Southern California is a hub for human trafficking, indentured servitude and other criminal ventures involving forced employment and sexual coercion. Illegal immigrants are a particularly vulnerable population, and victims, fearing deportation, often endure patently illegal work conditions.
A recent raid at a downtown Los Angeles "hostess club" may offer a glimpse into some of these operations, police say. Last week three dozen officers showed up at Club 907 with a warrant to scrutinize the venue's records — and to swab the seats for semen samples. Eighty-one women were arrested, mostly illegal immigrants who were charged with using counterfeit identities. Seven men also were arrested, including the manager, who was charged with conspiracy to commit prostitution, police said. On the surface, it looks like a standard-issue vice raid. But details of the working conditions at Club 907 suggest that the women may not be the perpetrators, but the victims of a crime.
Patrons of Club 907 pay $30 an hour to talk, dance and drink nonalcoholic beverages with the 160 women who work there. Hostess clubs are legal, but are not permitted to offer adult entertainment such as nudity or stripping, so when officers witnessed sexual activity during a routine inspection in July, Los Angeles police began an investigation.
Immigration advocates from the Coalition for Humane Immigration Reform, who have interviewed many of the women, said that each dancer is required to earn $600 a week for the club, which means being selected by men to socialize for at least 20 hours. Women who meet that quota are paid at a rate of 19 cents a minute plus a $50 bonus each week. Those who don't meet the quota see their wages drop to 16 cents a minute and receive no paycheck at all until they make up the shortfall. If a customer leaves without paying, the dancer is in debt to the club. These allegations, if true, are violations of California labor law and smack of indentured servitude.
It is to the Police Department's credit that trafficking and exploitation concerns have been at the heart of the case; there was a time when the dancers could have been indiscriminately arrested on charges of lewd behavior or prostitution. Now, state labor officials and federal immigration authorities say they have turned their attention to the club — appropriately — and police say that more charges are likely.
Immigration advocates fear that some of the women will be deported. But such steps shouldn't be considered until a full investigation of the club is completed. Some of the women may be eligible for a program under which illegal immigrants who are victims of crimes and who cooperate with law enforcement are eligible for special visas.
The goal is to ensure that the right people are punished. That requires time and investigation and an open-minded consideration of the facts.