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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    January 07, 2022

    Lifelines for Survivors: Labor Trafficking in Wisconsin

    Labor trafficking is in Wisconsin, tied into purchasing, consuming, and the basic service economy every single day. This article provides an introduction to this complex problem and what lawyers and other state residents can do to help prevent and mitigate harm and hold traffickers accountable.

    Rachel Monaco

    winter sunrise

    “My early life, before I came to be here? It was difficult because, well, there were not many opportunities.” – Santana Ortega1

    This article, second of a two-part series, provides a current perspective on labor trafficking in Wisconsin, offering views from lawyers, survivor advocates, law enforcement, a survivor, and a policy expert.2 Labor trafficking exists in Wisconsin in all sectors of society and in every community. Attorneys and state residents who take responsibility for a basic understanding of this complex, pervasive problem will help Wisconsin move forward in efforts toward preventing trafficking, mitigating harm to victims, and holding traffickers accountable.

    What is Labor Trafficking?

    Simply put, a person is trafficked for labor when they are exploited for another’s financial gain through threat of force, fraud, or coercion. Victims are frequently deprived of their autonomy to make basic life choices over their movements, relationships, and civil liberties.3 This crime is underreported and can happen in any industry. Some of the more common work environments where labor trafficking happens include agriculture, domestic work, landscaping, manufacturing and factories, healthcare, and construction. It’s a myth that all labor trafficking victims are foreign nationals; traffickers target anyone who is vulnerable, and this can include homeless and runaway or foster youth, foreign nationals, disabled individuals, or people living in poverty regardless of where they are from.4

    Rachel K. Monaco Rachel K. Monaco, Marquette 2004, is the founder of LOTUS Legal Clinic, teaches art therapy, and has a private practice in trusts and estates. Her work regarding victims of sexual assault and human trafficking has been awarded in Wisconsin and nationwide, particularly regarding the powerful merger of law and the humanities to effect systemic change in the justice system. She is a founding member of the National Crime Victims Law Institute Advisory Council and mentors other nonprofit founders and survivor-advocates. She also mediates probate, elder, and trust matters and trains others in those skills. She is an accomplished ultrarunner, having completed 15 ultramarathons, taking master’s champion in three 100-mile races to date.

    Get to know the author: Check out Q&A below.

    “When I arrived to work with them [the labor contractor who trafficked Santana] it was ugly because they [the boss and the crew leaders] would say awful words. They lied to us, they treated us like animals, they did not give us water in the fields when we were working and they were alwa​ys there alongside us, pushing us to work harder.”

    One common scenario for labor trafficking in agriculture begins when someone like Santana faces long-term and profound poverty in their homeland or lives under conditions or threat of chronic violence. Out of hopes for a better life and a way to provide for family, they pursue a way to make money in the United States. Frequently this is through legal means, such as the H-2A visa program for seasonal farmworkers hired by local United States-based employers.

    Once in the United States, however, what began legally can be twisted by traffickers to ensnare and exploit the worker. Individuals like Santana are lied to (being promised wages that are never paid or “taxed” or given contracts they can’t read) or coerced into continuing to work (having their passports or other documents taken from them, being threatened with deportation or turning them in to police, having threats made against family members back home). The work conditions can be atrocious: work days that begin before dawn and end well after dark with only a few hours of sleep before starting again; limited food and water; exposure to dangerous chemicals, extreme heat or cold, or other unsafe working conditions; and not being allowed access to medical care when sick or injured.5 Survivors say that the degradation and emotional abuse they experience at the hands of “the bosses” leave the most lasting but often least visible scars. As contributor Karine Moreno-Taxman puts it, “this crime really is about the devastation and breaking of the human spirit.”

    Agricultural worker exploitation is just one iteration of labor trafficking. Other cases in Wisconsin include domestic servitude, illicit massage (discussed in the sidebar), and a recent case involving migrant workers exploited at the fairgrounds in Walworth County.6

    Labor trafficking is difficult to identify, investigate, and prosecute, and cases can take years. While there have been a few labor trafficking cases in Wisconsin circuit courts with at least one currently in progress (centering on domestic servitude),7 the majority have been federal. But these, too, are comparatively rare. In 2018, of 16 federal human trafficking prosecutions, only one was for labor.8 The gap can be partly explained by a number of factors: the pronounced isolation of labor trafficking victims due to work conditions, language barriers, and fear; the lack of training, experience, and resources for investigations; the complexity of building a case when multiple state and federal agencies and other organizations may be involved; and, overwhelmingly, how difficult it can be to gain the trust and cooperation of victims in a climate where there are very few procedural and practical protections accessible for them – especially, pathways to legal status.

    The responses below shed light on labor trafficking at this moment in Wisconsin and what evolutions are needed to address it. Feedback is grouped as follows: Santana Ortega is a labor trafficking survivor. Erica Lounsberry and Karine Moreno-Taxman speak from years of prosecutorial experience. Catherine Leonard, Elizabeth Bray, and Jennifer Zimmermann represent skilled and specific victims’ legal services. Neal Lofy and Ben Poller highlight the essential perspective of law enforcement. And Karri Hemmig articulates powerful insights from victim advocacy. The sidebar by policy expert Julie Braun about the illicit massage industry shows the complex overlap between sex and labor trafficking.

    Strongest Themes from Contributors

    Briefly summarized, some of the strongest themes from this article’s contributors are as follows:

    • Labor trafficking is poorly understood, hard to detect, and incredibly pervasive in all sectors of the Wisconsin and U.S. economies. COVID-19 both trapped many victims here who initially were legally permitted to work and increased the vulnerabilities that made them targets for exploitation.

    • COVID-19-related closures of government offices and processing delays further disrupted what was already a fraught system for migrant or foreign worker visa and work permit programs (H2-A, H2-B). Traffickers took advantage of those left in limbo because of expired legal status.

    • The need for “essential services” during the pandemic increased, and this overlapped with more demand in industries already known for labor trafficking. Isolated conditions became even more isolated, and the leverage of traffickers over workers increased. In short, pressure to work under exploitive and unsafe conditions mounted from both directions – from the workers’ vulnerabilities and from employers’ desire to meet market demands.

    • Forms of relief specific to trafficking victims exist (T-Visas, Continued Presence), but they are very hard to get and may take years to obtain even under perfect circumstances for application and qualification. Victims’ cooperation with investigations and prosecutions (required for victims to obtain relief) comes at a direct and painful price; years may pass before they can see their homes, children, spouses, or parents.

    • Partnerships for investigating, prosecuting cases, and delivering victim services are multi-agency, local, national, and international to a greater degree than with sex trafficking. Strong relationships among partners take time and effort to develop, but they are key to serving victims and enforcing the law against traffickers.

    • For labor trafficking victim services, nothing can replace direct outreach and in-person presence to help identify victims and provide assistance. Zoom doesn’t cut it. Wisconsin nonprofits and their partners in law enforcement and legal services have been working at breaking point for months. All the organizations and agencies represented in this piece are short-staffed and spread thin, but still committed to on-the-ground, direct services. They are the true lifeline for survivors.

