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Thai human trafficking victims reunite with families

As their case against a Beverly Hills labor contracting firm looms, the future of a program to help them acclimate to American life is in doubt.

November 19, 2010|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

Recalling the last time he saw his family, he most remembers the tears shed as he left for what he thought would be a chance to earn more than 25 times his Thai income by picking apples in Washington.

This week, he and his family shed more tears—but this time with joy as they reunited in Los Angeles for the first time in six years after his predawn escape in what authorities call the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history.

"This is the most wonderful moment of my life," the Thai worker said as he hugged his wife and two daughters at the Los Angeles International Airport reunion.

The 42-year-old worker, who asked to be known as Don to avoid possible retaliation, is one of about 400 plaintiffs in the federal case against Global Horizons Inc., a Beverly Hills labor contracting firm. Global President Mordechai Orian, an Israeli national, and six associates were indicted in September by a federal grand jury in Honolulu on charges of conspiracy to coerce labor.

Don, for instance, said he was promised monthly earnings of about $2,600. But when he arrived in Washington in July 2004, he said, there was barely any work and he was not paid for at least a month. His passport was confiscated and a guard kept watch over him and about 20 other men, he said.

Orian has pleaded innocent in the case, scheduled for trial in February. He declined an interview request, but a spokeswoman said he "is looking forward to fighting these false allegations."

Even as Don and two other workers celebrated their family reunions this week, however, the daunting challenges of adjusting to U.S. life have only begun, according to Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center. The Los Angeles center has worked on the Global case for seven years and has helped resettle more than 2,000 Thai trafficking victims and their families.

The families will need to find housing. Don, for instance, rents a single room but will need bigger accommodations affordable on his $8-an-hour restaurant job. His two daughters will need to begin school despite almost no English ability, a task likely to be more formidable for the 16-year-old than for the 6-year-old, Martorell said.

The families will also need to learn to use the public transportation system and get used to myriad other changes, including colder weather, an ethnically diverse society and school cafeteria food.

Beyond the daily needs will be the more difficult psychological and emotional adjustment, Martorell said. Some families arrive here only to find that their husband and father has started a second family. Some men suffer overwhelming stress at the increased financial burdens of providing for a family.

"It's a lot of struggle," Martorell said. "You feel disempowered, frustrated, stressed out."

Despite the growing caseload—500 more Thai workers could step forward in the Global case—Martorell expressed concern that the anti-trafficking assistance programs could be shut down if federal funding is not renewed next spring. The U.S. Health and Human Services department had awarded $17 million to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to manage cases for foreign victims of human trafficking under a five-year contract that expires in April.

The Thai center receives $100,000 annually under a three-year subcontract with the Catholic conference.

Martorell said she and other anti-trafficking organizations were concerned that no announcements have yet been made on how to apply for renewed funding and wondered if the process was frozen because of upcoming political changes in Washington, with the House of Representatives coming under Republican control in January.

Kenneth Wolfe, Health and Human Services department spokesman, said it was not clear how much the new Congress would allocate for the program. But currently, health officials intend to renew the funding, he said.

For now, Don's concerns were more immediate as he reveled in his reunited family.

First, a celebratory feast. Then, settling his daughters into school. The parents, neither of whom finished high school, say their biggest dream is education for their children so they can escape farm labor.

"I never thought this day would be possible," Don's wife said, brushing tears from her eyes. "I had to work hard all of my life, and I want my children to have better opportunities."

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