Human Trafficking and the Business of Stealing Freedom
Many people this week headed to the movies to watch Barbie (dressed in all pink, of course), Oppenheimer, and Sound of Freedom, a movie based on the true story of a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agent who conducted sting operations to rescue a young brother and sister from human trafficking in Colombia. Even though we could probably also talk about Barbie’s and Ken’s right to freedom in Barbie land, I would like to focus this blog post on human trafficking and the business of stealing freedom for profit.
The Attorney General’s most recent Annual Report to Congress on U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons
discloses that, in 2020, the FBI and DHS initiated a combined 1,610 human trafficking cases and reported 1,867 arrests. U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, DOJ’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (in the Civil Rights Division), and DOJ’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (in the Criminal Division) together brought 210 human trafficking cases, charged 337 defendants, and obtained 309 convictions. The U.S. Department of Defense investigated 160 human trafficking or trafficking related incidents (an increase from 65 total human trafficking or trafficking-related cases reported in 2019).
It is important to note that anybody can become a victim of human trafficking. “Sound of Freedom” shows real security camera footage depicting various kidnappings. While it is a possibility that random children may be snatched and kidnapped by strangers, these instances present the minority of human trafficking cases. Most human trafficking perpetrators are “romantic partners” and family members.
 Of course, the term “romantic partner” is not used in this article in its conventual sense. The perpetrators of human trafficking have no interest in any real relationship with their victims. Rather, they approach victims, frequently online, and begin “grooming” them or preparing them for their eventual exploitation. In many cases, an underaged girl will be enticed to run away for what they believe will be a better life.
For example, in a recent human trafficking case, the former head of the Boro Park Shomrim Society (the “Shomrim”), a private, Orthodox Jewish crime-patrol group associated with the New York Police Department, pleaded guilty
to transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, after he took a 15-year old girl, who was connected to the Shomrim, into his home and groomed her for sex. In this case, the defendant used his position as a leader in their community to quiet the victim, bragging about his connections to law enforcement and warning her that it would ruin her life if she told anyone about their relationship.
 In many cases, this relationship with law enforcement may be real. The infamous Jeffery Epstein was able to use his law enforcement connections to mute law enforcement efforts for decades. In a case my partner, Dennis Boyle, was involved in, two Pennsylvania State Troopers assisted human traffickers by removing victims from truck stops that were about to be raided by other law enforcement agencies.
It is also important to note that not all human trafficking involves sexual exploitation. Recently, two business owners pleaded guilty
to conspiracy to commit forced labor for convincing a Guatemalan relative and her two minor daughters to come to the United States by falsely promising them a better life. They then arranged for the victims to enter the United States using temporary visitor visas and then compelled them to overstay their visas and work long hours at their businesses.
The defendants used various methods of threats and coercion to force the victims into labor: they manufactured an inflated debt that they told the victims they owed and instructed them that they could not leave until they repaid this fictious debt; they abused the legal system by threatening to call the authorities on the victims and have them arrested for overstaying their visas if they did not comply with their requests; and they used force and threats of force to intimidate the victims, going as far as hitting the minor victims with a stick when angry. The defendants housed the victims in a dilapidated, unheated trailer with no running water, and degraded and humiliated them in front of others.
Human Trafficking Civil Litigation
Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry in which traffickers generate profits from the illegal exploitation of people. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) recognizes and defines two primary forms of human trafficking:
Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(11)(A)).
Forced labor is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(11)(B)).
The TVPA constitutes the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking. It not only enhanced the capacity of federal prosecutors to bring human traffickers to justice for their crimes. It also allowed trafficking victims to sue their traffickers for money damages in federal court. 18 U.S.C. § 1595 sets forth:
“An individual who is a victim of a violation of this chapter may bring a civil action against the perpetrator (or whoever knowingly benefits, or attempts or conspires to benefit, financially or by receiving anything of value from participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known has engaged in an act in violation of this chapter) in an appropriate district court of the United States and may recover damages and reasonable attorneys fees.”
