How Baltimore-based groups fight human trafficking in Maryland and across the U.S.

Published 2/19/2023 6:00 a.m. EST

A woman holds a large, framed certificate with a man. Another woman stands at a lectern.

A young Colombian woman was told being an au pair was a “wonderful opportunity” in the United States — she could take classes and improve her English skills while working as a live-in nanny for an American family.

However, after being matched with a family in Prince George’s County, the couple forced her to work long hours doing heavy housework, she alleged. She said they also gave her only cheap, mostly processed foods without permission to eat fresh fruits and vegetables they had purchased for themselves, and monitored her every move through a network of surveillance cameras throughout the house.

The woman faced abuse, isolation and threats of deportation as she was controlled, overworked and underpaid by her employers, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Colombian woman and another au pair who claims that she faced similar working conditions with the same family. The suit was filed by a Baltimore-based migrant workers’ rights organization, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, which recently received national recognition for its work.

The organization’s legal director, Ben Botts, alleges that the au pairs’ experiences amounted to labor trafficking and forced labor, which is defined as a form of “modern slavery,” according to the Department of State. Worldwide, an estimated 27.6 million people are victims of human trafficking.

Bowie-based attorney Gabriel Christian, who represents the employers in the au pair lawsuit, said his clients are not human traffickers. “They treated these ladies like family members. They were not modern-day slaves. … My clients did not abuse them. They treated them exceedingly well, took them on vacations,” he said.

The litigation is ongoing, according to Botts.

In addition to representing trafficking survivors in legal disputes, the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante — which has offices in cities in Mexico in addition to Baltimore — advocates for changes in labor policy, has created platforms to make the labor recruitment system more transparent and has organized seasonal crab pickers who are vital to Maryland’s crab industry and face precarious working conditions, according reports from the center.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented Centro de los Derechos del Migrante with the 2022 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Another Baltimore organization, Mercy Medical Center’s Blue Dot Human Trafficking Initiative, received the same recognition “for its innovative and holistic approach to the care and well-being of victims of human trafficking,” Blinken said in a statement.

“These organizations inspire us all to take action and end trafficking in persons once and for all,” the statement said.

Centro de los Derechos del Migrante was founded in 2005 by farm labor lawyer Rachel Micah-Jones, who now serves as executive director of the organization and attended a ceremony at the White House on Feb. 13 featuring Blinken and a score of other high-level officials, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“It was a tremendous honor to receive the award,” Micah-Jones said, adding, “I just wish all of our team and all of our workers could have been there.”

There are a lot of internationally recruited workers in Maryland, according to Micah-Jones, from farm workers to crab pickers and landscapers. “There’s a lot of potential, too, for improvements in how workers are treated here and under the laws of Maryland,” she said.

Similar to the alleged conditions faced by the women who traveled to Prince George’s County to work as au pairs, many migrant workers are threatened with immigration enforcement if they leave their jobs, are paid sub-minimum wages and face coercion, Micah-Jones said.

“Employers control not only their livelihoods, [but also] their legal status in the U.S., their housing, and really key aspects of their lives,” she said. “It creates a tremendous imbalance of power which causes vulnerability to situations of forced labor and human trafficking.”

An agricultural labor shortage in the U.S. has led farmers to increasingly turn to migrant workers for help. Micah-Jones said that when she started her organization nearly 20 years ago, there were only about 50,000 visas given out for farm workers; this year, there will probably be more than half a million. However, the growth has not been accompanied by increased worker protections, she said.

“We hope to see some improvements in the program now because they’re desperately needed,” Micah-Jones said.

Debra Holbrook, director of forensic nursing at Mercy Medical Center, was also recognized by Blinken at last week’s White House ceremony.

Four years ago, the hospital partnered with the City of Baltimore to create the Blue Dot Human Trafficking Initiative, a program to care for trafficking survivors. Specific details about how the program works are kept undisclosed to protect victims from traffickers, Holbrook said. Now, they’re being asked to work with medical care providers all across the country to create similar systems.

“It takes specially trained trauma-informed stakeholders to provide that care … that’s what we’ve put together in this city that is like any other in America, a system of people who all work together for the betterment of one victim,” she said.

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