    • Sex and labor trafficking overlap in how victim’s vulnerabilities are easily exploited for either or both labor or sex when there are inherent power imbalances from anyone “in charge.” Both crimes are unique in that they are likelier to occur over long periods of time and violate the basic humanity and civil rights of individuals.

    Our experts want people to understand these things:

    • Labor trafficking is here, all around us. It is tied into our purchasing, consuming, and basic service economy every single day in Wisconsin.

    • Many, if not most, labor trafficking victims arrive here under legal work programs or means.

    • Labor trafficking victims are among the most isolated individuals in our communities. Fear and trauma leave long shadows on their lives both during and after they are trafficked, and the heartbreak for many is that they are so often cut off from their families and homes for literally years, while waiting in uncertainty while a case is under investigation or prosecution.

    • Labor trafficking cases are very hard to prosecute and to even find in the first place for law enforcement. Victims rarely self-identify, and once they are identified, building trust (the essential ingredient to victim participation in a strong case) is very challenging.

    • There are as many faces and methods to labor trafficking as there are vulnerable people in our midst. Homeless youth, disabled individuals, non-binary individuals; farm workers, magazine sellers, home healthcare providers. While labor trafficking frequently profiles foreign nationals, that’s not the whole story by any means.

    Our participating experts answered several key questions.

    How did the pandemic affect Wisconsin victims of labor trafficking?

    Catherine Leonard, LOTUS Legal Clinic: Many labor trafficking victims, particularly in Wisconsin, arrive here through the H-2A visa program, a legal immigration program that allows employers to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Although some industries slowed down during the pandemic, agricultural workers were deemed essential, and the H-2A visa program continued in full force.

    Historically, labor trafficking within the H-2A visa program has been common in large part because of how the program is structured, and in many ways, the pandemic has amplified this problem. For a worker to obtain an H-2A visa, a petition must be filed by an employer, and after the visa is approved, the worker’s visa status is tied to employment with that specific employer. This means that if a worker were to quit due to abusive working conditions, they would automatically lose their H-2A visa and be forced to return to their home country. Even before the pandemic, quitting and returning home was not a viable option for many because they had come to the United States specifically due to lack of livable wages in their home country. Since the pandemic, we have seen that even skilled workers and workers with post-secondary educations are turning to H-2A employment after having lost their jobs. These circumstances create a powerful incentive for workers not to complain about mistreatment in H-2A employment.

    Elizabeth Bray and Jennifer Zimmermann, Legal Action of Wisconsin: The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the vulnerability of workers, especially foreign workers in the United States on temporary work visas, to labor trafficking. Victims of labor trafficking are often very isolated by the nature of their work, as well as unfamiliarity with the English language and lack of community connections. Traffickers often take advantage of these vulnerabilities. For example, traffickers may control victims’ transportation (such as to the local communities for shopping, sending money home, attending worship services, and so on), confiscate their passports and other identity documents, and forbid workers from speaking with outsiders. In addition, agencies like Legal Action have had to limit direct outreach during the pandemic, thereby decreasing opportunities when victims can be identified or reach out for help.

    Traffickers also manipulate the financial vulnerability of victims of labor trafficking, most of whom have traveled from foreign countries and incurred debt in exchange for the opportunity to work in the United States. Traffickers leverage debts incurred by workers in coming to the U.S. to make victims feel trapped and coerced to continue to provide labor out of fear that they will never pay off the debt if they escape. In labor trafficking cases handled by Legal Action, workers have taken on significant debt, often even placing their or their relatives’ homes at risk by using them as collateral, to raise the funds needed to receive a temporary work visa, travel to the U.S., and at times pay illegal recruitment fees. As for many Americans, the pandemic has worsened the financial situation of many foreign workers, creating more desperate need for the temporary work visas and also increasing the power of traffickers to keep workers from leaving or speaking up about abusive conditions.

    Victims of human trafficking can apply for “T Nonimmigrant Status.” Victims can also apply for derivative status on behalf of certain family members who are still in their home country. Because of the pandemic, many passport and U.S. consular offices have experienced closures or drastically limited the types of appointments they are scheduling, significantly delaying immigration processes for these family members and increasing the time it takes to achieve family reunification. These factors further delay and exacerbate victims’ recovery from the trauma endured in the trafficking situation.

    The ongoing pandemic has also exposed the essential nature of the work that many victims of labor trafficking are forced to perform – such as farm work, domestic labor, and so on. Similar to many low-wage workers during the pandemic, if not more seriously, victims of trafficking have been exposed to dangerous health and safety situations in the workplace and are at an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19.

    Erica Lounsberry,9 U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: Because my insight comes through a limited number of specific investigations, it is difficult for me to know how the pandemic generally has affected labor trafficking victims in Wisconsin. Anecdotally, I have heard from some of our community partners that they have seen an increase in victims needing services. Some have expressed concern that the economic impacts of the pandemic in other countries may be driving even more people to seek employment in the United States than before, leading to an increase in vulnerable populations who can be exploited. Some of our partners have also expressed concerns that there have not been as many in-person consular interviews of candidates for work visas taking place as in pre-pandemic times, so it may be even more difficult to detect fraud and abuse in their earliest stages.

    Karri Hemmig, Fight to End Exploitation: A lot of labor victims were working in industries that were deemed “essential” – so the victimization continued (if not increased – just my speculation) through the pandemic. I wondered if more money coming in due to PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans may have affected the labor trafficking marketplace – it’s not an unreasonable thought.

    The good news is that we had an increase in victims self-identifying and disclosing during the pandemic. Traditionally victims come to us through referrals with agencies or law enforcement or the victim’s family members. Our partners in the medical field also report an increase in self-identification. Hopefully, that is a trend we will see continue. Hopefully, awareness and education are working!

    How did your work change as a result? Who are your most relied-on collaborators and partners?

    Catherine Leonard, LOTUS Legal Clinic: The pandemic has created new challenges in how we connect with clients. While many sectors have been able to shift to meeting via virtual platforms such as Zoom, that is often not possible for many of our labor trafficking clients due to lack of technology or lack of privacy. We are so thankful to UMOS (United Migrant Outreach Services) and our other partners who have continued their work on the ground. They have been crucial in identifying potential labor trafficking victims and connecting them with our legal services, as well as helping us to meet with our clients in COVID-conscious settings.

    Elizabeth Bray and Jennifer Zimmermann, Legal Action of Wisconsin: Legal Action had to decrease direct outreach during the pandemic, which has contributed to the increased isolation and vulnerability of victims. Victims of trafficking often do not identify as such, may not be aware of their rights, and may be afraid of coming forward to report what they have been experiencing. And, as already discussed, they are often linguistically, culturally, and geographically isolated. Decreased direct outreach may mean that victims are less likely to be connected with legal services early on, when project staff can assist clients in reporting their trafficking to law enforcement if they choose to and participating in investigations. Victims are also less likely to be connected with social services that can help them stabilize as they move forward. While Legal Action’s Farmworker Project has started to reengage in direct outreach with agricultural communities, staff are still reliant on social service agencies in many cases to identify and refer victims of trafficking to us, or to identify when a victim is in need of legal services, which may result in an under-identification of victims or victims not receiving the full scope of legal representation available to them.

