They were promised a job and entry into the United States in order to build a better life for themselves and their families. Instead, they found that they had become modern day slaves. They are the Peruvian victims of a human trafficking ring based out of Long Island, New York. And in a way, they are lucky, because unlike most other victims in similar situations, they were rescued. For that, they can thank Leigh Senzatimore and her team in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York office.
In June 2004, Senzatimore’s group initiated an investigation into a suspected trafficking organization. They found the largest human trafficking operation ever uncovered in the United States. The Peruvian victims of this enterprise were promised visas to come work in the United States and told that they could establish independent lives once they paid off their debts to the persons who got them into America. The Peruvians worked up to 16 hours a day and handed over all their money to their traffickers, but they were often charged more than the agreed amount and charged interest ‘for not paying the debt down fast enough’. They were forced to live in inhumane conditions, with 34 people living in one single-family home. One of the victims actually lived in the 10-by-10 foot tool shed.
The traffickers confiscated the Peruvians passports and threatened to turn them in to immigration officials if they left. They also confiscated the deeds on the immigrants’ homes in Peru, and threatened to throw family members back home out on the street if they caused any trouble.
This is a textbook case of human trafficking, and sadly, it is hardly an isolated one. It is estimated that roughly 15,000 persons are trafficked into the United States every year.
ICE agents quickly identified three subjects as the leaders of this criminal enterprise. As a result of the investigation, agents were able to obtain and execute search warrants on three locations in the New York area. These warrants resulted in the arrest of the three smugglers and the rescue of more than 60 Peruvian nationals.
Working closely with the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit at ICE Headquarters, ICE agents identified and processed 61 certified victims of human trafficking. Agents were successful in preparing “continued presence” paperwork, allowing temporary legal immigrant status for the identified trafficking victims so they could continue working.
Among the 61 victims, agents identified several children, some as young as nine months of age. Moreover, through the exceptional liaison established by Senzatimore’s team with non-governmental organizations, 25 additional victims exploited by this criminal organization were identified and granted continued presence.
On November 5, 2004, two of the defendants, citizens of Peru, pled guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Forced Labor and Document Servitude. In addition to pleading guilty to the felony violations, the defendants agreed to forfeit their residence in Amityville, New York. On November 9, 2005, the lead defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Human trafficking is one of those crimes that is so incongruous with America’s values that it is hard to imagine that it could possibly happen on U.S. soil. But the reality is that every day, thousands of people in America are living in conditions akin to slavery. ICE is committed to decreasing, and eventually eliminating the capability of criminal organizations to engage in human trafficking by utilizing all its authorities to stop these offenses. Leigh Senzatimore and her team are on the frontlines of this effort, and chances are this is only the first of many victories they will score in this moral struggle.