They live in squalor in crowded and filthy conditions, sometimes never stepping outside for months, forced into doing labor or performing sex acts.
Many are undocumented immigrants or runaways as young as nine years old.
Victims of “modern-day slavery” in New Jersey and across the country, they are too afraid to seek help, while authorities don’t recognize the extent of a problem hidden in plain sight.
Aiming to address this, a broad spectrum of legislators and government officials joined with the New Jersey Coalition against Human Trafficking on Jan. 11 — National Human Trafficking Awareness Day — to press for a campaign of public awareness, victim support, and concerted legislative and law enforcement initiatives.
The rally was held on the steps of the State House in Trenton with NJ legislators and continued inside with a program with Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa.
“This program will serve as notice to every citizen that we intend to end modern-day slavery in New Jersey,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and facilitator of the coalition, which includes more than 25 faith-based, nonprofit, government, and law enforcement groups and service providers.
Gorelick said the CRC launched the coalition because of the number of Jewish organizations, including National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey, already involved in the issue.
Other coalition partners include Rabbis for Human Rights North America, NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, and the Jewish Labor Committee.
“I assure you, every one of you has met a human trafficking victim,” said Kate Keisel, NJ program coordinator for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending human slavery. “Awareness is crucial.”
Keisel said based on calls to the hotline of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, New Jersey ranks eighth among states in such calls, with 500 in the last two years.
The state’s location along the northeast corridor between New York and Philadelphia makes it a hub for traffickers. That fact “is a stark reminder of why we are here today,” to fight “exploitation of the vulnerable,” said Stephen J. Taylor, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4), who authored federal legislation to combat human trafficking, estimated there are 12-27 million sex and labor trafficking victims worldwide; the State Department estimates there are 600,000-800,000 people trafficked annually across international borders and between 14,500 and 17,500 enslaved in the United States.
“We know that organized crime, street gangs, and pimps have expanded into sex trafficking at an alarming rate,” said Smith. “It is an extremely lucrative undertaking — a trafficker can make $200,000 a year off one victim. Unlike drugs or weapons, a human being can be held captive and sold into sexual slavery over and over again.”
Additionally, he said, the International Labor Organization estimates that countries, including the United States, import and export billions of dollars’ worth of goods made by labor trafficking victims, many of them children.
A bipartisan group of state legislators spoke of the need to pass legislation toughening sanctions in advance of New Jersey’s hosting the Super Bowl next year, which is expected to raise demand for sex workers.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Dist. 37), prime sponsor of the proposed Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act, laid out a grim picture.
“In New Jersey the average age of a trafficking victim is 12, and some are as young as nine,” she said. “The United States is the number one destination of trafficking victims.”
Huttle said the legislation will “make our state a leader in the fight against human trafficking and a role model for other states.” State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Dist. 21), a cosponsor of a companion bill in the NJ Senate, said the bills would make the state “a beacon to the world.”
Chiesa said statewide efforts to curtail human trafficking were beefed up in July when he issued a statewide law enforcement directive to increase investigations and prosecutions of both sex and labor human trafficking crimes. The directive also strengthened efforts to train law enforcement, monitor cases, and provide services to victims.
As part of the initiative he formed a human trafficking unit within the Division of Criminal Justice to further coordinate with other law enforcement partners. Under the guidelines, local police must report all trafficking incidents to county prosecutors, who work in coordination with the state.
“We know there are instances where people are lured with false promises, threatened with physical violence and other things,” said Chiesa, adding that the combined efforts send a message that perpetrators of human trafficking “will go to jail for a very long time.”