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IRC NorCal plays key role in fight against human trafficking

It all started with a Craigslist ad.

A couple from Boston discovered an opportunity to sell magazines in the Sacramento region. Although they only had enough money for a one-way flight to California, the person who posted the ad promised to pay for their return flight once they arrived.

Upon arrival, the couple received several magazines that they were required to sell door to door during the next 10 hours. When they failed to sell any of the magazines, they decided to call it quits. However, their supervisor denied having promised them a ticket for their return flight, and he told them they each owed him $100 for the magazines they failed to sell that day.

Thankfully, in this incident 10 years ago, the couple knew something was wrong and notified a local nonprofit, which helped them get back to Boston. But other folks aren’t so fortunate, said Rodger Freeman, Anti-Trafficking Outreach and Training Specialist for the IRC in Sacramento.  

“This was one day, but sometimes this can last days, months, and even years,” Rodger said during a recent presentation to fellow IRC Northern California staff members about signs of human trafficking.

The IRC’s Northern California offices have been on the front lines of combatting this kind of exploitation for the past seven years. Its Sacramento and San Jose offices started anti-trafficking work in 2013, and the IRC in Oakland became involved two years later. Last year, the IRC in Turlock/Modesto formally joined in this work, receiving a $350,000 grant from the federal Office of Victims of Crime to combat human trafficking after assisting trafficking clients on a more limited basis since 2018.

With their combined efforts, the IRC’s Northern California offices are providing services in 41 counties—or 70 percent of all counties throughout the state.

“The regional approach to collaboration is really, really awesome,” said Reianna Peets, Anti-Trafficking and New Initiative Coordinator for the IRC in Turlock/Modesto.

Empowering survivors in Northern California

Anti-trafficking caseworkers assist clients with a range of services including housing, employment assistance and sometimes family reunification, and they can connect survivors with social and health services. Caseworkers take a “strength-based approach”, allowing clients to decide which services they want to receive and which goals they want to achieve. While clients come from a variety of backgrounds and have varied stories, the one commonality they share is they have been exploited for money. 

Reianna of the Turlock/Modesto office began working with anti-trafficking survivors in the Central Valley three years ago with support from the federal Trafficking Victim Assistance Program (TVAP), which focuses on foreign nationals. With the launch of the new Central California Anti-Trafficking Resources and Empowerment Program (CCARE), the IRC in Turlock/Modesto will be able to focus on both foreign and U.S. nationals in an area that includes Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolumne, Mono and Mariposa counties.

Currently, the Turlock office (including new caseworker Guadalupe Dohner-Chavez) is doing outreach to social service agencies and law enforcement in the five-county CCARE coverage with plans to take on new clients starting in October of this year.

To the north, the IRC in Sacramento similarly receives OVC grant funding for its Human-trafficking Outreach, Prevention and Education (HOPE) program, which has been in effect for the past seven years. HOPE serves a massive 31-county area that extends all the way to the Oregon border, assisting an average of 70 to 80 clients per year, according to Stephanie Bratnick, IRC Sacramento’s Anti-Trafficking Program Manager.

The Sacramento office has three full-time caseworkers, and another part-time caseworker who spends the remainder of his time doing outreach to farmworkers. The caseload for HOPE caseworkers is nearly evenly split between survivors of labor trafficking and sex trafficking, Stephanie said.

Like Sacramento, the San Jose office has been offering services for trafficking survivors for the past seven years, Casework Coordinator Asefeh Mazraeh said. The office serves clients in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. Most of the office’s 40 current clients are San Mateo County residents working in domestic servitude, construction and hospitality industries, she said.

Most anti-trafficking clients served by the IRC in Oakland are similarly survivors of labor trafficking. Clients have faced exploitation in industries including restaurants, care homes and construction, said Victoria Richey, the Oakland office’s Anti-Trafficking Coordinator. The office exclusively serves foreign national clients in Alameda and San Francisco counties through the federal Trafficking Victim Assistance Program.

Dismantling stereotypes

Anti-trafficking caseworkers and managers note that trafficking survivors can literally be found anywhere, not just in stereotypical areas such as ports of entry or highly traveled freeway corridors.

“Human trafficking is something that’s hidden in plain sight,” Victoria said.

Trafficking survivors are not only foreign nationals and those who are poor, but also teachers, nurses and professionals, according to Regina Bernadin, the IRC’s Technical Advisor for Anti-Trafficking programs. She recounted how one survivor was even a judge’s daughter who was seeking a modeling job in California.

“Anybody can be targeted and anybody can be preyed upon because we all have those vulnerabilities,” Regina said.

She noted that the IRC initially got involved in anti-trafficking work in 2003 primarily in border areas or places with ports of entry, such as Miami and Seattle. However, over time, that footprint expanded as people came to realize that trafficking can literally occur anywhere, Regina said. Today, the IRC’s Resettlement, Asylum and Integration division has anti-trafficking programs in 12 U.S. cities as well as in Serbia and Italy.

Like survivors of trafficking, those who seek to victimize others through human trafficking can come from a variety of backgrounds. They could include business owners, diplomatic staff and even trusted community officials such as teachers, according to IRC anti-trafficking program supervisors.  

“Trafficking occurs anywhere where there is industry without a lot of oversight and where industry overlaps with systems of inequality,” said Stephanie of the HOPE program in Sacramento.

While the stereotype of trafficking survivors is that they are kidnapped or in physical bondage or are moved from one location to another, that is frequently not the case. Instead, traffickers often hold their victims in psychological bondage. For instance, they may take away someone’s travel documents or threaten injury to survivors’ families or promise to turn in undocumented immigrants to authorities if they don’t comply with their demands.

“Usually, they are promised something else and they get trapped,” said Asefeh of the San Jose office. “They are afraid for their life or of being deported. It’s not a choice that they make.”

Survivors provide inspiration

IRC NorCal’s anti-trafficking staff say they are moved by the strength that they see in the clients they serve, leading them to describe clients as “survivors” rather than “victims.”

“This work is over and over again about really bearing witness to the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” said Stephanie of the IRC in Sacramento.

Victoria of the Oakland office experienced this resilience first-hand recently when she had the opportunity to help reunite a client with her daughter from South America, joining her as she picked up her daughter at the San Francisco airport. While law enforcement officials had not been particularly helpful in this case, the client was persistent and ultimately received her T-Visa, allowing her to stay in the U.S., she said.

“I felt really grateful to be a part of that process, and to see that the client had pushed so hard and was that strong. It was an honor to witness that,” Victoria said.

Anti-trafficking caseworkers urge community members to educate themselves about trafficking and report suspicious behaviors to the National Trafficking Hotline.

For information: Call the National Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 or text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733