In Texas, the Law Puts Hotels and Motels on the Alert for Human Trafficking
A law was passed in Texas this year that will go into effect in January of next year, and that requires hotels and motels to train their staff members in relation to the warning signs of human trafficking. The Texas Hotel & Lodging Association has been encouraging a move along these lines for some time, and the intention behind the law is for lodging personnel to become more in tune with the telltale signs that are indicative of human trafficking taking place, which can – in turn – be reported to the authorities. The State of Texas has a considerable problem with human trafficking, and as a result, takes the matter exceptionally seriously.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UN), human trafficking amounts to the use of force, fraud, or deception to transfer, transport, harbor, or receive men, women, and/or children with the objective of exploiting them for profit. Human trafficking occurs in every region of the world and in every corner of the United States, including Texas. The human traffickers themselves often conjure up fake employment agencies – along with false promises of education, job opportunities, or just a better way of life – in order to trick and coerce their unwitting victims into forced servitude (and worse).
The Act, Means, and Purpose
The UN shares that the crime of human trafficking involves three core components that include the act, the means, and the purpose. Let’s take a closer look.
The human traffickers, themselves, must engage in one of the following acts with their potential victims (in order for the event to qualify as human trafficking in the eyes of the law):
Recruiting the victims
Transporting the victims
Transferring the victims
Harboring the victims
Receiving the victims
Additionally, the human traffickers must engage in one or more of the following forms of coercion with their potential victims (in order for the event to qualify as human trafficking in the eyes of the law):
The use of force or threats against the victims
The use of coercion against the victims
The use of fraud or deception against the victims
The abuse of the victims’ vulnerable standing
The implementation of required payments or benefits against the victims
Abduction of the victims
Human traffickers often use physical and/or sexual abuse, emotional manipulation, blackmail, and/or the removal of important official documentation to control their victims throughout the human trafficking process.
While the purpose of human trafficking can be varied, exploitation is always the driving force.
Common Forms of Human Trafficking
The UN also shares the common forms of human trafficking (in addition to sex trafficking and labor trafficking), including:
Debt bondage (in which a person’s voyage to the United States – for example – is translated into debt that is next to impossible to work off)
Domestic servitude (in the form of servants, housekeepers, and nannies)
Forced begging (in which the proceeds go to the human traffickers)
Victims of many kinds of human trafficking are forced to work without pay or for very little pay – always living in fear of violence or another form of reprisal (and often in inhumane conditions).
The San Antonio Report Weighs In
The San Antonio Report shares that, when someone with a local address checks into a hotel – with another guest who appears dazed, confused, or generally distressed – and proceeds to pay cash, hotel workers should take the matter as a red flag that human trafficking may be afoot. This is but one of the examples shared in a recent free training for dozens of hotel workers in San Antonio. In addition to underage prostitution, the issue related to migrant workers who are transported and forced into what amounts to slave labor was addressed. The new law requires that all hotels and motels – in addition to providing their staff with training – post informative signs and reporting information in areas that make them clearly visible to employees.
The Training Session
The training session reported in the San Antonio Report was the first of several that were hosted by both the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association and the San Antonio Hotel & Lodging Association. The critical information relevant to human trafficking coming out of these events includes the following:
The majority of victims in human trafficking investigations are underage, but this may be because of differences in how reporting in relation to underage incidents is handled (when the potential victim is a minor, it instigates an automatic investigation by the authorities). When the potential victim is an adult, he or she can request that law enforcement not pursue a case in the matter.
According to Lt. Bill Grayson, Director of the San Antonio Special Victims Unit (speaking at the event), the San Antonio police department investigates about 120 human trafficking cases each year. When Grayson began investigating human trafficking in 2011, however, only about 32 cases crossed his desk each year. It is unclear if this uptick in numbers is due to a significant increase in cases or if greater awareness of human trafficking led to an increase in reporting (or a combination of the two).
The true extent of human trafficking in San Antonio (or anywhere in the State of Texas) is difficult to assess due to the very sensitive nature of the criminal activity and to other complexities involved.
The director of a nonprofit that provides support services in Bexar County for survivors of child sex trafficking shared that her center served 95 young people in 2019 alone.