    Erica Lounsberry, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin has frequently collaborated on its investigations with the Department of Labor – Office of the Inspector General and the federal human trafficking task force (headed by the FBI and including participation by Homeland Security Investigations, Wisconsin DCI [Division of Criminal Investigation], and several local agencies). Support and services for the victims in our forced labor cases typically have been provided primarily by organizations such as UMOS, Lotus, and Legal Action of Wisconsin.

    Neal Lofy, Racine Police Department: Our federal law enforcement partners are so important. Local nonprofits have also had an influx of victims over the last year and a half to two years and we worked closely with them. Knowing each other’s roles is so important. Over the years, working with UMOS, we’ve really come to a great understanding of how to respect each other’s contributions, strengths, and weaknesses. On the best day, the experience of a victim in working with us as a team empowers that victim far more than just working with each partner separately. We’re all trying to work together for the betterment of the people we all represent. That’s what has to carry at the end of the day.

    With the work, there’s still such a shortage of experienced law enforcement personnel to help other departments with investigations. At some point, you can’t be on call 24/7 even though you want to. However, on the bright side, it seems now there is more openness from smaller police departments across Wisconsin to asking for assistance on the cases.

    Ben Poller, Wisconsin Department of Justice-Division of Criminal Investigation: As with all law enforcement agencies, we followed CDC guidelines which made all our jobs more challenging. But the traffickers didn’t take a break during the pandemic, so we still had to conduct our duties as law enforcement officers. We just needed to take more precautions due to COVID. We prioritized activities as to what’s more critical in our cases, as compared to proactive activities.

    Karri Hemmig, Fight to End Exploitation: We saw a drop in available emergency shelter and placement due to COVID-19 and quarantine restrictions that made everything difficult. I was once told that to send a homeless trafficking victim to a program, she had to quarantine in isolation somewhere for 10 days. But there were no options to do that, and sometimes a hotel is not a good placement.

    Obviously, the partnership with law enforcement is very important to us. We try to fill that gap with victim advocacy so officers can focus on the investigative piece. It’s important that the victim’s needs are met because it can be years before a potential trial of the trafficker. Right now we have an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with all law enforcement agencies in Racine County to provide victim advocate services.

    We are rapid response and crisis advocates, so we rely on a collaborative network of agencies to support each victim long term. We’ve worked with homeless placement services that have helped with hotel vouchers and housing needs, medical and mental health professionals, addiction experts, employment agencies, legal teams, and other system professionals that are crucial to bringing that person from victim to an independent survivor.

    Do you see an overlap between labor trafficking and other forms of exploitation (that is, sex trafficking)?

    Catherine Leonard, LOTUS Legal Clinic: Labor trafficking of foreign workers often occurs because there is a severe imbalance of power in the employment relationship. Employers know that workers are unlikely to report mistreatment due to fears of losing their job or being deported. We have seen that this allows employers to perpetuate abuses beyond those that relate to the job, such as sexual harassment or sexual assault.

    Elizabeth Bray and Jennifer Zimmermann, Legal Action of Wisconsin: Yes. Labor trafficking and exploitation are like two overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Victims of labor trafficking have often been subjected to other forms of exploitation as well; however, not all forms of exploitation – such as unpaid wages, unsafe housing conditions, or discrimination – amount to labor trafficking. An effective advocate needs to understand the legal definition of labor trafficking and recognize that although workers’ rights violations are often red flags indicating the presence of labor trafficking, not every workers’ rights violation constitutes trafficking. If other forms of exploitation are present, advocates should ask the victim further questions to explore whether labor trafficking has occurred.

    Erica Lounsberry, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: There can definitely be an overlap, depending on the particular situation and particular industry at issue. I personally have seen some labor trafficking cases in which sexual abuse is a part of the coercion used by a trafficker, though that abuse has not taken the form of commercial sexual exploitation.

    Karine Moreno-Taxman, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: On a broad scale, the overlap is that the victims of both labor and sex trafficking are vulnerable and easily exploited. And, while that’s common in crime in general (in terms of who is victimized), one of the differences is that most other crimes happen over a minute or two; someone steals your purse, robs you at gun point, and so on. However, both labor and sex trafficking occur over an extended period of time and that’s hard for people to understand. People don’t wake up one day and say, “I want to be prostituted/exploited.” Human trafficking usually takes months and sometimes years because it requires either force, fraud, or coercion … a long-term brainwashing of sorts; victims often can’t even remember what happened to them by the time they are identified as victims.

    For labor trafficking, this is also complicated in the way vulnerabilities are exploited. For labor, it’s the promise of work, income, opportunity for a better life, and being able to support their family – which is also a form of love. Seeing that those promises don’t come to fruition doesn’t happen overnight.

    For the most part, society seems to have a higher degree of understanding regarding the victimization for sex trafficking compared to forced labor. I wish people understood that sex and labor are both crimes and inherently civil rights violations at the same time. Both labor and sex trafficking deprive victims of the right to decide their lives. It’s not just a question of having a bad boss or boyfriend. People are stripped of their dignity, their basic humanity. People also focus on the idea that the victims somehow “consented” to be trafficked. But the reality is, the law does not allow for someone to consent to having their civil rights taken away. As Americans, we do not allow this; it’s against the moral fiber of our whole democracy.

    In both sex and labor trafficking the victims hear and believe all the false promises. For sex trafficking, it is being promised a better life, love and affection, and a place to belong. With forced labor, it’s the promise of a better life for the trafficked person and, in turn, for their family. These promises are very seductive. People feel like they go in with their eyes wide open, but especially with labor trafficking, victims didn’t know they’d be physically harmed or not given water, shelter, or medical treatment. Their idea of “what’s the worst that could happen” is never as bad as it actually turns out to be.

    The civil rights violations and the human dignity deprivation make human trafficking even more frightening, disorienting, and damaging for these victims; traffickers strive to break the soul of their victims.

    Neal Lofy, Racine Police Department: Interesting question. I’ve experienced seeing both kinds within the same investigation, whereas the labor trafficking was probably the main form of trafficking, but the sex trafficking came later in that case. The labor traffickers turned into the traffickers of sex trafficking victims. It’s hard to determine exactly in each case how they interrelate. At a basic level, some would suggest all human trafficking is labor trafficking, just in different forms.

    Ben Poller, Wisconsin Department of Justice-Division of Criminal Investigation: Yes, we do see an overlap between labor trafficking and sexual exploitation. Sometimes there’s a nexus of sexual exploitation when we conduct labor trafficking cases. The traffickers hold the notion of being deported over the victims’ heads or threaten their families from their home country. Then they can take advantage of the victims through forced labor or sexual exploitation.

    Karri Hemmig, Fight to End Exploitation: I see a lot of overlap in labor and sex trafficking, especially for females. Those working in massage parlors, for example, are usually being trafficked for both labor and sex. It’s complex exploitation. Likewise in sex trafficking, we see traffickers making pornography of the victim while being trafficked and selling that as additional income. And that victimization can continue even after someone is out of the trafficking situation if that video is still being sold.

    The attention seems to focus initially on sex trafficking – because sex work is illegal. It’s not illegal to work in a massage parlor. So sometimes the labor piece is missed, especially if the female is being charged for prostitution.