Furthermore, 18 U.S.C. 2255, which was passed in 2022, eliminates the statute of limitations for federal causes of action and allows for liquidates damages of $150,000 and punitive damages (in addition to actual damages and attorneys’ fees). This critical reform further empowers victims to hold offenders accountable not only in criminal court, but also in federal civil court.
The civil cause of action has proven particularly critical to victims of forced labor. From 2004 until 2009, all the civil cases filed under 18 U.S.C. § 1595 included only allegations of forced labor. In 2009, a trafficking survivor brought the first federal civil case alleging sex trafficking, filing suit against a defendant who had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit sex trafficking four years earlier. The civil case settled for $400,000. Since then, the number of civil
cases initiated by trafficking victims has steadily risen. While many defendants are labor recruiters or companies, civil cases have also been filed against religious organizations, municipalities, private detention facilities, and other corporate entities.
In Baricuatro v. Industrial Personnel, for example, workers from the Philippines brought suit against multiple recruitment agencies in both the Philippines and the U.S. They also sued the U.S. entity for which they worked directly, Grand Isle Shipyard. The plaintiffs, that consisted of welders, pipefitters, and other skilled craftsmen, alleged that the defendants created the U.S.-based recruitment agencies to exploit the E-2 “Treaty Investor” visa. Under that visa regime, certain U.S. based companies owned or controlled by foreign nationals may recruit employees of the same nationality as the foreign investor.
By ensuring that the Filipino investors maintained at least a 50% stake in the recruitment company, the defendants were able to recruit directly from the Philippines. The defendants worked with Philippines-based recruiters to place ads on Philippine radio stations and in local newspapers, helping to spread the word about the jobs. Then, the U.S.-based recruiting agencies guided plaintiffs through the process of applying for visas and signing employment contracts. When the plaintiffs eventually arrived in the U.S., the shipyard defendants allegedly forced them to work grueling hours while living in prison-like conditions, sometimes for less than minimum wage. If the workers complained, they were threatened with deportation. The case settled in December 2014 for an undisclosed amount.
In Alabado v. French Concepts Bakery, the defendants secured E-2 visas for plaintiffs. But instead of serving in executive or supervisory positions, as required under the terms of the visa, the defendants forced the workers to perform manual labor at the defendants’ personal residence, and then to work extremely long hours at the bakery for virtually no pay. The court entered a default judgment in the amount of $15,252,297 apportioned among 11 plaintiffs, including $3,728,400 in compensatory damages, $1,012,741 in statutory damages for violations of state whistleblower and retaliation laws, and $1,266,083 in treble damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Under 18 U.S.C. § 1595, lawsuits may also be filed against third parties alleged to have knowingly benefited from human trafficking. In Doe v. Dabbagh, the trafficking victim used this provision to recover damages from medical personnel. In this case, the plaintiff sued a psychiatrist, alleging that the doctor knowingly provided her trafficker with access to medications that the trafficker then used to subdue her. The victim’s trafficker, Mark White, initially approached her while she was working as a masseuse.
White then forced her to have sex with hundreds of men, securing her compliance through physical violence and threats – as well as through the forced use of prescription drugs, which he allegedly procured from the defendant. The victim eventually escaped from her trafficker and contacted law enforcement. When law enforcement officials showed up to execute a search warrant, White committed suicide. The victim then sued the psychiatrist, alleging that he had prescribed the drugs knowing that they would be used to hold her in forced prostitution. The court awarded a default judgment in the amount of $578,840 ($250,000 in compensatory damages, $250,000 in punitive damages, and $78,840 in fees and costs).
The movie “Sound of Freedom” shows a fictionalized version of one human trafficking case. However, many people, and predominantly children, continue to be trafficked in the United States and elsewhere. The TVPA provides powerful tools for the prosecution of traffickers as well as civil remedies for victims which permit them to hold their perpetrators accountable. These tools are essential in the fight against human trafficking.