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Bills would curb human trafficking

Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy said raising public awareness is key.

Associated Press
Published March 27, 2006

MIAMI - When Jose Antonio Martinez arrived in Florida in 1999, the 20-year-old Mexican immigrant thought he would pick tomatoes in exchange for minimum wages and a roof over his head while saving to build a house for his parents back home.

Instead, for four months the man who hired him locked him up at night, beat him and threatened to hurt his family if he tried to escape.

"After I escaped, he tried to run me over with a truck. He said he would kill me," Martinez recalled.

Although Martinez did escape and his tormenter was prosecuted, such cases are rare. Many human traffickers are never caught because their victims are too scared to go to authorities. In recent years, the federal Department of Homeland Security has made some high profile arrests in human trafficking cases, but smaller cases left to local authorities often fall through the cracks.

Now, the Florida Legislature is considering two similar bills to strengthen penalties for human traffickers.

Immigrant rights advocates laud the state proposals, saying they will help raise awareness about human trafficking and provide concrete ways to stop it. Yet many wish the bills would go further, targeting not only those directly involved in the trafficking, but also employers who may benefit from indentured workers.

The bills expand on a brief law passed in 2004 during a national human trafficking conference held in Florida. That law came with much fanfare but focused narrowly on trafficking of children and lacked real teeth.

And the new bills expand the definition of forced labor beyond threats of immediate physical force to include tactics such as fraud, holding identification papers and threatening family.

The bills require education for juries, judges and law enforcement, and they allow traffickers to be prosecuted under Florida racketeering laws.

Federal officials say tens of thousands of people are trafficked to the United States annually - the exact number is difficult to gauge because the crime is so underreported. Most experts put Florida third, behind California and New York, for human trafficking. California already has a similar anti-trafficking law. New York failed to pass one earlier this year.

"We have the perfect breeding ground. We are a major port of entry," said Nola Theiss, managing director of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking. "We have agriculture, which attracts very low-wage workers, tourism, which means hospitality workers, and very wealthy people, which means domestic servitude."

Laura Germino, one of the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which helped bring Martinez's case to light, said the bill is an important step. She hopes the state will quickly take up the Legislature's request for training programs to help first responders identify victims.

"An officer may respond correctly to a situation, but might put down battery, or a shooting, or dispute over a debt, but he might not realize that it's in the context of a trafficker ensuring that workers don't leave," she said.

Germino said she also would like to see a law that directly targets employers who may look the other way when contractors provide them with workers who are victims of trafficking.

But Democratic state Sen. Gwen Margolis of Aventura, who sponsored her chamber's bill, said the proposal would have gotten little support if such a provision were added. The current bills allow prosecutors to go after people who benefit financially from trafficking - such as employers - but only if they can prove the individuals knew the workers were being coerced.

As the bill stands, no extra money has been allocated for statewide training. Margolis said she planned to add a provision that would direct fines against traffickers to fund training.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy, who prosecuted Martinez's case, said raising public awareness is key.

Most victims don't come to authorities on their own for fear of being deported, he added.

In Martinez's case, it took the police investigation after his former employer mowed him down to prompt him to cooperate with authorities and help free more than 20 others who were also held captive.

Despite his experience, Martinez did save enough to build the house for his parents, and in the coming months, he'll finally see it. He plans to visit his mother for the first time in eight years.

Meanwhile, he hopes the proposed legislation will help prevent others from falling prey to human trafficking.

"I don't want that to happen to others. I tell them what I've learned," he said. "If you know something is happening to someone you know, you should look for someone to tell. If they don't, it's never going to end."

[Last modified March 27, 2006, 00:31:13]

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