Human trafficking refers to people who are forced into labor or sexual exploitation. And the issue hits close to home.
The Interstate 10 corridor through Houston is the No. 1 trafficking route in the U.S. Some of the business reaches deep into North Texas. The public policy advocacy group Children at Risk recently led a tour of the seedier side of Dallas that’s the heart of the trafficking trade.
Dixie Hairston is a tour guide, but not the kind you might think of. The public policy coordinator for Children at Risk can tell you all the businesses in town that have run into trouble for trafficking young women and teens.
At one stop in front of a local strip club, she talks about how its owner settled a lawsuit with a group of women for $10 million in unpaid wages. Her point: Sex trafficking is often tied to labor trafficking. The women are taken advantage of physically and financially.
“There will always be demand as long as there are buyers. We see that it’s a market-driven economy,” Hairston said. “Supply has to equal demand and we know that pimps and traffickers know that, and they use that demand to further exploit women and children.”
Hairston says sex trafficking doesn’t discriminate – it happens to people of any race and any background. There are certain people at greater risk, including runaways and homeless kids. And she says more than half of rescued trafficking victims come from the foster care system.
“Some of our most vulnerable youth are being approached by these traffickers and are in need of a house or food or love, affection – all of these things that they’ve never had before and are suddenly being promised all of those things,” she said.
That vulnerability makes it easier for traffickers to approach their victims. In Dallas, a lot of the transactions are happening online through websites that only certain people know about. North Texas is full of massage parlors and spas that claim to provide legitimate services. Really, they deal in commercial sex. Hairston says traffickers have a lot of control.
“A lot of times we see bar codes or ownership tattoos,” Hairston said. “There’s a prominent trafficker in Houston that tattooed roosters on his girls’ necks. And he was called El Gallo.”
That means rooster in Spanish. In Houston, suspect bars or cantinas cater to Latino men. In Dallas, some spas bring in women from Asia. And how a place looks doesn’t always indicate what’s going on inside.
"As far as hotels … it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the Deluxe Motor Inn or you’re talking about the Hilton Anatole or the Four Seasons – they all have stuff going on now,” said Clayton Platt, a special agent for the Texas Department of Public Safety. “There’s no way around it.”
Platt says his human trafficking unit has been to every class of hotel in the Dallas area. But some businesses have stepped up. Wingate trains it employees to spot human trafficking. And the hotel chain also gave $1 million to Polaris, an organization that fights human trafficking and help victims.
Yusra Jabeen, who works for Children at Risk, was on the recent tour.
“This is a very dark hidden world, but it exists,” Jabeen said. “So that’s one of the things that prompted me to come here to learn about this issue because it’s a really big issue and everyone is scared to talk about.”
Jabeen is originally from Pakistan and says she worries about how this topic is taboo in many cultures and countries. But now, she says, she can help spread the message.