Author’s note: When investigating human rights abuses, I typically stray far from home. I’ve studied refugee rights in the Middle East and migrant domestic worker trafficking theory. However, so many human rights abuses exist right under our noses – in cities and towns in the United States.
The Pacific Circuit is a human trafficking ring that runs along the West Coast. When I first read that the Pacific Circuit existed, I was surprised; when I read about where the human trafficking actually took place – right in my home state of Oregon – I was astonished. Known as the Interstate-5’s dirty underbelly, these human trafficking rings stretch from Seattle to San Francisco. And, although Oregon has anti-trafficking laws on the books, additional steps must be taken to prevent trafficking and better help the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation.
The Pacific Circuit is a human trafficking ring for sexual exploitation on the West Coast, specifically running its victims up and down the Interstate-5, which stretches from Seattle, Washington to San Francisco, California. The main hubs of criminal activity are Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. However, virtually any truck or rest stop along the freeway is a potential location for trafficking crimes.
The Eugene Weekly, an alternative newspaper based in Eugene, Oregon, explains that Lane County, Oregon is a hotspot for trafficking victims. The paper writes, “[i]n sleepy little Eugene, some 90 miles south of the maligned “Pornland” and far from the populous cities of San Francisco and L.A., there would seem to be nothing for sex traffickers to prey on: no destitute starlets, no major international port, no out-of-control crime wave to hide behind. But local treatment facilities, women’s advocates and law enforcement say Eugene is no stranger to sex trafficking, and it’s not just that trafficking passes through rural Oregon on I-5. Lane County is a recruitment ground and a market for sex traffickers.”
In addition to Interstate-5, sex trafficking extends onto the offshoots of the freeway to Sacramento and Las Vegas. No matter the routes or the miles the victims travel, it is important to note that trafficking does not necessarily involve movement. Migrant smuggling and trafficking are two different concepts that revolve around a person’s consent in the process.
Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans (OATH), a nonprofit organization that seeks to “encourage citizens to…help combat the growing scourge of human trafficking within the state of Oregon,” aptly writes, “[t]he key distinction between trafficking and smuggling lies in the individual’s freedom of choice. A smuggling situation can escalate into a trafficking situation if and when the smuggler sells or ‘brokers’ the smuggled individual into a condition of servitude, or if the smuggled individual cannot pay the smuggler and is then forced to work off that debt.” (See OATH: What is Human Trafficking) Simply put, human trafficking is all about the lack of consent of the victims.
Who’s At Risk:
Often times, human trafficking occurs to women and girls who are native to the area. Since trafficking for sexual exploitation does not necessarily involve movement, it can be forced upon the local and vulnerable populations. Susceptible groups include chronically homeless youth or youth from troubled homes. In addition, many women who are trafficked are refugees who initially sought asylum in the United States. For example, though all women regardless of ethnic background are subject to human trafficking, Southeast Asian women are particularly at risk for trafficking on the West Coast.
In an interview with The New York Times this past May, Elizabeth Sy of Banteay Srei, an Oakland-based program for at-risk Southeast Asian girls, said, “[m]any Southeast Asian girls come from new refugee populations. Recruiters target these girls because they know they are struggling with issues of cultural identity.” (See In Oakland, Redefining Sex Trade Workers as Abuse Victims, NY Times May 2011.)
How Human Trafficking Works:
Generally, pimps and traffickers target women and girls who are a part of a vulnerable population or who suffer from low self-esteem. In Portland, for example, these individuals often canvass the local malls, bus stops, and even schools to choose “their girls.” According to Sgt. Mike Geiger of the Portland Police Department, these pimps befriend young girls and identify their needs, promising clothes, jewelry and affection. Typically, they lavish the chosen girls with gifts to make them feel wanted and loved, as was the case with 13 year old “Katie,” a victim of sex trafficking in Portland. After being wooed with gifts by a man who turned out to be a pimp, she was told she needed to repay him for all the presents he had purchased for her by dancing at one of the hundreds of strip clubs in Portland.
Oregon is one of thirty states that passed anti-human trafficking bills. (See Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking) Oregon’s laws against human trafficking include:
ORS 163.263 – Involuntary Servitude – Second Degree: Encompasses forced labor by multiple means, most of which involve non-personal threats, such as deportation or unlawful debt collection;
ORS 163.264 – Involuntary Servitude – First Degree: Encompasses forced labor by means of personal threat to cause death or serious physical injury;
ORS 163.266 – Trafficking in Persons: Generally encompasses harboring, transporting, providing for, or obtaining persons who are subjected to Involuntary Servitude, or those who are financially benefiting from them; and
ORS 167.017 – Compelling Prostitution: Encompasses causing or inducing a person under 18 years of age to engage in prostitution, or compelling any person of any age to engage in prostitution.
Sentencing for sex traffickers ranges from 3 years to more than 20 years. Currently, state efforts exist to increase the penalties for human traffickers and penalize men who solicit sex from sex trafficking victims. (See Oregon sex-trafficking bills would increase penalties for pimps and johns. Mar. 2011, Oregon Live.com)
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation is just beginning to gain more attention and understanding among communities on the West Coast. Though efforts in Oregon to curb human trafficking and sexual exploitation are steps in the right direction, we must all remember that human trafficking is not an isolated problem or one that does not exist here in the United States. The fact of the matter is that this is an issue that is in our own backyards and potentially impacts us all.
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