An exhaustive study out of the University of Texas at Austin estimates that there are, among people who are 23 and younger throughout the state at any given time, roughly 234,000 victims of labor trafficking and about 79,000 victims of sex trafficking.
The University of Texas at Austin’s study breaks down high-risk labor trafficking segments into a 36 percent victimization rate for cleaning services, a 35 percent victimization rate for construction work, a 32 percent victimization rate for kitchen work, a 28 percent victimization rate for migrant farm work, and a 27 percent victimization rate for landscaping work.
Those industries in which labor trafficking – when workers (who are typically migrants) are forced into labor – most commonly include construction, food processing, and cleaning.
The presenters at the training session emphasized that workers at hotels and motels are on the front lines when it comes to identifying victims of human trafficking. The crux of the matter is that these workers have the ability to intervene and can actually make a difference in the process of intervening. Another issue that hotel and motel managers and owners should consider relevant is legal liability. In 2019, three women in Houston sued a major hotel chain for failing to do enough to help prevent them from being trafficked. It is worth noting that Texas is also poised to become the first state in the nation to make purchasing sex a felony.
The State of Texas
According to the World Population Review, Texas is second only to California when it comes to the number of human trafficking cases. The four states with the highest numbers (including both Florida and New York) also have the largest populations, and this – coupled with their large immigrant populations and the proliferation of those industries most closely associated with human trafficking – seem to be the driving forces behind the high incidence of human trafficking in these states.
According to a 2020 exposé by Univision that is entitled Potato Slaves, many workers at a specific potato processing plant in Texas remain silent in the face of abuse by their employers due to fear of losing their temporary H-2A visas. In fact, most of the workers are not aware that they are working under forced labor conditions – or even that being charged by their supervisors for a visa is illegal. Ultimately, these workers do not trust the authorities any more than they do their employers and remain silent in response. Unfortunately, this is a sad reality that some 35,000 people face each year in the State of Texas.
The farm in question was founded in 1966, takes up about 37,500 acres of land in Texas, and is one of the largest producers of potatoes in the United States – with sales of between four and five million bags of potatoes each year to stores like Walmart. More than 70 percent of workers on the farm (the core contingent) are from Mexico, and they are brought to the farm by the company that runs it with temporary H-2A visas. The majority of the other 30 percent (some of whom are teenagers) are undocumented and use fake social security numbers to get the work. The upshot is that a major supervisor and his family members ran the farm with an iron fist – requiring workers to pay for their temporary visas and thus to gain access to jobs on the farm. Due to Univision’s reporting, the main supervisor has since been arrested and charged for the part he is alleged to have played in this operation. Generally, these illegal fees for visas are paid to supervisors, employers, or recruiters, and this immense operation is a prime example of just how blatant the illegal practice of human trafficking can be.
It is important to note that the cost of the temporary visas in question is shouldered entirely by the employers who use them. Agents, facilitators, recruiters, petitioners, and other employment service positions are prohibited from collecting or attempting to collect either a job-placement fee or any other form of direct or indirect compensation at any point from an H-2A worker as a condition of their employment. The workers on the potato farm were surprised to learn that the fees were illegal – in light of the fact that nearly all of the workers were paying the fees. Nonetheless, fear continues to stop most employees on the potato farm (and other similar ventures) from speaking out.
The Charge of Human Trafficking in Texas
In Texas, the charge of human trafficking is called trafficking of persons, and it can play out in one or more of the following ways:
The accused traffics another person – which can mean a child – with the intention of forcing the trafficked person into labor or services (or knowingly benefits from this venture)
The accused traffics another person – which can mean a child – via force, coercion, or fraud and, thus, causes the trafficked person to engage in prohibited activity, such as prostitution or to be forced into a situation involving some form of sexual abuse if the victim is a child (or knowingly benefits from this venture).
Penalties and Fines for Human Trafficking
A charge of trafficking of persons is, by default, a second-degree felony. The maximum possible penalty for a conviction is up to 20 years in prison with fines of up to $10,000. The charge, however, can be enhanced to a first-degree felony if the victim is a minor (regardless of whether the accused is aware of this fact or not) or if the alleged trafficking results in the death of the victim.