    I also think sex trafficking victims have more points of contact in the system and in the community, which provides more opportunities for witnesses to identify a potential victim. Labor trafficking victims are kept much more isolated. One particular young female I worked with was trafficked as an indentured servant into Wisconsin while in her early teens. The only reason she was ever identified as a victim was years later when her trafficker allowed her to attend school in her junior year. The educators were the ones to bring attention to some of her key red flags. She was not going to go to authorities because her trafficker had family ties to her family’s village and she did not want retaliation against them.

    What do you wish others understood better about labor trafficking in Wisconsin and those who are trafficked?

    “I do not wish for other people to go through what I went through because it was ugly. But unfortunately I have run into many who have been through similar situations as what I went through.” – Santana Ortega

    Catherine Leonard, LOTUS Legal Clinic: Labor trafficking is not something that usually occurs by kidnapping or some kind of physical bondage; rather [it occurs] by fraud or coercion. Individuals come to the United States under the pretense of a legitimate job, and in many cases, a legal visa, but when they arrive, they find that the job, the pay, or the working conditions are not what they had been told. Employers then keep the individual working through threats of deportation, threats of harm to family members, or simply lies that exploit the individual’s lack of knowledge of the legal system.

    Elizabeth Bray and Jennifer Zimmermann, Legal Action of Wisconsin: Unfortunately, labor trafficking occurs in Wisconsin more commonly than is reported or identified. People rarely self-identify as victims of labor trafficking. They may reach out asking for legal help with unpaid wages, with general complaints about workplace conditions, or for assistance with immigration matters. Because of trauma, as well as linguistic and cultural differences, they may not have the words to explain how they feel or felt trapped. As already mentioned, advocates need to understand the legal definition of trafficking and look for warning signs. But advocates also need to have a good grasp of trauma-informed advocacy, which involves acknowledging barriers to legal services, taking the time to communicate effectively, recognizing the role trauma may play in engaging with legal service providers, and screening for both legal and nonlegal needs. Because of what they have experienced, survivors may frequently question their own judgment and look to their attorney to make decisions for them; however, attorneys should remember that each client is the expert of the client’s own experience and that an advocate’s role is to advise clients and empower them to make their own decisions.

    In addition, labor trafficking has long-term detrimental impact on victims, their families, and their communities. Victims can sustain a significant amount of trauma during even brief periods of trafficking and are often re-traumatized in the legal processes that follow. Victims come to the United States to work and improve the lives of their families back home, yet as soon as they escape, their work visa becomes invalid, they lose their temporary immigration status, and they cannot legally work for other employers. Traffickers or their recruiters are often from the same geographic region as victims, so victims must weigh their desire to report the trafficking against concerns that the traffickers may retaliate against their family members back home.

    Victims who decide to stay in the U.S. to participate in investigations of their traffickers are disheartened to find that these investigations may take years to complete. Victims describe feeling powerless in these intervening years, as they can neither financially support nor protect their families in their home country. In addition, they miss out on watching their children grow up and receiving the support of their families, friends, religious congregations, and communities. Legal remedies that may be available to victims – including immigration relief that comes with work authorization (T Nonimmigrant Status) and civil claims – may take years to be resolved. These can be very lonely and discouraging times for victims and can delay and exacerbate their recovery from trauma endured from the trafficking situation.

    Erica Lounsberry, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: I would like people to realize that labor trafficking can be more difficult for law enforcement to detect than sex trafficking. This is so for several reasons. One is that the industries in which it occurs are often themselves legal (unlike prostitution). Another is that victims of labor trafficking are often foreign nationals, who may be easier to exploit based on factors like their economic situations, a lack of understanding of the legal system in the U.S., lack of support in the U.S., language barriers, and a fear of deportation. These same factors can create barriers for law enforcement in accessing or building trust and rapport with labor trafficking victims. A third hurdle is that many labor traffickers are businesspeople who, at least in some cases, are less likely to come into contact with law enforcement for other interrelated crimes, as a sex trafficker might for “domestic violence,” drug trafficking, firearm offenses, and so on. For this reason, law enforcement agencies are often uniquely dependent on tips from the community and allied professionals, such as healthcare workers, civil or immigration attorneys, and nonprofit advocates, to initiate labor trafficking investigations.

    Karine Moreno-Taxman, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: Unfortunately, people think most victims are there by “choice” – that victims choose to be involved in labor trafficking to make more money or get an “easy ride.” There is nothing easy about being trafficked. It’s debt bondage, living in fear of arrest, and constant threats of physical harm. But rarely does anyone tell this story, and the public doesn’t see it or hear about it. These victims are recruited by people who know them and their families, and because the trafficker has that knowledge, the trafficker knows how to manipulate and coerce them so that they have no choice but to be trafficked. What first was presented as care and concern for the victim’s family becomes threats and blackmail by the trafficker.

    People often ask, “How can I help?” Unlike with other victims of crime, it’s not an easy thing to figure out how to help. There are so many ways to not try to help, because it might backfire or increase the danger to the victim. You can’t simply say “come to my house, and I’ll give you work.” You need people or organizations that are knowledgeable about this type of victimization and are trusted to provide a full spectrum of programs on a comprehensive basis. It’s a far bigger intervention, over a very long period of time

    Neal Lofy, Racine Police Department: Everything? The first thing is simple. Admitting and knowing that it’s here. Taking the time to understand the reality that trafficking is in our community and then finding a way to help those exploited by it. It is in all of our communities, right in front of us. It’s not often visible to the trained or untrained eye, because we are consumed with the services we take part in, without understanding how those services or goods come into our hands. For example, would company executives or leaders even know if they had a labor trafficking victim in their workforce? The answer is they’re there – it’s just a question of how prevalent it is.

    Think about the huge family farms across our state. An intermediary may suggest, “I can find a few people to help you.” At what point is it willful ignorance when someone in charge pretends to have no idea? It would break my heart now to know there are kids in a foreign labor exchange program like the kind we have here on temporary visas for foreign individuals, and see those people become exploited, having left a terrible situation in their home nations only to come here to find an even worse one. The intermediary here knows how to exploit those programs, and that’s where the biggest vulnerability is. It’s a program set up to do good things, but in execution, there are too many gaps for traffickers to find a way in and a way to exploit them.

    Traffickers operate within the parameters of everyday culture with such freedom. Department of Labor outreach programs and such try to reach victims, but traffickers and their schemes are too powerful, they can leverage those vulnerabilities so easily. In labor trafficking, that leverage comes from the economic powerlessness for these victims. If there’s even a tiny way to provide more money for someone back home, victims will be easy to dominate and won’t seek help or speak about exploitation. Unlike sex trafficking (where the leverage is a love relationship, often), with labor trafficking, click and do that math – many times a labor trafficking victim will say, sure it’s bad here, but it’s still four times what I would have made at home. One victim in a recent case, he broke down while talking about his family back home. I looked at my coworkers – we all needed a break at that point in the interview. I thought, we have to keep asking, we have to hear this. If not us, who else will do this? Who else will ask these questions?

