Human trafficking is alive and well in the United States. We don’t have the labor camps, child soldiers or prostitution rings that some countries do, but many of these things do exist within our borders and in certain places they even flourish. To think that we have moved beyond such things is a stark denial of the truth — it happens in major cities, and it happens in small, rural towns.

Perpetrators range from illegal immigrants to a literal American cheerleader pimping out her own teammates. Recently, I went the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators (IAHTI) conference. They made it abundantly clear that there is no way to accurately profile human traffickers, and that doing so may cause the investigator to possibly miss a culprit who doesn’t fit whatever idea of perpetrator they had made up in their heads. The cheerleader story is a prime example of that.

First of all, human trafficking can cover a couple of different areas, so it helps to have a clear definition of what it really means. The FBI calls it a “form of human slavery” that includes, “forced labor, domestic servitude, and commercial sex trafficking.” They point out that it, “involves both U.S. citizens and foreigners alike, and has no demographic restrictions.”

The Department of Homeland Security defines it as such: “Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

Labor Trafficking

When most people think of human trafficking in the U.S., they probably think of sex trafficking. This is a huge problem here, but it’s not the only one — forced labor cases are actually more common than you might think. In recent years, Guatemalan teenagers were smuggled into the United States to an egg farm in Ohio. There they were forced to work in austere conditions — no running water, long work hours, and little to no pay. Their lives and the lives of their families were threatened (the traffickers had ties back to Guatemala), and the entire work environment was fear based.

Labor trafficking can take a few different forms — like with the Guatemalan teenagers, they might start with promises of foreign education and (relatively) high amounts of pay, then take advantage of poor families, using fear and force as primary motivators. Fraud and coercion were other motivators.

The idea of “debt bondage” comes up a lot in U.S. trafficking schemes. People are somehow tricked or forced into an immense amount of debt, and then forced to work that debt off with the promise of one day being free. Of course, that promise is most often never brought to fruition — imagine owing someone $30,000 and then making 10 cents an hour while living under their oppressive thumb.