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US: Victims of Trafficking Held in ICE Detention

Letter to the US Department of State on 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report

Mark Taylor
Senior Coordinator
Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
United States Department of State

Dear Mr. Taylor,

We appreciate the opportunity to provide you with information relevant to the annual Trafficking in Persons Report published by your office.

It is our understanding that it is the position of the United States government that victims of trafficking are rarely, if ever, held in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities. However, in the course of research for numerous reports on immigration enforcement activities, Human Rights Watch has been confronted with cases in which trafficking victims have in fact been detained, sometimes at great length. We provide the following summaries of several cases as examples of the accounts relayed to us by legal service providers throughout the United States.[1]

  • Ramona V., a legal permanent resident, was trafficked by operators of an upscale prostitution ring in the Washington, DC, area. Told by the traffickers that she would be given a job dancing, she was forced to have sex with clients for a period of at least six months. Ramona V. attempted escape from the traffickers by jumping from a moving vehicle. The escape attempt failed and resulted in injuries requiring medical attention. She was arrested twice on prostitution charges and subsequently held in immigration detention for approximately four months in early 2009. While in ICE custody, Ramona was transferred out of the DC area, first up the east coast and then to Texas. Due to fear that the information would get back to her traffickers, Ramona V. was extremely hesitant to discuss the trafficking, even with her attorney, and spent her time in the detention facilities without talking to mental health counselors.[2]
  • John B. was brought to the US by traffickers in February 2009 under the visa waiver program. He was forced to perform masonry and paving work in various states along the east coast. His bosses moved him and other workers from his home country between hotels every few weeks. John B. was prohibited from having relationships outside of work and was physically abused when he tried to do so. When he attempted to escape, his traffickers threatened to kill him and his family if he did not return to work. John B. was finally able to successfully escape from his traffickers with the assistance of good Samaritans. He was then apprehended by immigration authorities and detained in Texas in August 2009. He spent nearly a month in ICE detention, during which he was hospitalized multiple times for cardiac problems. He was released on an order of supervision due to his medical condition, after which he was issued a final removal order.[3]
  • As a young adolescent, Lydia N. left her home in rural Guatemala to escape abuse from her father. After failing to find work in Guatemala City, Lydia N. paid smugglers to take her across the border into the US in May 2007, at which time she was 15 years old. Upon arriving in Houston, the smugglers demanded additional money from her and made her work in a strip club for 15 days. She ran away when they attempted to take her to a party where she was told she would be made to act as a prostitute. Lydia N. traveled to Boston and held a variety of jobs there before being picked up by police on a traffic stop in the summer of 2009. She was taken into immigration custody and held in a juvenile facility for one week before being transferred to an adult contract immigration detention facility on her 18th birthday. At the time the legal service provider met Lydia N. in September 2009, she had been in adult immigration detention for one month. Subsequent developments in her case are not known.[4]
  • Diana O. was 17 when she came from Honduras to Mexico. In Mexico, she was held by the Zetas drug cartel before being taken across the border into the US. Found abandoned in a trailer in Texas by Border Patrol, she had been raped repeatedly by people paying money to her traffickers and had been forced to carry drugs. Detained in August 2009, Diana O. had by then turned 18 but told the authorities she was a minor due to her fear of being held in an adult facility. After one month in juvenile detention, verification of her birth certificate revealed that she was 18 and Diana O. was transferred by ICE to an adult detention facility in September 2009. She was held at the adult facility for three to four weeks before being released on bond. In contrast to the juvenile facility operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the adult facility did not provide appropriate mental health services. Her attorney reports that she perceived the adult facility to be particularly traumatizing for Diana O. as compared with other clients who were not trafficking victims. Diana O. began calling her attorney every day and crying on the phone. In February 2010, Diana O. was granted a U-visa.[5]
  • Loretta D. traveled from her country to another country in South America to meet someone whom she had connected with through an online dating website. This person sent two men to meet her who kidnapped her and informed her that she would never go back to her home country. She was told she was being "sold" as she passed from group to group of people through several different countries. On reaching the US border, she was raped in the course of crossing into Arizona and called out to the border patrol for help. She was detained for a month beginning in March 2009, first in an immigration service processing center and then in a county jail under contract with ICE. After her case came to the attention of attorneys, ICE agreed to investigate the trafficking claim. ICE's main interview with Loretta D. was conducted by a deportation officer. Her attorney requested to be present and reports that the environment was very antagonistic: while the officer was seated, no chairs were provided for the client or the attorney until they insisted on them; the questioning was conducted in an aggressive manner; and the interview was cut off as soon as the officer believed he had found an inconsistency in her story (one which the attorney said could have been reconciled with an otherwise credible claim of trafficking). At the same time, Loretta D. was contending with trauma. Her attorney reports that she greatly feared moving into the county jail where she had been told the traffickers had operatives and would cry hysterically when the attorneys visited. Although her distress abated after moving into the county jail without event, she remained concerned for the safety of her family and decided to agree to deportation after ICE declined to pursue her trafficking claim.[6]
  • Florence N. was detained by immigration authorities in July 2006 when she was 16 years old. She had been trafficked from Mexico into the US in 2005 by two men who were brothers and a woman after agreeing to take another woman's place on a trip to the US that was supposed to lead to a job as a waitress. She was held in the US for a year as a domestic worker before someone called the police and they began an investigation into the captors for abduction, domestic violence, and sexual violence. Florence N. was held in ICE custody for a year, first in a shelter and then, after giving birth to the child of one of her captors, in a group home in Arizona specifically for mothers. She was released on her own recognizance in April 2007 and has recently been approved for a T-visa.[7]
  • Nina S. was trafficked into Texas from El Salvador in 2004 at the age of 15. She had been told by the traffickers that they would provide her transport for $800 which she could pay by working once she reached the US. On arriving, she was made to work in a bar and turn over her wages to the trafficker. She came into ICE custody in 2004 and was put into removal proceedings. However, she was released and caught by her traffickers and moved to Phoenix. In the meantime, an order of removal was issued in absentia. Nina S. was again told to work in a bar and turn over her wages. Nina S. estimated that she turned over approximately $20,000 in wages to her trafficker between her arrival in the US and her second apprehension by ICE. In November 2005, the bar in Phoenix was raided by ICE, resulting in the detention of more than 100 women and girls. From November 2005 to May 2006, Nina S. was detained by ICE in a shelter for minors. She was then moved to foster care until her 18th birthday. She received a T-visa and is now in the process of adjusting to permanent status.[8]
  • Janine F., a legal permanent resident, ran away from an abusive family situation in New York when she was 17. An acquaintance invited her to California and paid for her bus ticket. On arriving in California, she was forced into prostitution. After six months she was arrested and held in the custody of child protective services for a week before being sent back to New York on a bus. However, not wanting to return home, Janine F. got off the bus when it stopped in Phoenix. She was at the bus station when the same person who had trafficked her to California pulled up in a car.  He said, "You should have known better than to try to get away from me." In Phoenix, he again forced her into prostitution. Following two more criminal convictions for prostitution, she was placed in removal proceedings. Now an adult, she was detained by ICE in an adult contract immigration facility in Arizona for over a year beginning in January 2009. A January 2010 letter from her attorney applying for humanitarian parole did not receive a response. In March 2010, at the age of 22, she was awarded cancellation of removal under the Violence Against Women Act and released.[9]

