Several officials said that with the Super Bowl coming to the Meadowlands, it’s not only legal businesses that will thrive. Prostitution will likely increase with thousands of visitors in the area.
As a result, New Jersey is ramping up its response to human trafficking, in part through a public outreach campaign to raise awareness of the problem.
A distinguished panel of speakers delivered a public seminar on human trafficking at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City on Thursday, Nov. 21, complete with detailed information, success stories, and a harrowing tale from a former victim.
The event was sponsored by CarePoint Health.
“A large-scale event like the Super Bowl results in more human trafficking victimization than any other event in the United States,” said Dr. Meika Roberson, assistant clinical professor of emergency medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital. “Human trafficking generates nine billion dollars a year, ranking just below drug smuggling and is tied with arms dealing for the most money made in organized crime.”
“This is a public health crisis.” – Tracy M. Thompson
Freeholder and Police Captain Anthony Romano put it more simply, as “the preying by adults on young, damaged souls.”
Human trafficking is a first-degree crime with a penalty of 20 years to life in prison.
Many residents remember a high-profile case involving Hudson County businesswoman Luisa Medrano, who was charged in 2005 with forced labor, alien smuggling, and harboring illegal aliens. Medrano was allegedly involved in smuggling Honduran women into New Jersey, including at least four juveniles. The women allegedly were required to pay off their smuggling debt of $10,000 to $20,000 by working from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. in three bars in Hudson County owned by Medrano, where they were allegedly sexually abused.
In a plea deal Medrano testified that she provided gifts to Guttenberg mayor David Delle Donna and his wife in an attempt to curry favors regarding bars and property she owned. Her testimony was instrumental in putting the couple behind bars.
For her actions Medrano was allowed to plea to lesser charges of harboring illegal immigrants and tax evasion. She was granted three years probation, with six months of it as house arrest. She also paid approximately $250,000 in back taxes and forfeited two of her apartments.
That case was not discussed at the Nov. 21 forum, but others were.
“The trafficker will often use a recruiter to groom his victims,” said Friess. “They use guys and young girls, other women, who know what to say and who know how to pinpoint and to get to the vulnerable.”
Many of the speakers stressed that traffickers prey upon vulnerable populations that are easy to exploit and manipulate, such as children from broken homes or desperate circumstances, making them easily susceptible to anyone who seems to show interest in them.
That was certainly the case with Barbara Amaya, who referred to herself as a “walking target.” At age 12, Amaya ran away from home and was befriended by a young woman in Washington, D.C. Before she knew it, the woman had turned her over to a trafficker.
“After several weeks I was sold -- a human being in the United States of America, in our nation’s capital -- sold like a piece of furniture to a trafficker in New York.”
For the next nine years Amaya served as a sex worker, in and out of jail, addicted to heavy drugs and always reliant on her trafficker. “I had bonded with him,” she said. “I couldn’t break away. There were mental chains in place far stronger than metal chains ever would be.”
Assistant Attorney General Tracy M. Thompson, New Jersey’s human trafficking program director, explained that victims exist in a climate of fear, self-blame, and shame, developing a psychological dependency on their trafficker, and may not even recognize they are being victimized.
New Jersey is considered a prime location for domestic and international human trafficking due to its location adjacent to New York City and its proximity to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.
It is the most densely populated state of the union and has one of the highest proportions of foreign born residents.
According to the Division of Criminal Justice there were 179 reported cases of sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey from Sept. 16, 2005 to March 1, 2012, including 93 victims of labor trafficking, 60 of sex trafficking, and 26 of both labor and sex trafficking.
Experts estimate there are thousands of unreported incidents occurring each year in the state.
“This is a public health crisis,” said Thompson.
Progress in New Jersey
Significant strides are being taken nationally to combat human trafficking. According to the Polaris Project, a leading organization in the global fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery, 39 states passed anti-trafficking laws in 2013.
Earlier this year, New Jersey adopted comprehensive legislation to combat the problem and support victims.
“I’m proud to say that the state of New Jersey, our laws, with the new Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act is one of the toughest in the nation,” said Thompson. “We are ranked number one, tied with Washington state.”
The new law provides harsher penalties for traffickers and stronger protection for victims, including removal from their criminal records of any unjust convictions that were a direct result of their exploitation.
New Jersey was one of four states listed by the Polaris Project as “most improved.”
Among the other speakers at the seminar were retired Hudson County Superior Court Judge Kevin Callahan, Sergeant Noelle Holl of New Jersey’s Human Trafficking Unit, Saint Peter’s University President Dr. Eugene J. Cornacchia, and CarePoint Health Foundation Vice President Paula A. Nevoso.
Individuals who are victims of human trafficking or believe they may know one are urged to call the recently established New Jersey Human Trafficking Hotline at 855-END-NJ-HT (855-363-6548). The toll-free hotline is available from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Information is also available at www.njhumantrafficking.gov.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.