A coalition of women's and human rights advocates are pushing New York state legislators to quickly pass a law against human trafficking. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports advocates say the sex trade is a flourishing industry in the United States, and New York is a major port of entry.
Twenty-one states have laws against human trafficking. But the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition says that although state legislators have approved weak measures, they have yet to enact one into law in New York.
Janet Manning of the group Equality Now says human trafficking is simply a trade in human beings, something most Americans think is illegal.
"It means taking a person with a heart and soul and hopes and plans and trapping that person in a position of servitude against his or her will," said Janet Manning. "It happens in the sex industry, mostly to the young, mostly to girls and very young women. It happens in labor settings in sweatshops, on farms, in delis and restaurants."
Advocates says laws against rape and kidnapping do not usually apply in human trafficking situations because the laws require victims to prove the use of imminent force or show that they were abducted and held in a place where they could not be found.
Many of the victims are forced into prostitution and often find themselves prosecuted rather than protected. They are often lured with promises of jobs as domestics or marriage proposals.
Kika Cerpa knows from firsthand experience. She was brought from Venezuela to New York by a boyfriend who took her passport and sent her to work in a brothel.
"When I was in the burdel [brothel], I met a lot of women that were trafficked also," said Kika Cerpa. "Also when I was working my friend Annie died. She was killed by a customer because she did not want to be with him. I am standing up not only for me because whatever happened to me is in the past, but to build my future I have to face it. And this is how I want to face it. I want New York City to make a strong law to help women going through trafficking to rebuild their lives and also to punish the customers in trafficking."
According to the US Justice Department, New York's John F. Kennedy Airport is the hub of cross-border trafficking in the United States. Ken Franzblau of Equality Now says the victims come from everywhere, including the United States.
"There is virtually no part of the world now where we do not see trafficking victims from, certainly from Asia, from Latin America, particularly Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, from Eastern and Central Europe," said Ken Franzblau. "There are brothels throughout New York with trafficked Chinese girls and women in them. And we should not overlook also that there are a lot of trafficking victims in New York from throughout the United Sates. That is a huge problem. I would guess there are probably more trafficked American girls in the United States than there are women and girls trafficked from outside the country."
Organized crime is often involved in operating large prostitution rings, but advocates say many of the operations are small, sometimes run by families who send unsuspecting girls to relatives in the United States, who run brothels that can be found through newspapers and on the Internet.
Federal law enforcement agencies have played a major role in calling attention to the problem. But Sonia Ossorio of the National Organization of Women says prosecutors and law enforcement officials need strong state laws to help them do the job.
"New York is like a bonanza to them [the traffickers]," she said. "They come here, they set up shop. They have their marketing arms. It is part of our economy and we cannot take any further steps without a law that says it is a crime."
Advocates say trafficking in the sex industry will not stop until the demand decreases. They are calling for laws that penalize patrons rather than prostitutes.
Members of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition are planning weekly rallies to pressure the state legislature to pass a strong law - quickly.