As the Trafficking in Persons Report has recognized, measures should be put in place to identify victims of trafficking and ensure that they are not held in detention.[10] Detaining survivors of trafficking undermines the objectives of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and puts the health of survivors at risk. Detention in the US immigration system has been shown to undermine the mental health of asylum seekers, who, like victims of trafficking, have survived trauma.[11] Unfortunately, as the above cases illustrate, trafficking victims in the US continue to be apprehended by ICE or border patrol agents for immigration enforcement reasons, and they, like many other immigrants, can spend months or even years in immigration detention facilities.

We appreciate the State Department's efforts to improve the global response to trafficking in persons and, specifically, to raise awareness of the need to ensure that trafficking victims are not subjected to further trauma by being held in detention. We have been encouraged by recent efforts on the part of ICE to contemplate revisions to its intake and custody classifications for immigrant detainees; however, much more needs to be done, as the above cases illustrate. We look forward to seeing these efforts lead to improvements in the treatment of trafficking victims inside the United States.


Alison Parker                                                              Meghan Rhoad
Director                                                                       Researcher
US Program                                                                Women's Rights Division


[1] We have used pseudonyms and withheld details of cases as requested by the legal service providers in order to protect the identity of the trafficking victims.

[2] Human Rights Watch interview with Texas legal service provider, April 15, 2010.

[3] Human Rights Watch interview with Texas legal service provider, April 15, 2010.

[4] Human Rights Watch interview with New York legal service provider, April 15, 2010.

[5] Human Rights Watch interview with Texas legal service provider, April 14, 2010.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Arizona immigration attorney, April 12, 2010.

[7] Human Rights Watch interview with Arizona immigration attorney, April 13, 2010.

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with Arizona immigration attorney, April 13, 2010.

[9] Human Rights Watch interview with Arizona immigration attorney, April 13, 2010.

[10] US Department of State, "Trafficking in persons Report," June 2009, 28-29, (accessed April 15, 2010).

[11] See Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, "From Persecution to Prison: The Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers," June 2003, (accessed April 15, 2010).

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