- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2011

People were shocked when federal prosecutors charged the owners of a motel in Oacoma, S.D., a town of fewer than 500, with keeping Philippine women in virtual slavery, forcing them to work 20-hour days under the threat of violence and taking back their paychecks after they had been endorsed to deposit in their own accounts.

Prosecutors said the enslaved women performed cleaning and front-desk duties at the motel and were expected to work second jobs at fast-food restaurants. Every aspect of their lives, according to records in the 2007 case, was controlled, including what they ate, where they lived, what they wore and to whom they spoke.

Human traffickers had crept unnoticed into the small Lyman County community, located on the west bank of the Missouri River 80 miles southeast of Pierre, the state’s capital. But the townsfolk soon learned that Interstate 90, which roars right by Oacoma, is part of the “Midwest Pipeline,” the superhighway used to deliver trafficking victims to cities across the country.

In November, federal prosecutors struck again in South Dakota, this time bringing sex-trafficking charges against a couple in Tea, a city of 4,600 also just off Interstate 90. They were convicted of using coercion and threats to force underage girls, some as young as 15, into prostitution.

“It was a shock to me to learn that people had been trafficked through South Dakota,” said state Sen. Joni Cutler, a Sioux Falls Republican who sponsored legislation in January making human trafficking a state crime. She said South Dakotans like to think of the state as a place “where everybody knows everybody or is related.”

“We don’t want a quiet, rural area like South Dakota to become a place where people are trafficked,” she said.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed the Cutler bill into law on March 16.

Human trafficking generates billions of dollars each year in illicit profits, in the United States and globally, through the entrapment and exploitation of millions of people, mostly women and children. The growing illegal trade in human beings for sex or forced labor isn’t limited to either rural outposts or the world’s largest cities.

Young women have been forced into prostitution over the past year through deception, fraud, coercion, threats and physical violence in Denton County, Texas; rural Tennessee; St. Paul, Minn.; Norcross, Ga.; Memphis, Tenn.; Fremont, Calif.; Harrisburg, Pa.; New York City; Los Angeles; Honolulu; Woodbridge, Va.; Gaithersburg; Annapolis; and many other cities.

Just last week, a 36-year-old Mexican national was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a federal judge in Georgia on charges that he tricked girls into leaving their families in Mexico, beat them and forced them into more than 20 acts of prostitution a night in Atlanta. The man had promised to get them jobs in restaurants. Five co-defendants previously pleaded guilty in the case.

In Columbus, Ohio, dozens of illegal immigrants from Russia, Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine were forced to work as housekeepers and laundry workers after their passports were seized. In Buford, Ga., Nigerian women were forced to work as nannies and housekeepers after being threatened and physically abused. In Falls Church, 20 Indonesian women were sold as housekeepers after their passports were seized; some were sexually assaulted and their families were threatened.

Tougher laws

Texas state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, San Antonio Democrat, introduced legislation this month to strengthen laws against human trafficking. She said 25 percent of the people trafficked into the United States pass through the state.

“We are trying to get at those who profit from selling our children,” she said, adding that she became interested in the issue in 2004 when two runaways from Oregon - a 16 year-old-boy and his 14 year-old-sister - were forced into prostitution.

“Nobody wants to think there is human slavery in their neighborhood,” she said.

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