    We tell victims in new cases now (federal), “You need to know, this will take years. We need to be honest with you.” In some of our cases, the victims have not seen their families going on almost five years.

    Ben Poller, Wisconsin Department of Justice-Division of Criminal Investigation: There are many legitimate migrant workers who have jobs in Wisconsin. If everyone knew more signs of labor trafficking victims and the “action, means and purpose” of human trafficking, then more true victims could be identified and there would be less room for misidentification.

    Karri Hemmig, Fight to End Exploitation: Not all labor trafficking victims are foreign nationals. We seem to be making a little headway with getting the public to understand that most sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, but we are behind with that perception in labor. Most of the images and messaging of U.S. labor trafficking depict foreign males, agricultural workers, and so on, but groups such as Polaris (host of the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline) and the National Criminal Justice Training Center are working hard to change that perception through education. Runaway and homeless youth are being forced to participate in door-to-door sales, begging networks, and peddling in dangerous neighborhoods over long workdays – I wish there was more attention to this; this and the increase in boys being used to sell drugs in organized crime networks.

    We have to remember that victims entered the country usually under legal circumstances. A lot of victims are receiving a wage. Is it a fair wage? No. It could be two-thirds of what they should be making but also is a lot more than they would make in their own countries. And that money is being sent home. So they’ll endure a bad or illegal work environment to support their families, and on top of that, there could be fear that the traffickers know where they live and might have threatened to hurt their families. Several reasons could create compliance [with traffickers].

    As with sex trafficking victims, professionals need to remember that the approach is inherently the same – you need to build rapport and ultimately, trust. Once that is achieved you are more likely to get disclosures regarding unsafe and illegal working conditions or arrangements.

    And the community overall? When it comes to all forms of exploitation – I think we need to consider language. Under the law, those we serve are considered victims and when we call survivors “victims” in that context, we are then able to access the resources and support that they need. But, outside of those legal and justice forums, I prefer the term “survivor.” Language is powerful, and we want to empower survivors by using language of hope.

    What are the high-priority policy changes or advocacy efforts needed right now for this issue?

    Catherine Leonard, LOTUS Legal Clinic: If we as a society want to combat labor trafficking of foreign nationals, we need an immigration system that supports those who come forward. People come to the U.S. to work because they need money to support themselves and their families. However, because the H-2A and H-2B (a similar visa program for temporary non-agricultural workers) visas are tied to employment with a specific employer, workers are disincentivized from reporting mistreatment for fear of losing their job and being sent back to their home country with nothing. Instead, consideration should be given to a system that would allow these workers the opportunity to change employers while maintaining their visa status.

    While other special immigration remedies are technically available to victims of trafficking, administrative barriers often make them impractical or unrealistic. For example, a special visa called the T visa is available to victims of trafficking who have reported to law enforcement and remain present in the U.S. on account of the trafficking. However, the processing time for this type of visa is currently reported to be 18.5-40.5 months, during which time the individual is not authorized to work or to depart the U.S. Another remedy, called “continued presence” (CP), is sometimes quicker and can provide temporary legal status and work authorization to victims of trafficking who may be potential witnesses in a criminal case. However, this status generally requires that there be a law enforcement investigation or court case, which often there is not. Further, the request to immigration for CP must come directly from a law enforcement agency, which can require significant advocacy from the foreign national or their attorney to initiate. For foreign nationals who came to the U.S. because of a desperate need to work, policy changes must be made that will allow them a reasonable way to keep working after they report.

    Elizabeth Bray and Jennifer Zimmerman, Legal Action of Wisconsin: To prevent labor trafficking and identify victims, it is essential that all workplace protections are enforced, and that in investigations, victims of workplace violations are screened for trafficking. Though not every situation of unpaid wages or wage theft, unsafe housing conditions, or discrimination amounts to labor trafficking, these other violations are typically present in labor trafficking situations. By increasing enforcement of all workplace protections, and screening for labor trafficking during investigations, more labor trafficking could be proactively prevented or identified sooner.

    In addition, victims of labor trafficking are often foreign nationals who came to the U.S. believing that they would be working in short-term, legitimate jobs that would enable them to send money home and improve the lives of their loved ones. They came here wanting to lawfully work to provide for themselves and their families. But as soon as they separate from their employer – such as by escaping the trafficking situation and reporting it to law enforcement – they lose their short-term work visa, meaning they are present in the United States without immigration status and are unable to seek lawful employment. CP is a form of short-term immigration relief that provides victims of trafficking with work authorization while the trafficking is being investigated and possibly prosecuted. It can only be applied for by law enforcement. Although the Department of Homeland Security, which approves applications for CP, has increasingly encouraged law enforcement to apply for CP on behalf of potential victims of trafficking, law enforcement personnel rarely do so. Not only does a victim-centered approach require applying for CP early on in an investigation, but CP is also beneficial to law enforcement – it encourages victims to report the trafficking and cooperate in the investigation, which may take years. In addition, a more stable victim – one who has the dignity of being able to support himself or herself through lawful employment – is a more effective witness.

    Ben Poller, Wisconsin Department of Justice-Division of Criminal Investigation: The biggest factor is for everyone to place the safety of the victim first. Law enforcement agencies working hand in hand with social services and advocates in a victim-centered approach is the most effective way to deal with human trafficking cases.

    Karri Hemmig, Fight to End Exploitation: Workers are not aware of their rights – and traffickers take advantage of that. Charging workers for transportation and not making them aware of their rights to access healthcare are a few examples. The healthcare industry is starting to focus on supporting the sex trafficking victim but I think we’re still behind in identifying and supporting labor trafficking victims who use urgent care or emergency departments. There needs to be more education and awareness of the nuances surrounding labor trafficking. A recent study done in July 2021 indicated that among labor trafficking victims in the United States, most had at least one medical issue identified, as well as high rates of PTSD, trauma, anxiety, and depression. But we know, from interviews with victims in our region, that there were severe injuries such as appendages being amputated and serious heatstroke.

    I also do not think that many labor victims know how to get help or where to turn. And many of them are fearful of law enforcement and other government agencies because of threats of deportation. So we work hard to make sure victims we work with know that they are actually more protected by our federal laws if they are a victim and will not be deported (in most cases – there’s always the exception). And then we look to our amazing legal partners for support – like Lotus Legal.

    Likewise, agencies that support labor victims do not know where to find victims, and there are few proactive efforts. Most proactive efforts are focused on sex trafficking. Most agencies that work with labor victims are not made aware of the victim until a tip is made or at the point of recovery. More awareness to both employers and employees in general in targeted industries such as agriculture, hospitality, and manufacturing is needed. Every time we teach on the typology of human trafficking (we use the Polaris Project research, available at to show the top industries in Wisconsin where there is human trafficking, people are always floored. People are not trained to see a labor victim among the other employees. Maybe it’s a hotel or hospital using an employment agency trafficking their employees for janitorial positions? Those victims stay hidden sometimes due to language barriers or fear.

    Finally, there needs to be more oversight into working conditions and safety measures with an emphasis on human trafficking red flags and indicators. Interesting fact: in Nevada, there is more oversight to put a new roof on your house than there is for the women in legalized prostitution.

