Program launched to aid foreign-born trafficking victims in Detroit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Foreign-born trafficking victims in Metro Detroit can now find sanctuary through an assistance program launched by a Grand Rapids-based family service organization.

After Bethany Christian Services' success with the Trafficking Victim's Assistance Program in West Michigan, it decided to replicate its model, opening offices in Detroit and New Jersey.

Karen Hanks, the coordinator of the program, said the organization has seen a spike in cases in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties where victims are often hidden in plain sight.

"Labor trafficking cases are often overlooked for a variety of reasons," said Hanks, who has been working with the program since May. "All of the cases we currently have are all labor trafficking, almost exclusively to foreign nationals, who come here on a false promise and are vulnerable."

Those at the highest risk of trafficking are immigrants here illegally, migrant workers, or foreign-born persons solicited into coming to the United States to pursue education or work opportunities. Hanks said it's very difficult for a U.S. citizen to be pulled into labor trafficking because they know their rights and find opportunities to seek help, whereas a foreigner is already vulnerable and may not know English.

"It’s much easier to trick them and they may end up in a situation they don’t even realize," she said. "It's people who often come here illegally, but it shouldn't make a difference when people are being exploited."

Because foreign nationals don't qualify for federal programs, Hanks said it's difficult to locate safe housing, funding and help with re-entry. Bethany's program is focused on helping victims return to a normal life at no cost.

They aid with counseling services, food, clothing, housing, employment and family reunification when possible. The program is funded and overseen by a grant from the U.S. Committee of Refugees and Immigrants and is time and financially limited to one year.

For the year, a single client receives a maximum of $6,000, a family receives $7,500. Victims are often referred through their immigration lawyers while they are going through the legal system. Bethany does not profit from the program, saying it strictly works to help those suffering from severe abuse, Hank said

"Victims have been through sexual assault, confinement, threats to their family and family in their home country have been carried out," she said. "Though they grieve, they want to stay in the U.S. and fight their cases and that means separation from families and their culture. Some have been reunited with their families but sometimes it takes two to three years of trying to survive, deal with the courts, keeping their physical and mental health intact. It's all very overwhelming."

While there's no database of victims or a way to officially track calls as they come in, Bethany relies on the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which has 4,600 cases reported nationally this year, 172 reported in Michigan. 

The hotline ranks Michigan seventh. The majority of calls are in sex trafficking in the restaurant and foodservice industry, traveling sales crews, domestic work, hospitality and housekeeping services. Most are reported at residences, hotels, massage and spa businesses. Women account for 146 of the cases and minors account for 47 cases.

In December, a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleges she was held captive and forced into prostitution at two southeast Michigan hotels brought attention to the perpetrator's use of overnight lodging as a basis for sex trafficking.

Later on that month, Warren police touted 46 arrests its ongoing human trafficking investigation called Operation Crusade. The crimes were committed in hotels and multi-unit apartment complexes in the city, investigators said.

Warren Police Commissioner William Dwyer displays some of the 46 people arrested by the Warren Police Department’s Special Investigation Division and Special Operation Unit. The arrest are part of Operation Crusade II which focused on human trafficking prostitution and pandering.

"Traffickers … continue to exploit their victims unchecked because staff, managers and executives do not know what to look for," according to the Polaris Project.

In 2018, 383 human trafficking cases were reported in Michigan through the hotline, a jump from 313 tallied in 2017, according to the website. 

The Detroit office, which opened in February, has four clients aged 20-40 years old.

Hank said she definitely expects more cases and worries about the shortage of case management workers.

"The process can be very overwhelming for victims, and very emotional for us. It's rewarding just for them to know they have an ally is great comfort for them," Hanks said tearfully. "The community can also help. Our biggest need is financial donations and partnering with the task force to recover victims. The community can also get educated on being alert and keeping your eyes open.

"See something, say something."

Contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline confidentially at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_