For up to 16 hours daily, they worked at posh country clubs across South Florida, then returned to deceptively quiet houses in Boca Raton where they were captives -- and in the most dreadful cases, fed rotten chicken and vegetables, forced to drink muriatic acid and repeatedly denied medical help.
The 39 servers, lured to the United States by the cliché of a decent dollar and a promising next chapter, instead became imported modern-day slaves two continents away from their homeland. Their story repeats in plain sight most every day in South Florida: barely paid -- or unpaid -- people forced to toil in fields, work as domestics in hotels and restaurants or in the sex industry, an out-sized regional problem authorities are emphasizing in January, Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
``This is organized crime where humans are used as products. We are talking about selling a person over and over and making large sums of money,'' says Carmen Pino, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent in Charge. ``What people need to realize is that human trafficking is happening here, it's a big problem. It could be happening in the restaurant where you eat, at your nail salon, in your neighborhood. It's not just something that happens in foreign countries.''
While difficult to pluck the numbers from a landscape of silence and fear, federal, state and local authorities know South Florida is among the nation's three top capitals of human trafficking, a $36 billion industry defined as the recruitment and harboring of a person for labor or services through force, fraud or coercion.
South Florida's mix of cosmopolitan lifestyles, rural landscapes and tourism makes it a natural entry point for human traffickers. To fight the rising statistics and heighten awareness, a coalition of law enforcement and government agencies formed the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force in 2008, charged with monitoring a wide swath of the state, from Key West to Fort Pierce.
That year, ICE initiated 432 investigations resulting in 126 convictions on human trafficking charges. In 2009, the number of investigations jumped to 566 and 165 convictions.
The task force also partners with social-service agencies and churches for outreach and to help rescued victims find housing and build new, legitimate lives in America.
ICE gives temporary legal immigration status -- called Continued Presence, typically for one year -- to victims of trafficking. They can receive work permits and other benefits and eventually can apply for a visa. In 2009, ICE authorized 447 CP requests and extensions.
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