    Compared to sex trafficking, why is it almost impossible to find survivors of labor trafficking who will speak publicly about their experience?

    Karine Moreno-Taxman, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin: My personal opinion is that with regard to labor trafficking, victims find themselves initially getting into a trafficking situation with a lot of family support, as no one realizes what will actually happen. Sometimes, the family gives large amounts of money, or the deed to their land as collateral for their loved one to be given a spot in the trafficker’s scheme of getting to America. They are made to believe that this family member, eventually the victim, could send money home. With sex trafficking there isn’t a same feeling of “I’m doing this for my family, on their behalf.” For the labor trafficking victims, they almost feel chosen to help the family and they have this enormous sense of duty. When the scheme fails and is exposed as trafficking, there is a huge amount of guilt and shame for the victim.

    Often, people in foreign countries who are trafficked for forced labor in the United States promise their family to make money for the benefit of the entire family. “I will send the money home. That’s why I’m here.” So, when the scheme fails, they have tremendous feelings of failure, guilt, and shame, and can’t articulate what happened to their families, who depended on them to be the one who was sent away to help. How do you explain to your family that even though you paid the fees and got the right paperwork and did all the right things, once you arrived things changed and then it became clear that the traffickers were lying to everyone all along, that you were played for a fool? In many cultures, the values of honor and “face” are paramount. For labor trafficking victims, there’s very little dignity and honor in speaking up about what happened to them.

    Rachel K. Monaco, the author’s perspective: It took almost three months and leveraging every contact I had for me to find Santana, the survivor who shares his views here. I concur 100 percent with Karine’s views. In addition, I think the cultural climate regarding how sex trafficking and its victims are portrayed is in stark contrast to the depiction of labor trafficking. This has allowed the survivor advocacy movement for sex trafficking to flourish, while labor trafficking bogs down under layers of political discord about immigration policy and the distribution of aid and public benefits across America. One can simply compare the media’s depiction of the Jeffrey Epstein case to the lack of similarly covered labor trafficking cases, even though multiple examples of large-scale criminal effects and human suffering exist.

    Not surprisingly, labor trafficking survivors are likely to view almost anything connected to sharing their story “above the radar” with total mistrust, having been lied to repeatedly and under the guise of official authority by traffickers. Who could blame them? Language and educational barriers certainly contribute to the dearth of survivor voices for labor trafficking. Sadly, there’s just not a current focus on raising survivor voices to illuminate the labor trafficking conversation. In my view, it will take another decade of concentrated efforts on bringing marginalized voices to the forefront to testify to their experience (and be treated with respect and dignity in doing so) before real progress on labor trafficking is made. Yet do this, we must. Only by representation from those who have experienced trafficking can authentic, effective policy be made.

    Concluding Thoughts: Policy and Advocacy Priorities

    When I asked Santana about what stood out to him from working with his attorneys and advocates while receiving assistance to rectify his human trafficking experience, he spoke on behalf of himself and the others he knows are being trafficked here, every day: “Thanks to them (my attorneys and advocates) today we know that we are not alone; that we do not need to have fear or be frightened by these people.” This article and the contributors’ views surely indicate that there is progress being made to assist victims of labor trafficking in Wisconsin. However, some clarion calls to action come through.

    Awareness. Across the board, better awareness of labor trafficking is the most desired change. It needs to occur in workplaces and in the general public. Contributors mentioned how there has been much success and progress in raising the profile of sex trafficking, and it’s worked; more victims are coming forward, more cases are investigated and successfully prosecuted. Labor trafficking is still far behind the curve. The second side of awareness is that the victims themselves need to be made more aware of their rights and their ability to get help.

    Reform. On the federal level, we need reform to the H-2A and H-2B visa programs and also reform to the existing remedies specific to trafficking victims to provide timely relief – not relief after five years of limbo.

    Enforcement. More focus is needed on enforcing workplace safety conditions and civil rights protections. Combined with awareness and proactive screening for trafficking, strong and consistent enforcement needs to happen to set the tone that unacceptable working conditions for vulnerable people (representing high percentages in some industries) will not be tolerated. A culture of change on this point would also encourage more victims to use their voices to come forward, thus building the foundation for more investigation and prosecution of labor trafficking cases.

    Santana and his partner both live in Wisconsin now, although his children are still in Mexico. It has been a long journey to get to the other side of his experience of being trafficked here and to begin to move forward. When I asked Santana about his dreams and hopes for his future, he said, “I want to have my whole family here, my children, and encourage them to work hard to make a home and a good life. I want to inspire them to leave a better legacy.” It’s humbling to hear his words. Santana alone can only do so much to achieve this dream. The rest is on all of us, together.

    Meet Our Participants

    Julie BraunJulie Braun, Policy Initiatives Advisor, Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ), and Operations Director, Wisconsin Crime Victims Rights Board, has over 22 years of criminal justice public policy experience at the DOJ, specializing in victim rights, public safety, and human trafficking policy. She is the policy initiatives advisor to the DOJ Office of Crime Victim Services and the attorney general’s advisory Crime Victims Council and works across disciplines to provide high-level analysis and recommendations to shape and advance statewide policy initiatives. She has extensive background in victims’ rights enforcement, assigned for more than 20 years to the Wisconsin Crime Victims Rights Board as operations director. Braun is a member of the governing board of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group and is on the steering committee of the National Compendium of State-Run Anti-Trafficking Initiatives.

    Elizabeth Bray Elizabeth Bray, Michigan 2007, joined Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Human Trafficking Project in 2018 as an Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow. The Human Trafficking Project provides free civil legal assistance to victims of sex and labor trafficking throughout Wisconsin on a variety of legal concerns with the goal of helping survivors stabilize and move forward with their lives. Legal services include immigration relief, crime victims’ rights enforcement, and postconviction criminal-records relief.

    Karri Hemmig Karri Hemmig is the co-founder and an executive board member of Fight to End Exploitation, an organization and collaborative network that fights human trafficking in Wisconsin. With over 25 years of nonprofit development experience, she has received numerous awards recognizing her innovative strategies in anti-trafficking work, including being the first recipient of the city of Racine’s Unsung Hero Award. Hemmig developed and oversees a specialized, professional advocacy team that has assisted over 350 sex trafficking and labor trafficking victims. She is a member of several law enforcement task forces and participates in proactive recovery efforts in partnership with federal, state, and regional agencies. She specializes in developing and leading customized training for professionals who work with sexually exploited and high-risk individuals. Hemmig also currently serves as the human trafficking support specialist for the Racine Police Department and as an associate with the National Criminal Justice Training Center, Fox Valley Technical College.

    Catherine Leonard Catherine Leonard, DePaul 2013, has been a staff attorney with LOTUS Legal Clinic since 2019, providing direct legal services to survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking. Before joining LOTUS, Leonard practiced immigration law in both the nonprofit and private sectors in Milwaukee and Seattle.

    Neal LofyNeal Lofy is an investigator with the Racine Police Department, assigned to the Special Investigations Unit as a Special Federal Officer with the FBI on the FBI Wisconsin Human Trafficking Task Force. He helped create the Human Trafficking Unit within the police department and collaborates with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Lofy organizes and leads small- and large-scale undercover operations and investigates human trafficking for national and international sex and labor cases. He trains professionals from a variety of backgrounds and brings a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach to his work. Lofy was named Top 40 under 40 in the world by the International Associations of Chiefs of Police. He is also co-founder and board president of Fight to End Exploitation.

