An estimated 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year. About half are believed to be children.

By John Celock
Photographs courtesy of Sandy Shepherd

Growing up without running water and electricity, only eating one meal a day in a poor rural village in Zambia, young Given Kachepa imagined the United States as a place with no crime, happy families, and wealth–a life the orphaned 11-year-old saw on television’s Cosby Show.

He was anticipating a future of earning a dollar a day, if he could find a job, and dreading coming into contact with the rampant tuberculosis and HIV epidemics, when he was approached by a Texas church group about auditioning for a choir and the chance to come to the United States. He was thrilled. This would be his chance to live life like the Huxtable family.

With the promise of two years in the United States, including the chance at an education, a salary, money for his brothers and sisters, and the ability to raise money to build schools in Zambia, Kachepa saw the perfect opportunity. With only two years of singing experience, and facing rules barring three relatives from being in the choir at the same time–he had two cousins also auditioning–he was worried about losing his chance to come to the United States. When he was picked for the choir, he thought his life would change for the better.

“I could envision nothing bad happening,” he says. “Our parents trusted America as the land of the free. If I had stayed, my life would have been a fight. I would have finished

[school] through the seventh grade. I would not have a place to stay–I had been sleeping in a church. I would not know where I would get money for food.”

Once he arrived in the United States, Kachepa discovered he would not be living a perfect life. His dreams of living a life of prosperity, with a close-knit family in a brownstone in Brooklyn, instead turned into a life of little sleep, no money, close scrutiny, daily threats, and the fear of returning to Zambia in disgrace. Kachepa had become a victim of human trafficking.

21st Century Slaves

The U.S. government estimates some 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the United States–about half of them children–and 800,000 are trafficked worldwide, each year. A study released this year by the U.S. Department of Justice pinpoints the East Asia/Pacific region as the largest source of individuals who are trafficked into the United States.

According to a breakdown provided by Free the Slaves, a nonprofit advocacy group, 46% of victims are forced to work in prostitution, 27% go into domestic servitude, 10% work in agriculture, 5% in factories, and the remaining 12% in miscellaneous categories, including food service and consumer goods.

“Trafficking is a hidden phenomenon,” says Martha Newton, Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It can be forced labor in a Chinese buffet restaurant or a strip mall in your neighborhood. It is not your stereotype of sex labor.”

The Victims of Trafficking Protection Act, enacted in 2000, is the federal government’s main enforcement mechanism on human trafficking. In addition to making human trafficking illegal, the law provides for increased federal law enforcement tools; allows for increased social services for victims of human trafficking, including creating a designation of certified human trafficking victims; and created the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center in the U.S. State Department to monitor and enforce human trafficking laws.

Newton’s office administers the certification process. Once victims become certified–a process she says allows victims to be treated as victims–they are eligible for mental health assistance, medical benefits, housing assistance, and job training and placement. Part of the certification process includes having victims cooperate with criminal justice proceedings against their captors. Since the law was passed, 969 people, including 97 children, have become certified human trafficking victims.

Child victims of human trafficking have an easier time getting certified. They can be certified with a simple letter from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and are not required to participate in court proceedings. Children receive increased mental health assistance and are placed in appropriate housing, not in detention centers. In addition, Newton’s office works to reunite children with their parents or other family members whenever possible.

Congress has continued to monitor the enforcement of federal human trafficking laws. In March, a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing to assess the work of the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center. The hearing focused on what the center is doing to fulfill its mission under federal law.

“The conditions that give rise to human and sex trafficking and human smuggling, as well as the modes, methods, and means of transportation, are often similar,” said Representative Katherine Harris (R-FL) in opening the hearing, which she requested and led. “The absence of moral conscience and the willingness to engage in unspeakable acts of brutality is evident in terrorists and traffickers alike.”

Harris has introduced legislation that would force those who are convicted of promoting sex crimes by children who are trafficked to comply with federal sex offender registry requirements. Her legislation also calls for the criminal forfeiture of property owned by those convicted of human trafficking.

An Issue for the States

Although programs and laws exist at the federal level, Jolene Smith, Executive Director of Free the Slaves, says the states should become a part of the solution also by passing laws at their level. State laws, she says, would allow local law enforcement officials to handle human trafficking cases they encounter and to address the needs of their individual states. Currently, 13 states have laws making human trafficking illegal.

