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Juana* (name changed) was barely 17 when she came to the United States.

She was invited to live with her cousin’s family and to help care for her three young children while the parents were at work, in exchange for room and board. Her cousin and cousin’s husband would even pay travel expenses.

Juana envisioned life in the U.S. She would make friends, learn English and take advantage of opportunities she didn’t have in her home country, perhaps a part-time job or a continuation of her education. But life took a very different turn.

When Juana arrived, her cousin explained that Juana would need to stay inside as much as possible for her own safety. They took Juana’s passport and ID documents away “for safekeeping,” explaining that Juana was an undocumented immigrant without a work permit and saying they couldn’t pay her anything for her work.

The couple emphasized that Juana was in danger outside their home. She lived with a high level of fear and anxiety, believing that “la migra” (immigration) was always lurking, waiting for Juana to step outside where she would be caught, detained and returned to her home country.

Juana was never allowed to leave the house alone, supposedly for her own protection. If something were to happen, she was told, “No one will believe you; no one will help you.”

We met Juana when the local hospital began looking for support systems for her following the birth of her daughter. Social workers intervened out of safety concerns for both Juana and for the baby. She had been the victim of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and social workers would not allow Juana to return to her cousin’s home with the baby.

There are three elements to human trafficking: the act (what is done), the means (how it is done) and the purpose (why it is done).

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, fraud or deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, for the purpose of exploitation, which includes prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery or servitude.

Juana was the victim of a subtle form of trafficking common in migrant populations. She was recruited for what she believed was a legitimate offer of work.

Her lack of viable options for the future in her home country was a major risk factor for trafficking that resulted in a willingness to place her trust in persons she didn’t know well. Poverty, lack of education and poor family support systems made her an ideal candidate for exploitation.

Migrants often travel to the U.S. to join family members (no matter how distant), family friends or friends of friends. While they have a destination in mind, the connection to an individual may be very slim. They often don’t actually know anyone on the receiving end; many end up in dangerous or, at the very least, unhealthy situations.

In many cases, migrants arrive with the promise of a job that may or may not materialize. An individual may serve as a point of contact in the recruitment of others from his or her home community in Latin America or even within the U.S.

The demand for low-wage workers, coupled with fear of repercussions for using undocumented laborers, creates an open door for exploitation. These labor contractors serve as a buffer between the company and its workers, allowing for a degree of separation, as they are often paid by the contractor, not the company.

We often think of human trafficking within the context of organized crime or facilitated by criminal syndicates, but in many cases, it is driven in a local context by loose networks, families or individuals operating independently.

It’s difficult to identify traffickers because many use first-hand knowledge of local systems, behaviors, social structures and individual interactions. Coupled with an understanding of larger systemic conditions in their regions (poverty, racism or discrimination, or internal displacement), traffickers use this information to their advantage and exploit vulnerabilities, betraying the trust of their communities.

Traffickers may prey on the hopes and dreams of parents searching for a way to give their children access to a good education. They may recognize a vulnerable community’s fear of engaging law enforcement officials with a reputation for corruption. Or rely on bias and discrimination to keep victims hidden in plain sight.

Ministry with migrant populations is difficult and demanding. Our goal is to listen carefully in an attempt to hear what others may have missed and to guide traumatized victims to a place of refuge and healing. We help them remember that God, as our Heavenly Parent, loves and cares for each of us, even when our own earthly families fail us.

For Juana, we identified a pastor from her home country, who introduced her to an elderly immigrant couple in his congregation who needed care. This couple had no children living nearby and were experiencing declining health issues, including dementia.

Juana once again entered into a relationship where she worked for room and board, but with a loving couple who accepted her like a daughter and who cared for Juana’s baby as their own grandchild.

Through their love and nurturing, together with an authentic presentation of the gospel message through their lives, Juana was able to heal and overcome much of the pain she had experienced.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Day Against Trafficking in Persons (July 30). The previous articles in the series are:

Slaves, Masters Still Exist in US Today | Nell Green

US Leads Fight in Human Trafficking – Or Does It? | Pam Strickland

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