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Susannah Wesley Community Center Plays Key Role in Human Trafficking Case

Women and girls gather under the sign readingSusannah Wesley Home and Training School for Japanese and Korean Women and Children.
An early photo of the Susannah Wesley Home. Courtesy Susannah Wesley Center

By Catherine Heggarty, with Sonya Chung-Hirano and Dominic Inocelda

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
—Exodus 22:21

The biggest human trafficking case in U.S. history is currently in federal court in Honolulu, Hawaii. A United Methodist Women–affiliated mission, the Susannah Wesley Community Center played a major role in helping the victims find legal support, and the center continues service with ongoing aid.

Human Trafficking

The U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2010 estimates that 12.3 million people are trafficked around the world. Human trafficking generates more than $32 billion worldwide each year, making it second only to the drug trade. The U.S. government estimates that 15,000 to 18,000 victims are trafficked each year, a figure that does not include victims of domestic trafficking (U.S. citizens who are enslaved within this country).

"Human trafficking" is used as an umbrella term for activities involved when one person obtains or holds another person in compelled service. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 describes this with a number of different terms: involuntary servitude, slavery, debt bondage and forced labor.

Human trafficking is more than sex trafficking. For every victim of sex trafficking worldwide there are nine forced labor and/or domestic servitude cases. In 2009, Hawaii had approximately 10 percent of all human trafficking cases certified by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the United States, mostly as seasonal farmworkers.

Current Case

In September 2010, a federal grand jury in Honolulu indicted Los Angeles–based contractor Global Horizons Manpower, an employment agency, on human trafficking charges. Approximately 100 Thai nationals were hired to work on Hawaii farms as well as on 300 more around the United States. Migrating workers entered the United States legally with temporary work visas, paying fees as high as $21,000. Many of them mortgaged homes and land that had been in their possession for generations.

"It is important to emphasize that these workers were in the United States legally. They were victimized here, in our country, on our watch. We need to help as much as we can."

The promised salaries far exceeded what they could hope to make in Thailand. The salaries would allow quick repayment of their loans and would change their lives dramatically for the better. In reality, the promised wages were just bait, and many workers were paid far below the contract expectations.

The men were sometimes housed in shipping containers that were crowded and lacking toilets, electricity or running water, and with no support network they couldn’t easily ask for help. When they arrived to work on Hawaiian farms, the workers were stripped of their visas and passports and threatened with deportation.

Seeking Help

One of the Honolulu lawyers representing the more than 60 forced laborers in this the largest human trafficking case in U.S. history says that identifying and labeling human trafficking isn’t easy. This recognition and naming by the Susannah Wesley Community Center were the first steps toward aid for the workers. The center employee who interviewed the men had experience with female sex trafficking victims and found similarities in the farm workers’ case.

The Susannah Wesley center wasn’t the first place the men went for help; they first approached the U.S. Department of Labor as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where several victims were deported while filing reports. It took this independent, nonprofit community center to take them seriously and recognize their situation as human trafficking. The center began legal action and facilitated much of what happened between lawyers, the FBI and victims. The center was instrumental in helping two potential trafficking victims share their stories with attorneys and an FBI agent in a neutral setting. The information gained from these initial meetings led to a deeper investigation of other Thai workers in similar situations, finding that other workers met requirements as labor human trafficking victims as well.

Susannah Wesley Executive Director Ronald Higashi stated, "It is important to emphasize that these workers were in the United States legally. They were victimized here, in our country, on our watch. We need to help as much as we can."

The Susannah Wesley Community Center

In 1899 the Women’s Home Missionary Society of what is now known as The United Methodist Church sent a woman missionary, Ms. Ella Holbrook, to Hawaii to reach out to the Japanese and Korean immigrant women working on the plantations of Waipahu. Her goal was to provide English and sewing lessons to immigrant women. Within a few short years, a succession of female missionaries established a home for immigrant girls who were orphaned, abandoned or neglected by parents unable to care for them. By 1921, "The Home" was a large building that housed up to 100 girls ranging in ages from 4 to 20. These girls became known as the "Susie Girls."