    Erica Lounsberry Erica Lounsberry, American Univ. 2010 summa cum laude, is an Assistant U.S. Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. She serves as the Eastern District’s human trafficking coordinator and primarily handles forced labor and sex trafficking investigations and prosecutions. Lounsberry’s commitment to combatting human trafficking began more than 15 years ago, during an internship with the International Justice Mission in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she worked directly with child victims of the sex trade. Lounsberry spent more than six years as a state prosecutor in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. In addition to prosecuting trafficking crimes, she advised other prosecutors about possible connections to trafficking in their cases, assisted survivors to expunge criminal records related to their victimization, and conducted trainings for law enforcement and the community. Lounsberry’s experience with survivors also includes assisting victims of gender-based violence and commercial sexual exploitation with immigration petitions, including T- and U-Visa applications, Violence Against Women Act self-petitions, and asylum petitions.

    Karine Moreno-Taxman Karine Moreno-Taxman, U.W. 1983, is a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, where she handles complex criminal investigations and prosecutions. Moreno-Taxman also has been detailed by the U.S. Department of Justice to Brazil (2007-09), Mexico (2009-11), Panama (June 2016), and Malaysia (2017-19), where she provided mentoring and training regarding human trafficking to law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), members of the public, and businesses. She helped Malaysia start its first multijurisdictional human trafficking task force and first victim-assistance specialist program. She prosecutes international and domestic commercial sex trafficking cases, forced labor cases, and other complex federal crimes. She was the chair of the Eastern District of Wisconsin Federal Human Trafficking Task Force until 2019. Moreno-Taxman assisted Mexico in creating its national Amber Alert program (Alerta Amber), which has helped save more than 700 Mexican children. Because of the assistance she provided the Brazilian government, Brazil passed its first law that criminalized the possession of child pornography. In addition, she created a program that allowed Brazilian and U.S. authorities, working with the private sector, to identify victims of human trafficking before they were taken from Brazil to the United States. Moreno-Taxman has trained law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, NGOs, and the private sector in the United States and abroad on how to conduct successful human trafficking prosecutions that are trauma informed and victim centric. She always acknowledges and includes in her work the importance of working in a coordinated and proactive manner with nongovernmental, private and public entities.

    Ben PollerBen Poller has been in law enforcement for more than 26 years, serving the last 22 years for the Wisconsin Department of Justice-Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Poller, a special agent in charge (SAIC), has worked in a variety of investigative areas including narcotics enforcement, internet crimes against children, and human trafficking and has assisted in several homicide investigations, officer-involved shootings, and missing-children investigations. Poller also is involved with special teams and groups, including the Statewide Meth Team, the Child Abduction and Response Team, and the statewide Missing and Murdered Indigenous Womens group. In 2017, Poller was promoted to SAIC of a Human Trafficking Bureau he helped create for the DCI.

    Jennifer ZimmermannJennifer Zimmermann, U.W. 2010, has been a staff attorney with the Farmworker Project at Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Madison Office since 2018. The Farmworker Project provides free civil legal assistance to migrant, seasonal, and year-round agricultural workers throughout Wisconsin on a variety of legal concerns stemming from their employment, including wage theft, discrimination, unemployment insurance appeals, immigration relief, and civil claims based on labor trafficking and work-place criminal activity.

    Illicit Massage: The Intersection of Labor and Sex Trafficking

    Eight people were murdered in shootings at three Atlanta-area massage businesses in March 2021. The incidents shed light on some of the ties between labor trafficking and sex trafficking.

    By Julie Braun

    The largest known dataset on sex and labor trafficking in the United States identifies illicit massage businesses (IMBs) as among the most prevalent venues for the co-occurrence of labor and sex trafficking.10 The illicit massage industry (IMI) is comprised of “massage” businesses that operate in plain sight as fronts for sexual services. The industry is notoriously difficult to investigate and quantify. Experts estimate there are 9,000-11,000 IMBs operating in the United States.11

    Labor trafficking in IMBs takes the form of business owners coercing women into commercial activity without adequate payment – or any payment at all. They may be forced to endure illegal or exploitative conditions – many hours each day, seven days per week, without provision of any required benefits or employee protections – and made to believe these are in fact normal working conditions in the United States, thereby adding the elements of fraud and coercion.12

    Atlanta-area Shooting Victims

    On March 16, 2021, eight people were murdered in related shootings at three Atlanta-area massage businesses. At the time of the shootings, each business had ads or reviews on internet sites that advertise for illegal sexual services.13 Two reportedly had been targeted by the police in multiple prostitution stings.14 The alleged shooter15 was in custody within hours. He claimed his actions sprang from a sex addiction and that he targeted the locations to eliminate the temptation of commercial sex – a claim vehemently dismissed by many as excuse-making and victim-blaming.

    Physical violence is not as frequently used by IMBs to control women as in other types of trafficking, but violence against IMB victims from customers plays a role in other forms of coercion and control. Buyers might commit acts of violence including sexual assault, rape, punching, slapping, and assault with weapons.16

    The victims were at the locations for different reasons.One was a customer, another a contractor. Seven of the eight victims were women. Six were women of Asian descent, ranging in age from 44 to 74 years old, who worked in some capacity at the massage parlors.17 The eldest victim was a cook and housekeeper at one of the locations and often worked 12-hour days there. Many of the workers had limited English proficiency, four were U.S. citizens, and several reportedly lived on site for days at a time.18 The victims should be remembered as the individuals they were, with families who loved them and miss them and are left shattered by their loss. Their stories cannot be fully told; their voices now are silenced.

    The women trafficked in massage businesses are typically immigrants from China or South Korea, usually mothers between the ages of 35 and 55 who are looking for a way to support their families. They are often lied to or seriously misled about the type of work they’ll be doing, by traffickers who know the women have debts they need to pay or are otherwise in no position to say “no” to a source of income.19

    Causes of Sexual and Labor Exploitation

    The national reaction to the shootings was immediate. Memorials and gatherings decrying the violence and anti-Asian hate were held throughout the country. News reports and commentary reflected a national debate about which factors beget such violence, often sidestepping the issue of whether any of the targeted businesses endangered the victims by operating unlawfully. Was it another horrible anti-Asian hate crime? Or driven by misogyny? Should it draw our eyes to public policy related to low-wage workers or the vulnerability of immigrants? Or to the illicit massage industry? Yes. Yes, not to only one but to all these questions.

    Sexual and labor exploitation thrive in venues with low-wage workers who don’t speak English, don’t know their rights, and have few other options to support themselves and their families. The IMI exploits and exacerbates such vulnerabilities, creating an unsafe and isolated environment in which human trafficking can occur.

