This is the fourth and final regional overview for the year 2012
Exodus Cry closes this year with a region that hits close to home: the American Heartland. While various regions in crisis have occupied our activism and our intercession, we cannot ignore the fact that the U.S. is itself in crisis on the front of human trafficking. Though people everywhere might wish that the reality of human slavery has not taken hold, it is precisely this hope that may quickly turn into self-delusion. Law enforcement in the U.S. is pressing forward in legislation and strategies, but these efforts, at this point, are only shedding light on just how great the problem is, and exposing hidden works of darkness. We have a long road ahead.
On September 25, 2012, President Barak Obama, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), addressed a grave evil facing the United States and the rest of the world. He said,
“And today, I want to discuss an issue that…is a debasement of our common humanity. …It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name –modern slavery. Now, I do not use that word, “slavery” lightly. It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history. But around the world, there’s no denying the awful reality.”
It may be unpalatable to admit that the United States, having struggled in its history with slavery in such a painful an intimate way, must admit that slavery in some form still exists within its borders. And yet, the very nature of modern-slavery is that it can take hold almost anywhere; it thrives in the open, masquerading as choice, and is dependent upon the complicity of the host culture. These criteria are just as present in America as any other nation in the world.
As the American system strives to root out this evil on its own soil, more and more attention is being paid to the Midwest, the American Heartland. While this may be an unexpected battlefront, it is fitting nonetheless: unless the heart is fixed, how can the rest of the body be expected to find freedom?
One of the growing concerns in the Heartland is the rising number of runaways who are easy prey for traffickers. Runaway children are especially vulnerable to pimps who posture themselves as boyfriends, only to turn around and force their victims into prostitution. The grim statistics acquired by law enforcement and victims advocates is that runaways are approached for sex within 48 hours of running away; one in three will be approached by a trafficker.
A recent CNN article reported that the FBI has ranked the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, among the top 13 places in the nation for child/adolescent sex-trafficking. These trends are tied not only to an increase in the number of children and adolescents leaving home, but also a recent increase in demand.
To make matters worse, traffickers are pimping their victims on the internet rather than the street. The rise of popular direct-to-consumer sales sites like Backpage.com have provided traffickers with a market that is extremely difficult to detect and to track. Victims may never see the street since traffickers now have the ability to troll for buyers over the internet and arrange sales from behind a computer monitor.
In 2011, the FBI selected Kansas City as a city to host a new Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team (ACTeam) to battle human trafficking in the United States. While some of the other selected cities had obvious appeal — Atlanta, GA, is an international hub; El Paso, TX is perched on an international border; Los Angeles, CA, is one of the largest cities in the nation with many points of entry and exit— Kansas City, MO might not stand out as a strategic center. But the convergence of several interstates make Kansas City literally the crossroads of America.
I–35 runs from Laredo, TX, right on the U.S./Mexico border, through Minneapolis, and all the way to Duluth, MN. Many towns that sit on the border struggle with illegal immigration, human smuggling, and drug and sex trafficking. But few have access to the entire width of the U.S. Duluth, on the other hand, a port city on Lake Superior, is notoriously a scene of exploitation for Native American women.
I–70 and I–90 run East to West and cover vast tracts of the continental United States. I–90 in particular has become the center of focus for law enforcement in this region. This “trafficking pipeline” is the longest interstate in the U.S., and stretches from Seattle Washington all the way to Boston, MA. It crosses I–35 just south of the Twin Cities, and roars past rural-trafficking on-ramps throughout South Dakota. Shutting down this highway in terms of trafficking means shutting down the sex-trade in the Midwest.
Just seven years ago, oil companies learned how to use hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — the same controversial process used to extract natural gas from the Appalachian region (among other places)— to reach unconventional reservoirs. This accelerated boom in the energy industry has not been met by the needed developments in infrastructure which would properly support the growth. The Kansas Eagle reports that, as a result, housing prices have gone through the roof, police and fire outfits are severely strained with an increase in criminal activity and incidents, and, unfortunately, prostitution has surged to meet the demand of oil workers pouring into the region.
Not least affected has been the Native American population. Having suffered exploitation and colonial oppression for centuries, today’s Native American women and girls are particularly vulnerable. Whether facing gangs within the Native American community, or traffickers without, there is no shortage of criminals ready to exploit their extreme vulnerability. Whether trafficked to out-of-the-way strip clubs in an oil town, or the well known markets of the port city, Duluth, Native American girls are able to be trafficked freely throughout the region once in the clutches of a predator.
If efforts to end trafficking in the United States are to succeed, the Midwest must be won as a beachhead. As long as traffickers have convenient access to all parts of the country via our interstate system, the mad rush for oil reserves races ahead unchecked and unbalanced by the precautions necessary to keep people safe and communities healthy, and preventative measures are not taken to stop our most vulnerable citizens from falling prey to traffickers, this evil will remain in our heartland. It will course through our highways to the outer extremities. However, the opportunity exists, here in the Heartland of America, to cripple criminal operations, and develop strategies that not only rescue victims, but also assist them before they become victims in the first place.