Their office is the sidewalk under dimly lit streets. Their uniform is a short skirt and knee-high boots. Their product is sex.
Girls as young as 12 are sent to the streets to sleep with as many as 20 men a night for money. But the money isn’t for them; it’s for their pimps, or “johns,” as they are commonly called.
This form of slavery is not a concept of the past but an issue that generates an annual income of 150 billion dollars globally. There are no specific numbers on how many victims are currently in the U.S., but studies estimate nearly 20,000 men, women and children are added into the slave industry each year, making it the world’s fastest growing crime.
“What we know about sex crimes is that it’s not about sexual pleasure. It’s about control,” said Anique Whitmore, a forensic psychologist in Atlanta. “What is similar to some of those girls that I work with is their self-esteem or lack thereof. You either become vulnerable to a man on the street or a man you meet in school. You become vulnerable because you’re looking for attention.”
The pimps are good at what they do. They are professionals at finding their targeted person and luring them with empty promises of a good job and a safe place to live. Whether they reach out through an ad on a website or approach runaways on the street, they know just what to say to ensnare victims.
“One young person said, ‘he was the first one to ever give me a birthday cake.’ They just know what the young person needs,” said Jayne Bigelson, director of anti-human trafficking initiatives at Covenant House. Stationed in New York City, it is one of the largest shelters for at risk youths in America.
Shawna, who was lured into sex trafficking at the age of 14, said she remembers the day she couldn’t take it anymore. After 22 years in the industry, she was at a gas station waiting.
“I was so tired. I said, ‘If there is a God, save me.’ I walked back to the street and the police picked me up and took me to jail. I was so tired; I just couldn’t do it anymore. But I made it.”
The U.S. is one of the highest consumers of sex trafficking, as well as one of the richest countries in the world. Because of this, traffickers will transport victims across the border into America to take part of this lucrative industry. President Trump claims that building a wall will prevent the smuggling of victims into America.
“This really is an invasion of our country by human traffickers. These are people that are horrible people bringing in women mostly…bringing in women and children into our country,” Trump said. “We’re going to have a strong border. And the only way you have a strong border is you need a physical barrier. You need a wall.”
Timothy Ballard, founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad, worked as a special agent/undercover operator for Homeland Security Investigations in the child trafficking unit for 12 years. For a decade, he was stationed at the Calexico, California border.
“Based on my extensive experience fighting transnational crime along the southern border, I know that we should absolutely finish building the wall for the sake of the children,” he said. “Indeed, this is no peripheral issue—this alone should be front and center in our border and immigration debate.”
From Central America, Lililana was only 13-years-old when she was captured and smuggled across the border. She was taken to New York City where American men raped her up to 40 times per day. When she was taken across the border, there was no wall or border patrol to save her.
Liliana was stuck in the daily hell of being bought by men for sex for five years.
“We do these traffickers a great favor by leaving our border virtually wide open,” said Ballard.
If there had been a wall, Liliana’s traffickers would have had to go through a port of entry where a group of officers are stationed and she would have been saved, said Ballard.
“In fact, at about the same time that Liliana was trafficked, I was participating in the rescue of a 5-year-old boy, whose trafficker had kidnapped him in Mexicali, Mexico, where there actually was a wall,” he added.
Officers used their training to spot the traffickers and rescue the little boy. They were also able to identify that trafficking network and save many more children.
“Without a wall to protect her, Liliana didn’t get to enter America in a way that would have allowed her to experience the promises of the Statue of Liberty,” said Ballard. “Instead of breathing and living freely with a loving, American foster family, she found herself enslaved by American sex predators.”
Victim’s names have been changed for their safety.