partnerships between NCJW/LA and synagogues who want to work on this issue.”

Kaya said several warning signs can alert people that they might be a witness to human trafficking. Red flags include if a neighbor has a new nanny, but the nanny never leaves the house, or if a customer is in a salon and can’t talk to the person working on his or her body because the boss keeps interfering. (The boss may make an excuse that it’s because of a language barrier.) 

In addition to seeing an uptick in the number of calls being made to the hotline, Kaya has noticed firsthand how business owners now react more positively to the posters. 

“When I used to go into businesses, managers would be confused or apathetic,” she said. “They didn’t know what trafficking was or want to be associated with something criminal. We struggled at the beginning.” 

Now, she said, things have changed. 

“I go into businesses and I often already see the poster is up,” she said. “The manager is either welcoming or supportive or both. In general, it feels like there is a sense of a community-building effort and enthusiasm.” n