New York State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D) is pressing for a law in the Empire State to declare human trafficking a crime. His bill would establish the necessary law enforcement measures on trafficking and provide a social services safety net for victims, including money for victims to live on after being identified by law enforcement and while their visa cases are pending before the federal government. The bill would provide housing assistance so victims wouldn’t have to live in jail cells, along with any additional assistance victims of sex crimes may need. Another provision would allow for state assistance with the mountain of federal paperwork victims are required to complete to become certified human trafficking victims.

The New York State Senate has passed Dinowitz’s bill, and action was pending in the State Assembly at press time. Most of the Assembly’s 150 members are cosponsoring the bill, and Dinowitz predicted passage and the signature of Governor George Pataki (R) this year. “People understand this bill deals with ending slavery in the 21st Century.”

New Jersey passed legislation last year to make human trafficking illegal, and the legislature is now considering mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of human trafficking, along with making those who have promoted sex trafficking to register as sex offenders.

“While I am generally against mandatory minimums, human trafficking and intentional acts to harm children are areas where I make an exception to that,” says New Jersey State Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, who is supporting these efforts in the Garden State. “When you don’t have mandatory minimums, you have exceptions that a judge can grant in sentencing, where such exceptions should not be the case.”

Outreach at the Local Level

A key aspect of enforcement against human trafficking is reaching out to local law enforcement officials to educate them on how to find human trafficking victims. Smith, of Free the Slaves, points out it is important that local law enforcement know what human trafficking is and how to stop it.

In addition to law enforcement, Smith says her group is educating social workers, educators, grassroots organizations, and private citizens to be able to identify the signs of human trafficking. Smith notes that increased focus on the issue, including a recent program on the Lifetime Network and a plotline on television’s Desperate Housewives, has helped increase awareness with the general public.

Newton says the Office of Refugee Resettlement has also been working closely to educate local officials to identify human trafficking, and has reached out to unconventional parties to supplement the work of law enforcement. “The meter reader and postman are good people to find victims,” she says, noting these individuals come close to private residences daily.

A Victim Finds His Voice

During Kachepa’s 18 months with the Texas church group, he says he was forced to spend many weeks touring, singing in malls, schools, and churches. This included traveling in a crowded van, doing his own laundry, setting up and dismantling equipment, and surviving on little sleep. Kachepa did not attend school, and no money was sent back to Zambia for his family or to build a school.

The host families he stayed with while on the road did not find out about his plight because he was too scared to tell them what was happening. Any gifts or money he was offered he had to reject. Anything that ended up in Kachepa’s luggage he alleges was taken from him and never returned by the minister who was running the church program. Kachepa says he was threatened with being deported back to Zambia if he did not comply with the rules set by the church program, which at one point included hand digging a swimming pool under the hot Texas sun.

“The threats were the biggest thing,” Kachepa says explaining why he and others went along with how they were treated. “In returning you back home, they would tell your family you did not respect them. Respect is a big thing in Zambia. When our families would find out that you were the one sent back home, you would not be welcome back in your community. Your family would be embarrassed by you.”

In 2000, when leaders from the church program called the local police to start deportation procedures against two choir members, Kachepa began to see the end of his ordeal. Local police heard the story of the boys’ being sent away by church leaders and started to investigate, including notifying the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). INS and the Department of Labor insisted that the boys be paid and sent to school. Program leaders eventually paid the boys but then started charging them for food, clothing, and rent, which cost the boys most of their pay. After conditions worsened, the boys called INS and asked to be removed from the ministry.

Kachepa was taken to a local Baptist church, where he was introduced to church member Sandy Shepherd, who is now his legal guardian. Kachepa, now 19, is a biology student at Stephen F. Austin State University, in East Texas, where his goal is to become a dentist. 

He has also become an advocate for increased awareness of human trafficking, testifying before the Texas state legislature for passage of a human trafficking law and speaking around the country. Teen People Magazine honored him for being a teen trying to change the world.

“When I was in Zambia and they told us we could come here for two years, I wanted to stay for good,” says Kachepa, who supports his family in Zambia financially and plans to return one day to help. “Now I have the opportunity to stay for life, to make friends, drive, and have parents. God put me through that life to see what type of person I was.”

John Celock is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

For information about or to report suspected cases of human trafficking, call the Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (toll free), 888/373-7888.