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When the officer became aware of the situation, she orchestrated an escape and took care of the family in her own home for six months until she could no longer afford it. The family has since moved to another part of the country where, according to the lieutenant, they are "thriving," albeit illegally. The officer has been trying to get some sort of immigration relief for the family of three for over a year but has not been successful.
Another form of human trafficking that illustrates the difficulty in uncovering victims is the abuse of mail-order brides. When Mia* arrived in Clearwater she thought she was leaving behind poverty and the lack of opportunity she faced in Malaysia, her home country.
A Chinese woman in her early 20s, she thought she would become a U.S. citizen. That's what her American fiancé promised her after they met through an international marriage broker, an agency that trades in mail-order brides. She moved here and married the fiancé. And then Mia, who had legal documentation to be in the States, found out her husband had no intention of getting her citizenship.
Instead he beat and raped her and kept her confined to the house -- that is, when he wasn't forcing her to work in a dry cleaners, keeping her income while he remained unemployed.
"She was brought to this country and she ended up being pretty much a sex slave to her husband," says Chris Warwick, director of outreach at The Haven, a women's refuge in Clearwater where Mia ended up after seven months of enslavement to her husband. Staff at The Haven eventually realized that Mia wasn't the first woman from Malaysia Mia's husband had abused; the domestic violence center had previously sheltered a woman with a similar story who had been married to the same man.
Warwick says that over the past two years The Haven harbored at least a dozen people who had been trafficked, and probably some that were not recognized as victims. As a domestic violence shelter, The Haven is not allowed to reveal to anyone, not even law enforcement, who is staying there. The center only alerts police if that is the express will of the victim, so many of these cases have gone unreported.
CASA women's shelter in St. Petersburg has helped mail-order brides in the past, as well as former prostitutes who seemed to have been trafficking victims. The Spring in Tampa also reports it has helped at least one abused mail-order bride.
The Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services' Center for Survivors of Torture also has experience with abused mail-order brides. "We have worked with women who have entered the U.S. as mail-order brides, and once they arrived they were in fact held captive, beaten, raped for years," said program administrator Stacie Blake. "In effect this was servitude. They were so vulnerable because they didn't have friends -- some of them didn't speak English when they arrived and they weren't certain of their immigration status because the man who was holding them captive had kept all of their paperwork and so forth. That's a scenario that is not uncommon."
The isolation of human trafficking victims is typical. Used as a tool by traffickers to coerce and intimidate, it also leads to a serious information gap.
"Many people are incredibly fearful of law enforcement in their own countries and so that will translate into being fearful of law enforcement here in the United States," says Immigration lawyer Kathlyn Mackovjak of Gulfcoast Legal Services, a legal aid organization in Pinellas County. "As well as the fact that the United States has increasingly more enforcement on illegal immigrants or undocumented persons and people are scared because of that."
"Plus," says The Haven's Warwick, "they're here with no support system; they don't speak the language; they don't know the customs; they don't have any opportunity to get out and find out that they have rights in this country."
Ida Lopez is the bilingual human trafficking specialist at World Relief in New Port Richey, which two years ago was awarded federal grant money to start NETS.
"You have to interview the victims to find out if they're real trafficking [victims]," says Lopez. "Sometimes in the beginning, they're very afraid -- that's the problem. They don't want to go to the police. There's a part of this field when we have to have the police prosecute, and the victims are afraid that the police are going to send them back to their countries, or something will happen to their family because they have been told [by the traffickers] that if they say something their family will be harmed."
Adrian Wyllie was not mentioned. He is running for Governor.
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