Monday, November 19, 2012

Who is a Victim of Human Trafficking in Chicago?


In 2003, a New York Times identified Chicago as a national hub for human trafficking. Chicago’s airports, including one of the world’s largest airports, the O’Hare International Airport, and the major crossings of large interstates make entry for traffickers and victims much more accessible. These victims are then dispersed from this major Midwest location to neighboring states, cities, and towns. Not to mention that with the percentage of foreign-born individuals at 21.1%, trafficking victims could look like any number of immigrants in the city. However, it’s important to note that trafficking victims can be both non-U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens. In addition, Chicago as a vibrant tourist attraction keeps demand high as people travel in and out of the city.

Here are some more facts and statistics that call for the urgent need to address human trafficking in Chicago:

  • In the state of Illinois, most of the Latin American and Asian trafficked victims are found in the Chicagoland area.
  • Chicago hosts an abundance of large scale events that attract traffickers to bring victims to cater to event attendees.
  • 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls are trafficked each year in Chicago. One third of them get involved in trafficking by the age of 15 and 62% by the age of 18.
  • In Cook County (in which Chicago belongs), massage parlors and strip clubs front sex trafficking businesses.
  • The labor trafficking takes advantage of the large immigrant population in Chicago. This includes forced begging and soliciting, domestic servitude, and forced labor in restaurants.
  • Between December 2007 and June 2009, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 257 calls from Illinois, which ranks fifth on highest number of calls after Texas, California, New York, and Florida.

Illinois currently has legislation in place that that aims to protect and not criminalize human trafficking victims. The Trafficking of Persons and Involuntary Servitude Act of Illinois went into effect in 2006, proclaiming it an offense for trafficking persons for forced servitude including minors, increasing access to health and social services for victims, and imposing severe penalties for traffickers. During the same year, the Illinois Predator Accountability Act was enacted to allow sex trafficked victims to sue their abusers and anyone who profited from their activities. Furthermore In 2010, the Illinois Safe Children Act was signed into law, thus being one of the first states to implement comprehensive legislation that trafficked children under 18 will be protected from criminal prosecution.

This article describes the criminalization of prostitution in Chicago that relegates sex workers to felony status. Even when they want to exit the sex industry, they are hard pressed to find legitimate employers who will hire ex-felons. If they are denied a self-supporting job and public services, they often return to sex work as their only immediate source of income and survival. While I interned as a case worker last year for a social service agency, I saw numerous ex-felons come through our job readiness training program. Although we could refer them to several appropriate employers, the job options were extremely limited. Sex workers should be given more opportunities for self-advancement, including education, supportive services, social services, and broader job options. There is no use in labeling an individual as a felon and then expect them to contribute to the job economy if they cannot access formal employment opportunities.

In 2011, the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act was signed into law, enabling sex trafficking victims who were convicted as prostitutes to clear their criminal records of forced commercial sex acts. Children and many non-consenting adults who are forced to perform commercial sex acts are not actually engaging in prostitution; instead, they are falling victim to abusive individuals who exploit their age, lack of options, and social isolation for profit. They need protection and the right to resources and provision of necessities like clothing, food, transportation, and counseling that will help them to rebuild their lives. Despite these legislative victories, victims still need specialized services to help them get back on their feet. Trafficked victims did not choose to be slaves. Often those in the sex industry have been coerced into the life and do not need their dignity stripped further by being labeled as criminals.

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