Local groups, law enforcement zero in on human trafficking

It’s been thousands of years since Moses parted the Red Sea. And while pyramid-building has grown passé, there are still Jewish slaves — right here in the Bay Area.

Anita Friedman has seen dozens of unfortunate Jewish women sitting across the desk from her with stories painfully similar to that of the Eastern European student who only wanted to study in America.

“She had a child and was dependent on a man who brought her here. She was abused and basically had to do domestic work not only to have money, but for the money going back to an elderly mother in Russia,” said Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

That Russian Jewish woman was one of the lucky ones — she escaped.

The JFCS found her and her child temporary housing, and immigration lawyers managed to keep her in the country.

But thousands and thousands of women — and it’s almost exclusively women — are still suffering through 21st-century indentured servitude. Estimates of how many trafficked women are in the United States are sketchy, but the number may be as high as 20,000. And the Bay Area is no safe haven.

“It’s a large problem,” said Tim Silard, an assistant San Francisco district attorney and the office’s chief of policy. “San Francisco is a port city and a tourist city and a hub of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“What we see here is a tremendous amount of sexual exploitation: prostitution, massage parlors, street prostitution and other venues.”

Trafficking is not just an international problem; many young American girls, some “blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the Midwestern look,” and more and more African Americans are being shuttled from town to town for the illicit sexual trade, according to Silard. The sex workers are kept moving faster than authorities can track them between San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno, San Diego, Los Angeles and Seattle.

The reality of human trafficking in the Bay Area and how it can be combated will be discussed at a luncheon and panel discussion on Wednesday, Sept. 20 at JFCS in San Francisco. San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris will be a featured speaker.

“Twenty-five years ago, nobody was talking about domestic violence,” said Ann Singer, executive director of the San Francisco section of the National Council of Jewish Women. “Nobody believed it existed and there weren’t agencies to help people. [Human trafficking] is the domestic violence issue of the new millennium.” The NCJW, along with JFCS, New Israel Fund and Jewish Community Relations Council, recently formed the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking.

While many trafficked women are in the country illegally, lawyers in the district attorney’s office have some powerful legal tools to help them.

Though victims are eligible for a special visa while they cooperate with law enforcement, long delays in getting the women’s immigration status sorted out often lead them to return to their traffickers out of need for food and shelter.

A recently passed state Senate bill could help.

“This bill appropriates funding from the state in giving out basic assistance — food, rent, medical. A lot of women have serious medical problems when they come to us. They’ve been in sex work or dark and dirty places for jobs,” said Mike Troncoso, an assistant San Francisco district attorney and the office’s legislative director. That bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Also, AB 22, the California Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act, went into effect Jan. 1. It makes trafficking a felony and provides funding for shelters and programs to help victims resurrect their lives.

Silard also notes that the DA’s office will utilize an “act of forfeiture” in trafficking cases, as it has long done in drug cases, and seize defendants’ assets if it can prove the assets were obtained illegally. The assets can eventually find their way to trafficking victims, who can even sue their abusers for “losses, pain and suffering.”

Trafficking also is a major problem in Israel, but Friedman points out that America’s economic lures ensure thousands of impoverished, vulnerable women will be drawn here year after year.

“We think it’s important for the Jewish community to work in coalitions with other groups that have experience [working] with the underclass and people who are vulnerable and dependent,” she said.

And at the JFCS “we’re seeing more and more cases.”

A panel on human trafficking takes place at a luncheon at noon Wednesday, Sept. 20 at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 2150 Post St., S.F. Cost is $20. RSVP: (415) 449-1250 or email [email protected]

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.