The greatest ethical challenge facing the global community today is human trafficking. For many, the concept of human trafficking is a residual myth left behind in the wake of legal termination of slavery, as seen through seemingly innocuous kidnapping storylines in films and television. In actuality, human slavery is a global phenomenon manifesting itself as an underground billion-dollar industry reaching into the bedrock of all societies—and no, America is not an exception to the list of nations with a staggeringly high demand for human slaves. In America, most of us prefer to stay in our own bubble of comfort constructed by the belief that since the United States has such an advanced security system, it is unlikely that such a nefarious industry could be booming on our soil. This could not be farther from the truth.
There are two major kinds of hotspots associated with human trafficking: the first is the locations where the capture, delivery, or sale of victims occur, the second is the locations where the victims are exploited for labor, sex, armed combat, drug crimes etc. The unfortunate reality of trafficking in America is that it is taking place across the nation at higher rates than is being reported to authorities, but compared to a decade ago, trafficking is reported via trafficking hotlines at exponentially higher rates. According to the 2021 Hotline Statistics published by Polaris, as of 2021, the top three states where trafficking occurs most prolifically per capita are Nevada, Mississippi, and Florida. Because these states are so locationally, economically, demographically, and culturally diverse, it begs the question of what attributes of these states allow for trafficking to occur, and what type of trafficking occurs in these states the most.
In America, the two most prominent forms of human trafficking are sexual exploitation and forced labor. Because of the hyper-sexualized entertainment industry in Las Vegas and the legalization of prostitution brothels in 70% of its counties, Nevada is a hub for sexual exploitation. While outsiders praise the legalization of prostitution in Nevada by saying it creates avenues for sex workers to practice a legitimate business, over 90% of Nevada’s prostitution occurs in Las Vegas, where prostitution is still illegal.
The trafficking is regularly done through the cooperation with the brothel owners as owners go to extraordinary lengths to isolate their workers from the outside world. In most of the brothels, the workers cannot leave the premises after 5 p.m., and are required to stay on the premises for three weeks at a time. If the workers wish to spend time outside of the brothel during their employment, they must “rent” an escort—that is, pay a large fee to the brothel owner to have someone accompany them if they wish to leave the premises. If a worker needs to visit a doctor, they must still rent an escort, and are usually required to see a doctor that the brothel owner chooses. If a worker wishes to call their children, for example, they can only do so by using a payphone, which is usually kept in a room that is locked by the brothel owner from 6 a.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Monday. Under this system, prostitutes must surrender much of their autonomy over their work and their lives; despite the legalization of the sex work profession, most of the women subjected to this lifestyle do not do so willingly.
Following the bust of an illegal trafficking ring in Nevada, Detective Greg Harvey exposed the corrupt undertones of the legalization of sex work, saying that most of the women working in Nevada’s legal brothels are sold and shipped from other United States locations where sex work is illegal, with many women being transported directly from pimps in Las Vegas. Moreover, the majority of those trafficked from Las Vegas are underage, according to Las Vegas’s Stop Turning Out Child Prostitutes (S.T.O.P) program, with an estimated 400 minors trafficked each year aged 11-17 years old. In the last seven years, Las Vegas logged 833 child victim cases, totaling a staggering 922 child victims. 215 of those cases citing kidnapping, physical violence, psychological violence, and sexual violence. Out of the 922 children, 373 victims were missing United States children who were kidnapped and trafficked across state lines into Nevada, coming mostly from California.
As of 2021, the state with the second-highest recorded trafficking per capita is Mississippi. The Department of Health and Human Services for Region IV published a heat map pinpointing the locations in Mississippi where trafficking is most frequently reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The map shows that the state’s hot spots for trafficking occur in northern, central, and southern Mississippi, unequivocally lighting up regions along Interstate 55, which runs north-south through Mississippi. I-55’s begins in Chicago, Illinois, right next to Lake Michigan, runs along the Mississippi River—crossing it twice—and ends in LaPlace, Louisiana, along the Port of South Louisiana connecting to the Gulf of Mexico. It is important to illustrate the geography in this instance because this major transcontinental highway system connects three countries through major roadways and waterways. Along I-55, there are 78 junctions that connect the interstate to other major highways. The overabundance of high-traffic access points and the vast stretch of the highway allow for inconspicuous and fast-paced travel for traffickers and the victims of trafficking. Mississippi’s Department of Transportation is setting a precedent by cracking down on the transcontinental travel associated with trafficking, but it is only a small sample of what is happening along many major highways in America—take I-10 that connects Los Angeles to Jacksonville, I-76 connecting Miami to Michigan, or I-95 from Miami to Maine for example.
Since the inception of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida has resided near the top of the list of states with high numbers of human trafficking—in just 2019, 896 trafficking reports were recorded by the hotline, almost 150 more reports than the year before. Although the increase in the number of reports can be disheartening, it is important to understand that human trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries consisting of a preposterous amount of offenders, so progress can only be made when incidents of trafficking are reported and the authorities are made aware of the crimes being committed in their jurisdiction. Florida exemplifies this. 2019’s reports led to the derailment of over 600 trafficking businesses—about a quarter of the suspicious businesses busted for trafficking in 2019.
With agriculture as Florida’s primary industry, Florida has become a hotbed for labor trafficking. Florida has an extremely high demand for cheap agricultural labor, as its tropical climate is ideal for staple crops like tomatoes, citrus, and sugarcane. While most trafficking victims in the United States are female citizens, Florida is an exception in that most of the trafficking victims are males who are indigenous to Central and South America. Masses of migrant individuals come to America seeking better financial circumstances and fall prey to the promises of economic opportunities made by traffickers. Most labor traffickers in Florida target illegal immigrants and individuals who have a H-2A temporary agricultural work visa allowing them to be employed in America. Not only are traffickers’ promises of economic success disingenuous, but their threats are also uncompromisingly severe. Traffickers often threaten to report undocumented workers and their families to authorities, effectively blackmailing migrant families into remaining on the farms to avoid deportation. This trafficking strategy is similarly used with persons who hold an H-2A agricultural work visa. An employer supervising a temporary visa holder may threaten their workers with deportation under the visa’s terms that a worker may not legally work for any employer other than the employer who sponsors the temporary visa. Trafficking handlers in Florida have also demonstrated the practice of indentured servitude, a subcategory of labor trafficking. Traffickers will pay their victims to present a veneer of honest employment, but the pay is diminutive and is a fraudulent and deceptive branch of slavery. Handlers will pay their workers a small salary, but will charge for fabricated fees such as gas, room and board, tool use, transportation, etc., leaving the workers effectively no money. Florida officials recognize that the primary form of trafficking in the state is labor trafficking, and the first labor trafficking case in Florida was successfully prosecuted in 2017. The case details illustrated the common characteristics of labor trafficking in practice: the handlers in the case were father and son labor subcontractors on farms in South Florida, and the men used threats of deportation, physical violence, and the withholding of documents to traffic their victims; Since the prosecution of the first labor trafficking case, Florida has amped up its efforts to combat the evils of human trafficking, having now registered over 26 organizations that are angled to provide rescued trafficking victims with support and resources and inhibit the practice of trafficking.