In 1957 the Susannah Wesley Home transitioned into the Susannah Wesley Community Center, a multiservice agency serving the needs of a diverse population. The center has remained true to its roots by reaching out to each new wave of immigrants. The vision continues to be to help, teach and empower the people who enter their doors to build a sense of community and belonging.

The center is especially positioned to help persecuted migrant workers because of their multilingual capacity, providing bilingual case management services for adults through their Immigration and Refugee Social Service Program. This enabled the center to contract with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007 to provide case management services for victims of human trafficking. Currently, Susannah Wesley Community Center is the only agency that provides postcertification case management services to human trafficking victims in Hawaii.

The center is an active member of the Hawaii Anti-Trafficking Task Force, developing polices related to human trafficking in Hawaii. The task force consults annually with the Hawaii State Legislature to make recommendations concerning this issue. Hawaii is one of five states in the nation that does not have an anti-trafficking law. The center is also a member the Hawaii Coalition Against Human Trafficking, collaborating with other agencies to provide social services.

What Happens Now?

Now categorized by the government as victims of human trafficking, many of the Thai workers have been issued temporary visas that can lead to permanent resident status. This allows the men to bring their families to the United States and seek safe, legal employment. However, as many await the arrival of their families, expenses have become an immense burden. The cost of living in Hawaii is high, with the lowest price for a gallon of milk being $4.99. One of the men will become a single parent as his wife chose to send two children unaccompanied. Each family faces not only the difficulty of reuniting after years apart but vast cultural differences to adjust to in the United States, which proves especially difficult for many of the women.

The global economy is in bad shape, with most folks in need of work finding it hard to come by. Many of these workers have been inappropriately labeled as whistleblowers and troublemakers, making work even more difficult to obtain.

One farm charged with enacting forced labor, Aloun Farms, pleaded guilty to 44 counts of human trafficking and agreed to pay each victim $8,000 (for starters) but at sentencing withdrew their guilty pleas and demanded a jury trial. The case is still in court, and workers are still awaiting payment.

Through the temporary visas victims are eligible to receive public assistance, but frontline staff at state agencies have little or no knowledge of the benefits trafficking victims are entitled to and often refer such cases to upper administrators, creating delays in providing necessary assistance.

The center continues to aid the victims and their families, providing whatever help they can regarding navigating red tape, family adjustment counseling, meals, language translation and interpretation, and housing and work-related issues.

After news broke of their role in this case, the center received countless trafficking stories and help requests. Though the center currently does not have the resources to help everyone, correspondence was filed and a directory of names was created. Attorneys can now cross-reference names and letters can be retrieved as evidence. This work crossed state lines and went through many agencies working in tandem.

Many of the men now live in other states, and the center continues to act as a clearinghouse for information and mail forwarding. It also coordinates with agencies in other states to track the whereabouts and stories of these witnesses to stay proactive with prosecution of these modern-day slaveholders.

Continuing its efforts to serve the immigrant and trafficked community, the center is working to provide English as a second language classes, housing, opportunities for victims to give back to their new community, career training, training to complete basic written forms, emergency "small spending" funds, medical services and cultural integration.

How You Can Help

United Methodist Women Mission Giving supports National Mission Institutions like the Susannah Wesley Community Center. Your United Methodist Women unit can donate to National Mission Institutions through your conference treasurer using project number 3019239 for all National Mission Institutions or to the Susannah Wesley Community Center specifically. United Methodist Women units, church groups and individuals can donate securely online at www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/programs/NMI.

Catherine Heggarty is theUMWOnline manager and Web content help source for United Methodist Women. Sonya Chung-Hirano is the development officer and Dominic Inocelda is clinical administrator for the Susannah Wesley Community Center.

Last Updated: 04/17/2014

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