The American humorist Will Rogers once said, “It ain’t that we’re so dumb; it’s just that what we know ain’t so.”

Certainthings we know to be true. We know that the South kept slaves, and theNorth fought a righteous war of liberation. We know that the slavetrade was legal right up to the Civil War. We know that theEmancipation Proclamation freed all the slaves, and that the UnitedStates has been slavery-free ever since. These things we know – andnone of it is true.

On the other hand,most of us do not know that slavery not only exists throughout theworld today; it flourishes. Slavery is legal nowhere, yet it ispracticed everywhere. With an estimated 27 million people in bondageworldwide, it is the second or third most lucrative criminal enterpriseof our time, after drugs, and maybe guns. More than twice as manypeople are in bondage in the world today as were taken in chains duringthe entire 350 years of the African Slave Trade. In seeking to placeblame, we’re tempted to point to the “emerging nations” as theculprits, whereas in fact slavery exists in such “civilized” countriesas England, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Greece, Sweden,Denmark, Japan, China…and the United States. Most Americans areclueless that slavery is alive and more than well right here, thrivingin the dark, and practiced in many forms in places you’d least expect. 

As a student of history, I’d alwaysassumed that slavery ended with Thirteenth Amendment. Some years back,I had written nearly an entire book on the pre-Civil War slave tradewhen I stumbled on an account of slavery – in present-day America! Myfirst response - a common one, as it turns out - was denial: “No way.Slavery has had no place here since the time of Lincoln.”

Onlyafter extensive research did I discover that slavery has always existedon this continent, from the days of its European discovery right up tothe present day. Christopher Columbus enslaved the Taino Indians,setting a precedent that was followed by every European power to claimland in the New World. Slavery became the social and economic order.After the Civil War, and for decades right up to the Civil Rights eraof the 1960s, planters practiced a form of debt bondage known aspeonage, binding workers and their families to the land in an unendingcycle of slavery. For over sixty years, our own government has enabledworker abuse and slavery through the mismanagement of its “guestworker” program. And now, with the global population more than tripledsince World War II, and with national borders collapsing around theworld, people - in their desperate quest for a way to survive – havebecome easy targets for human traffickers. And once again, America is aprime destination.

So how many slavesare we talking about? According to a U.S. State Department study, some14,500 to 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked into the UnitedStates from at least 35 countries and enslaved each year. Some victimsare smuggled into the United States across the Mexican and Canadianborders; others arrive at our major airports daily, carrying eitherreal or forged papers. The old slave ship of the 1800s has beenreplaced by the 747. Victims come here from Africa, Asia, India, LatinAmerica, and the former Soviet Republic. Overwhelmingly, they come onthe promise of a better life, with the opportunity to work and prosperin America. Many come in the hope of earning enough money to support orsend for their families. In order to afford the journey, they fork overtheir life savings, and go into debt to people who make promises theyhave no intention of keeping, and instead of opportunity, when theyarrive they find bondage. They can be found – or more accurately, notfound – in all 50 states, working as farmhands, domestics, sweatshopand factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction workers,and victims of sexual exploitation. These people do not represent aclass of poorly paid employees, working at jobs they might not like.They exist specifically to work, they are unable to leave, and areforced to live under the constant threat and reality of violence. Bydefinition, they are slaves. Today, we call it human trafficking, butmake no mistake: It is the slave trade.

Norare native-born Americans immune from slavers; many are stolen orenticed from the streets of their own cities and towns. Some sources,including the federal government, estimate in the hundreds of thousandsthe number of U.S. citizens – primarily children – at risk of beingcaught in slavery annually. Although these figures may be inflated, theprecise number of slaves in the United States, whether trafficked infrom other countries or enslaved from our own population, is simply notknown. The simple truth is, we’re looking at a crime that lives in theshadows; it’s hard to count what you can’t find.

What is particularly infuriating is the fact that this is a crime that,as a rule, goes unpunished. For the moment, let’s accept thegovernment’s estimate of about 17,000 foreign nationals trafficked intoslavery in the United States per year; coincidentally there are alsoabout 17,000 people murdered in the US each year. The national successrate in solving murder cases is about 70%; around 11,000 murders are“cleared” annually. But according to the US government’s own numbers,the annual percentage of trafficking and slavery cases solved is lessthan 1%. In 2007, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division obtained 103convictions for human trafficking, with an average sentence of 9 years.

Andto further complicate matters, when they are rescued, survivors oftendeny their situation.  There are several reasons for this: the languagebarrier, a deep sense of shame, fear for their lives and those of theirfamilies in their country of origin, and a sense of obligation to paytheir debt. In addition, the traffickers program them to fear thepolice and immigration officials. And in some instances, they come toidentify with their keepers.

We don’t yet know how President Obamawill respond to the human trafficking crisis; it’s too soon to tell.But we do know that the response under the Bush Administration wasinadequate on any number of levels. In a speech on trafficking, Bushonce stated, “We're beginning to make good, substantial progress. Themessage is getting out: We’re serious. And when we catch you, you’llfind out we’re serious. We’re staying on the hunt.” Strong words. Butthe unvarnished truth is, with less than 1% of the bad guysapprehended, and less than 1% of the victims freed, it sounds a lotmore like spin than fact; meanwhile, the flow of human “product” intoAmerica continues practically unchecked.

Thisis the kind of knowledge you can’t “unlearn”; the only question is,what do you do with the information once you have it? It’s a questionwe must all address for ourselves. We tend to think of our America asthe country where slavery has no place; the dire truth is, we arepretty far from freedom, and it will take a lot of work and dedication– by the government, and by us - to make it so.

by Ron Soodalter, co-author (w/ Kevin Bales) of
The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today

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