    Survivors (of human trafficking at IMBs) are controlled through coercion, including extreme intimidation, threats of shame, isolation from the outside community, debt bondage, exploitation of communication barriers, and explicit as well as implied threats.20

    Cultural shame combined with elements of force, fraud, and coercion – the very elements that make up the crime of trafficking – often lead women arrested at illicit massage businesses to insist to police that they are performing commercial sex acts of their own free will.21

    Holding Perpetrators Accountable

    Discussions about IMBs often default to a narrow focus on prostitution. Likewise, enforcement actions are often centered on prostitution and whether individuals at a suspected IMB are properly licensed. It is an unfortunate tendency because it keeps the spotlight on the forced criminality of victims rather than the corruption of the perpetrators. The ledgers, labor practices, and networks of IMB owners deserve as least as much scrutiny as the behavior of the vulnerable individuals within them. Would following the money in the IMI expose criminal networks, money laundering, wage theft, dangerous conditions and labor violations and help disrupt human trafficking within IMBs? Many believe it would.

    Such an analysis is difficult in Wisconsin because the business registration process doesn’t require naming all the beneficial owners of a massage business. That makes it harder to know who is profiting from an IMB and harder to connect the dots to find networked IMBs. IMB profiteers easily fly under the radar. While local jurisdictions can enact ordinances to regulate massage businesses, the result is a patchwork of regulations from which IMB owners can choose the most hospitable location to operate.

    The Atlanta-area shooter was prosecuted in two counties. He pleaded guilty in one case and was sentenced to four life sentences without parole. In the other county, where the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty and a hate-crime enhancement, the defendant has pleaded not guilty. As of this writing, a hearing has been scheduled in that case for April 19, 2022. In the meantime, there has been little follow-up reporting to answer lingering questions about the nature of the businesses he targeted. Those who operate within the IMI would like nothing more than to avoid such questions. They would prefer we look the other way as they continue to reap massive profits from an illicit industry that endangers and exploits the vulnerable.

    Julie BraunJulie Braun has over 22 years of criminal justice public policy experience at the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ), specializing in victim rights, public safety, and human trafficking policy.

    She is the policy initiatives advisor to the DOJ Office of Crime Victim Services and the attorney general’s advisory Crime Victims Council and works across disciplines to provide high-level analysis and recommendations to shape and advance statewide policy initatives. She is also operations director of the Wisconsin Crime Victims Rights Board.

    Meet Our Contributors

    How has your career surprised you?

    Rachel K. MonacoThe surprise has been in that I do not have one career! Elder law, trusts and estates, mediation, art therapy, nonprofit founder and executive, victims’ rights lawyer, teaching, mentoring, and writing – instead of choosing one of these paths, I blended them all over the years and have yet to find a way to settle down and choose one.

    I share this delightful phrase from Wisconsin Lawyer managing editor Karlé Lester – I’m a “curly thinker.” That sure rings true for me.

    I am still a bit self-conscious about not really fitting into any one path. Don’t ask me “what do you do” at a cocktail party – so awkward! But clearly, the law has offered me a way to honor so many things I value: protecting vulnerable people, finding efficient ways through conflict, opening channels for philanthropy, inspiring the next generation, merging creativity and advocacy for justice, and giving people a sense of legacy and fulfillment when they can plan for their future.

    I am so lucky to be able to choose the work I love and be open to what comes my way. For every yes my heart told me to pursue, against all logic and reason, I’ve grown in my capacity to be of service to my community and find joy in my work. I want to continue to be brave and curly.

    Rachel K. Monaco, Rachel K. Monaco LLC, Richfield.

    Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email Check out our writing and submission guidelines.


    1 Santana was trafficked for labor in Wisconsin and provided assistance by Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Farmworker Project. He volunteered to share his thoughts so that readers could hear directly from a survivor. We use a pseudonym for his privacy and safety.

    2 The first article in the series is Rachel Monaco-Wilcox, Human Trafficking in Wisconsin: Lifelines for Survivors, Wis. Law. (Oct. 2021),

    3 Wisconsin’s human trafficking law is at Wis. Stat. section 940.302. The federal law against forced labor is at 18 U.S.C. § 1589. Other federal and state laws such as wage, licensing, and labor laws can also be used to charge other crimes in situations in which labor trafficking is involved but might not be able to be prosecuted.

    4 Off. Victims of Crime – Human Trafficking Capacity Building Ctr., Understanding Labor Trafficking, (last visited Dec. 3, 2021).

    5 Alexandra Hall & Sarah Whites-Koditschek, Fainting and Freezing in the Fields: Alleged Labor Trafficking Victim Tells of Mistreatment in Wisconsin, Georgia, Wis. Pub. Radio (Sept. 9, 2019),

    6 Bruce Vielmetti, Walworth County Fairgrounds at Center of Human Trafficking Investigation, Milwaukee J. Sentinel (Aug. 30, 2021),

    7 Elliot Hughes, Milwaukee Public Schools Teacher Accused of Human Trafficking, Milwaukee J. Sentinel (Sept. 4, 2019),

    8 Hall & Whites-Koditschek, supra note 5.

    9 Disclaimer: With regard to the responses of Erica Lounsberry and Karine Moreno-Taxman, the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, or the Department of Justice.

    10 Polaris, 2019 U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, (last visited Dec. 3, 2021).

    11 Rochelle Keyhan et al., Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses, Polaris (Jan. 2018) [hereinafter Polaris 2018],; see also Heyrick Research, SNAPSHOT – The Illicit Massage Industry at a Glance (July 2021),

    12 Polaris 2018, supra note 11.

    13 J. Edwards & A. Judd, Before Killing Spree, Georgia Let an Industry that Exploits Asian Women Flourish. Atlanta J. Const. (March 20, 2021),; see also Heyrick Research, SNAPSHOT – The Backdrop of the Atlanta Shootings: Ignoring Illicit Massage Businesses Perpetuates Worker Vulnerability (May 2021),

    14 K. Brunback & J. Collins, Attacked Spas had been Targeted by Prostitution Stings, ABC News (March 20, 2021),

    15 Robert Aaron Long reportedly confessed to the shootings while in custody. He pleaded guilty on July 27, 2021, to four of the murders in Cherokee County and not guilty to 19 counts involving the other four victims in Fulton County, where the death penalty is being sought.

    16 Polaris 2018, supra note 11.

    17 Although the victims’ names are widely publicly available, the author does not use the names here, out of respect for family members who have expressed a desire for privacy.

    18 Rachel Treisman, What We Know About the Victims of the Atlanta-Area Shootings, NPR (March 24, 2021),; 4 People of Korean Descent Killed in Atlanta Shootings: Foreign Ministry, Korea Herald (March 17, 2021),; A. Vera & J. Hanna, Here’s What We Know About the Metro Atlanta Spa Shootings that Left 8 Dead, CNN (March 19, 2021),; A. Cha et al., Atlanta Spa Shooting Victims Highlight Struggles for Asian and Asian American Immigrant Women in Low-Wage Jobs, Wash. Post (March 20, 2021),; H. Park, Soon Chung Park Worked Long Days as a Single Mom to Bring 5 Kids from Korea to U.S., NBC News (March 25, 2021),

    19 Polaris, Typology of Modern Slavery Defining Sex and Labor Trafficking in the United States, (March 1, 2017),


    21 Polaris 2018, supra note 11.

    » Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 18-32 (January 2022).

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