Fighting human trafficking in Houston

Houston has become home to one of the largest hubs of human trafficking in the nation, which has prompted city officials to make fighting the issue a top priority.

A recent University of Texas study found that there are over 300,000 victims in Texas, with nearly 15,000 of them from Houston. While the exact racial breakdown is unknown, human rights advocates say Black women and other women of color make up the bulk of trafficking victims.

Human trafficking is known as a “modern-day form of slavery” and it is a problem locally because of the close proximity to the Mexican border and access to major thoroughfares. Perpetrators use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against their will. Men, women and children are bought and sold in the U.S. every day.

Houston’s human trafficking problem is not always the Hollywood portrayal of kidnapped women and international auctions. One victim, Katherine, said that in the beginning, she knew and trusted her offender.

“I was groomed for a year,” Katherine recalled. “I thought I was in a great relationship for a whole year. With me, he identified my weaknesses and he used that. He was like ‘Okay well, she doesn’t have a father, I’ll be that father for her.’ ”

It was supposed to be a fresh start, but life quickly changed for Katherine after she moved to Houston with the intention of helping her boyfriend with his music career.

“Once he got me away from my environment and my comfort zone, he was very blunt about what was going to happen,” she said. “To go out there every single night and have your body violated…he was a monster. He was willing to just put me out there with strangers at any price.

“They’ve taken precautions not to get caught. That’s part of the control in the first place, like ‘You know you can’t go home, right? Because you’re mine. And you know what’ll happen if you go home and you know what’ll happen to your children, right?’ ”

Many human trafficking victims come from broken homes, or in the case of immigrants, come to the U.S. in search of a better life.

There are several initiatives in place designed to make an impact on human trafficking.

A year ago, Mayor Sylvester Turner initiated a strategic plan that framed the city’s anti-human trafficking response using five objectives and 91 tactics. Those objectives were to:

  • Institutionalize response and implement training
  • Raise awareness and change public perception
  • Coordinate victim services
  • Implement joint Houston Area Council on Human Trafficking (HAC-HT) initiatives
  • Establish Houston as the national model for anti-trafficking.

Minal Davis, the special advisor to the mayor on human trafficking, said 59 out of the 91 tactics have been completed so far. She said the plan is moving forward and engages several City of Houston departments.

“Our Health Department has required training for all 1,200 employees, and the reason that that’s important is because our health department has restaurant inspectors on staff that go out and inspect all 13,000 food establishments annually, and restaurants are a common site for trafficking,” Davis said.

In addition to training, the city’s efforts included raising awareness and changing public perception through a media campaign, “Watch for Traffick,” which contains socially conscious advertisements. These ads can be featured on billboards, in print and on social media.

Davis said their media campaign generated over 74 million media impressions and increased calls to the national trafficking tip hotline by 80 percent.

Davis also reported a 13 percent decrease in “open” illicit massage establishments and a 38 percent increase in “closed” illicit massage establishments. This means fewer illicit parlors are advertising sex for sale.

Though the city has made considerable progress, Davis expects it to be harder to fight human trafficking with the recent passage of SB 4, also known as the anti-sanctuary cities legislation, which requires local law enforcement to carry out the work of federal immigration agencies. Davis said trafficking victims may be less inclined to seek help if they fear deportation.

“The city launched a Municipal Court diversion program to establish trust with potential victims by supporting their civil and legal needs,” she said. “We’re on the right track but we still have a long way to go.”

For more information or to get involved visit humantraffickinghouston.org.