It is estimated that up to 17 and a half thousand people are trafficked into the United States every year. Today in Oldsmar a specialist from the US Department of Health and Human Services addressed a local multi-agency network about working together more effectively to fight human trafficking. Almost two years after President Bush visited Tampa and pledged money to fight this crime, local services are just now beginning to come to terms with helping the victims of human trafficking here in the Tampa Bay area. WMNF’s Roxanne Escobales reports.

They live down the street from you, work in the nail salons downtown, go to school with your children, and cook you supper in the neighborhood restaurant. Victims of human trafficking live here in the Tampa Bay area and until now little has been done to help them.

They usually are brought to the US under false pretences, promised legitimate work and good wages. But the situation that awaits them here in the land of the free is bleak.

Take the case of the 25-year-old Mexican woman who was found in Pasco county. Those that lured her away from home assured her a more promising life in the States. But, as Ida Lopez of World Relief describes, she was forced into prostitution.

ACT: But when she gets here they put her in one house and daily she has to have sex with 40 men

Over the past five or six years, cases like these have become known to local law enforcement agencies.

ACT: Since about 2000, 2001 we have personally been involved with some cases…

That was Clearwater Police Deputy Chief Dewey Williams describing to the Clearwater City Council on April 3 the situation in his jurisdiction which led the police department to seek federal funds. If awarded the money, the CPD will hire two plainclothes policemen who will be dedicated to investigating human trafficking. He said the nature of this type of crime means it occurs “under the radar� of local law enforcement agencies, but he warned that it is “not going away�. In giving the police permission to go ahead with the grant application, council member Carlen Petersen called the situation in her community “despicable�.

A groundbreaking study three years ago by the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University found that Florida ranks in the top three destination states for “coyotes.� That is the term used for people who traffic humans. Despite this finding, the Clearwater Police Department is the first law enforcement agency in the Tampa Bay area to directly address the complexity of dealing with human trafficking victims.

Speaking in Oldsmar to the World Relief Network of Emergency Trafficking Services, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Antoinette Aqui said that cultural bias plays a role in what appears to be a lack of help for these types of victims.

ACT: anti-immigrants… people of color

On a practical level, agencies and social services have a difficult time identifying victims of human trafficking. They do not come forward and present themselves as victims, and perhaps this is why there are only a handful of cases known to local authorities. Chris Warwick of the Clearwater women’s refuge The Haven says that most victims come from cultures where law enforcement and government are not trusted. Also, she says, the traffickers isolate the victims, which is compounded by the fact that they are foreigners.

ACT: They don’t know the language…

Once identified, however, the legal process of keeping the victims in the country and giving them help is laborious. In 2000, two new types of visas were created to help immigrant victims. The T visa specifically deals with trafficking cases. Yet, says Gulfcoast Legal Services attorney Kathlyn Mis-ko-vee-ahk, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has its own agenda and its agents are ignorant about the T-visa.

ACT: The thing about ICE is their agenda is to deport people

This past legislative session, the Florida Senate passed a bill that strengthened the current human trafficking laws. In a campaign speech a few weeks ago in Clearwater, Democratic state Senator Skip Campbell, who is running for Florida attorney general, acknowledged that lawmakers are woefully unaware of the issue of human trafficking.

ACT: I don’t know if a lot of people had it on their radar screen…

In the meantime the Clearwater Police Department is still waiting to hear if it’s been awarded the 450 thousand dollars of federal money it and the other agencies it has partnered with have asked for to fight this crime.

For WMNF in Pinellas County, I’m Roxanne Escobales.

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