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Program to Fight Human Trafficking Is Underused

Few victims come forth, authorities find. Lack of awareness and simple fear may be reasons.

December 19, 2005|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The single mother, struggling to support two children in Thailand, knew she couldn't turn down a job offer as a cook in a Thai restaurant in Woodland Hills.

But when Thonglim Khamphiranon arrived at her new post, her boss -- described in government documents as the common-law wife of a Thai ambassador -- took away her passport, restricted her movements and forced her to work 17 hours a day, she said. She eventually escaped.

Based in part on her testimony, her boss, Supawan Veerapol, was convicted of involuntary servitude and harboring illegal immigrants. She was sentenced in 2000 to eight years in federal prison.

That's how the T-visa program is supposed to work. Khamphiranon is one of what government officials believe are thousands of people lured into the United States each year to work as prostitutes or indentured servants. She has been able to stay here under the special visa created by Congress five years ago to encourage trafficking victims to come forward.

But the program appears to be significantly underused. There are 5,000 T-visas available each year, but fewer than 600 have been issued, with 111 others pending.

Officials acknowledge that there is no way to know for sure how many victims are out there. Exploited immigrants rarely report crimes, fearing reprisals against themselves or relatives in their home countries.

"There are probably a lot more cases than what we are seeing," said Principal Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. Bradley J. Schlozman. "But the true breadth of the problem is unknown."

Authorities said a lack of public awareness and poor victim outreach efforts also may be contributing to the low number of T-visa recipients.

"We assumed that victims would in large numbers escape the situation that they were in and come forward," said Wade Horn, an assistant secretary with the Department of Health and Human Services. "They didn't do that."

A UC Berkeley study earlier this year cited 57 cases of forced labor in California between 1998 and 2003. The majority of the victims were from Thailand and Mexico, forced to work as prostitutes, domestic slaves, farm laborers or sweatshop employees, according to the study.

Hoping to uncover more cases, federal authorities are taking a more active approach by forging partnerships with community organizations, setting up hotlines and training police officers, faith leaders and hospital workers to identify potential victims.

"If more cases aren't discovered," said Laura Lederer, senior advisor on trafficking for the U.S. State Department, "we will reassess."

In Khamphiranon's case, Veerapol promised her and other Thai women $240 a month to work at her restaurant, Gulf of Siam. She also offered them a free place to live.

"When I met her in Thailand, she painted such a pretty picture," Khamphiranon said through an interpreter.

Khamphiranon said it didn't take long to realize how miserable the situation was. She worked long hours every day at both the house and the restaurant, and Veerapol cut her pay to $140. She was forbidden to speak to customers, and she had to serve her boss on her knees. At night, she slept on the floor of Veerapol's Woodland Hills home.

"She made it clear that she was the master and I was the servant," Khamphiranon said.

Veerapol didn't allow her to read Thai newspapers, go to temple or leave unaccompanied, Khamphiranon said. And she threatened Khamphiranon and her family back in Thailand if she tried to flee.

In 1998, Khamphiranon decided she had to take the risk. With the help of a sympathetic Thai family, she escaped and went to the Thai Community Development Center in Los Angeles. In exchange for her cooperation with law enforcement, she received a T-visa.

To qualify, visa applicants must be victims of a "severe form" of trafficking, face "extreme hardship" if they were to be deported and be willing to cooperate with reasonable requests from law enforcement in an investigation or prosecution. Those who receive T-visas can live and work in the U.S. for three years and can apply for permanent residency.

But advocates say the requirements for a T-visa are overly restrictive. Victims may not want to work with law enforcement because they are too traumatized, distrust police or fear deportation, they say.

"When they round up women and 50 get deported, that just sends a message to the whole community it's a crapshoot," said Norma Hotaling, founder of Standing Against Global Exploitation, which works with victims in the Bay Area.

As a result, some community-based organizations may not report cases that they know of to authorities.

Government officials said a victim's willingness to work with law enforcement is essential to obtain a T-visa.

"If we are going to abolish modern-day slavery, then we have to put the traffickers out of business," Horn said. "That's going to demand, unfortunately, the cooperation of the victims."

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