Between 2014 and 2016, state prosecutors in Colorado filed 97 cases using the new human trafficking statutes. But of those cases, only one constituted labor trafficking. Recognizing the state’s lagging efforts to address labor trafficking, the Colorado Human Trafficking Council (CHTC) dedicated two of its monthly meetings in 2017 to learn more about how it might close this gap. CHTC members sought to learn more about who is most vulnerable to labor trafficking in Colorado and the current obstacles to successfully detecting and prosecuting the crime.
Who is Vulnerable to Labor Trafficking in Colorado?
Several populations are at heightened risk for labor trafficking statewide:
- Youth–both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals
- Persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities
- Migrant workers, with or without lawful immigration status
For example, law enforcement officials have intercepted Central American minors it suspects were brought to the state to engage in forced drug sales. In 2016, Colorado prosecutors filed charges against a man they allege sexually assaulted and compelled a woman with intellectual disabilities to do household labor by locking her in his home; case is still pending in the state judicial system.
Additionally, each year thousands arrive to Colorado on temporary visas to work on farms, in private homes, restaurants, hotels, and other service settings. While in the majority of cases, both the foreign national worker and their employer abide by immigration and workplace laws, in some instances workers suffer extreme abuse. A perfect storm of factors make temporary immigration visa holders easy to exploit. Most temporary visas holders are tied by their immigration status to their employer and/or family member. Similarly, they are often isolated, either by language, geography, a lack of contact with the public, or a combination of those factors.
For example, in Colorado’s only federal labor trafficking criminal conviction in 2011, defendant Kizzy Kalu brought several Philippine nurses on an H-1B visa for high-skilled workers on the false promise of jobs as nursing instructors. Once in our state, he forced them to labor as home health aides at a fraction of the pay. Kalu’s victims lacked local social support, feared losing their immigration status, and were in debt bondage after paying him exorbitant fees for sponsoring their temporary work visas. Ordinarily, an H1B is supposed to act as a way for skilled individuals to gain citizenship to work in the US.
Obstacles to Holding Labor Traffickers Accountable
The CHTC heard from various experts in 2017—survivors, law enforcement officials, a service provider, and two attorneys who defend immigrants’ workplace rights—about the perceived obstacles and potential strategies to more effectively tackle labor trafficking. A key theme from these talks is that in Colorado and nationally, we must heed lessons from the strides made to address sex trafficking. First, we must stop viewing victims of labor trafficking as complicit in their victimization and start viewing them as worthy of assistance and justice. Second, we must shift from reactive identification and intervention approaches to proactive ones.
In many communities across Colorado, law enforcement and human service professionals meet monthly to identify youth who are vulnerable to sex trafficking even before they fall prey to the crime. Law enforcement also conducts coordinated proactive sex trafficking stings. During these operations law enforcement agencies share intelligence and resources to recover victims and arrest those suspected of sex trafficking. There is a lack of equivalent proactive approaches to detect and intervene in situations of labor trafficking.
The “Al Capone” Approach to Addressing Labor Trafficking
In May of 2017, Alameda County (CA) Deputy District Attorney Dan Roisman described his office’s promising new model for addressing labor trafficking during a presentation to the CHTC. His office uses what they have coined as the “Al Capone” approach—named after the infamous mob boss who was brought down using tax evasion charges. They do this by responding to reports of troublesome employers by investigating workplace crimes, such as workers’ compensation insurance fraud, payroll tax fraud, wage theft, and workplace health violations. By widening their investigative net, they can secure vital information that may lead to eventual labor trafficking charges.
But as Roisman explained, he cannot initiate these proactive investigations without the buy-in and mutual trust of federal and local law enforcement personnel, workplace inspectors, and other community partners. His office convenes the multi-sector Human Exploitation and Trafficking (H.E.A.T) Watch-Labor Team to coordinate resources and build relationships among a wide range of actors—from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations and federal and state departments of labor to legal aid organizations, regional consulate offices, and leaders from immigrant communities.
A Labor Trafficking Task Force for Colorado
Drawing inspiration from Alameda County’s strategy, the CHTC voted to form a Labor Trafficking Task Force. In 2018, the focus of the task force’s work will be on comparing the legal tools and penalties of states like California and New York with Colorado’s existing workplace criminal and regulatory codes. Based on its findings, the CHTC hopes to create a blueprint for the Colorado community to formulate its own, counter-labor trafficking approach. Where it finds gaps in Colorado law, the CHTC aims to make recommendations for targeted statutory reform. Through the formation of the Labor Trafficking Task Force, the Council also hopes to enlist new partners—like the Financial Fraud Unit of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—in the state’s fight against labor trafficking.