Trafficking in the Northwest

Trafficking will take many hands to stop it, but we can. And we must.

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Several years ago I was reading an article in a national magazine on human trafficking.

I was stunned when I came upon the sentence “the hotbed of human trafficking is the stretch of I-5 between Portland and Seattle.”

That’s home for me.

For a variety of reasons, from transportation hubs to global ports to agriculture to a large military presence, to wide open spaces, we, here in the Northwest, hold all the ingredients to make human trafficking possible – and profitable.

Human trafficking splits into two major categories – cheap labor and sex.

Our particular – and local – “stretch of I-5” offers ample opportunities for the marketing and delivery of both.

In those years before COVID, most cheap labor veered east, into the agricultural areas of Eastern Washington – primarily the Yakima and Wenatchee orchards.

There, working in near obscurity they prepared and picked our fruits and vegetables and sent some money home and sent more to those who had smuggled them into this country for a “better life.”

Stories abound of orchard owners (or other handlers) keeping their passports and holding them, as near slaves, on the premises.

The sex “workers,” as you might imagine, went to the major cities – primarily Seattle and Portland.

There’s a scene in one of Jane Austen’s novels where a man who grew up poor comes back to his home town, immensely rich and buys the largest estate in the village. When questioned on how he acquired so much wealth, his answer was very simple; cater to the weaknesses of others.

This is what human traffickers do; they offer cheap labor to those who want it, and cheap, no-obligation sex to those who want that.

Trafficking in these, and other “forbidden fruit” areas might be “profitable” but creates a surging black hole in communities and certainly the lives of every individual and family it touches.

I know one such family.

Trafficking, with its near gravitational pull, draws in money, drugs and all manner of illicit activity.

And pulls in any who, by bad luck or circumstance, are drawn into its orbit.

That was the fate of the family I know.

These friends had a daughter. She was shy, timid and protected.

Maybe too protected.

I don’t know the exact steps she took, but somehow she went from private, Christian schools to home schooled to “working lower Pacific Avenue.”

Thanks to somehow meeting “the right people,” she went from never smoking a cigarette or drinking beer to shooting-up heroin.

She went from one of Tacoma’s most protected suburbs to the sleaziest motels along Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue.

Geographically she didn’t get very far. But in life experiences she’s seen more of the dark underside of humanity than most of us could ever imagine.

The last time I saw her, she was with her mother (our old friend) on a shopping trip.

Her mother sees her about once a year, if that, so I knew this was a rare occurrence – one so unusual that it was unlikely to ever happen again.

At first I didn’t recognize her. At age 25 or so, she looked older than her mother. She had tattoos and a look as hardened and as cynical as you might imagine.

Her mother, weary with worry for too many years, looked relieved to have her daughter, even for a few minutes, alongside her doing these most routine (for most of us) shopping errands.

There was also the near tangible sense, her mother told us later, and I felt it too, that like virtually every other meeting with her, this moment, however mundane to everyone around them, could easily be the last time we would see her.

This young woman’s “friends,” handlers or whatever you want to call them, pulled her, lured her, and now keep her, in a world whose buildings and streets we drive by, but whose rules and realities are so alien that we could not imagine them.

We might intersect that world in a legal case or a newspaper headline. If that.

But that world surges right alongside ours.

It is like a whirlpool sucking the life out of our communities, and every individual it touches.

My wife has a friend who is a lawyer with a specialty in trafficked cases. She says that the average sex-trafficked female lives seven years after being rescued.

We might say to ourselves that these young women “deserve their fate.”

But no one deserves what they go through.

No one “deserves” degradation, addiction and a level of desperation few of us could begin to imagine.

Like every component of a “market” economy, trafficking only “works” because it is, for some, financially rewarding.

Those young women, and their families are only collateral damage, like toxic waste in an industrial process, as some, like the Jane Austen character, make their fortunes.

As with any business, trafficking requires layers of organization, providers and sources.

Trafficking could not exist without a network of lawyers, transportation and housing providers and many more.

The reach of any one of these might touch far closer than you might want to believe.

Sometimes I wonder how, especially in a time of COVID, such a network could continue.

Trafficking, by definition, operates under the radar of law enforcement and, even though in plain sight for those who participate, invisible to most of us.

To them, COVID protocols, like any standard legal or ethical restraints, are just another set of abstractions that apply to everyone else.

For addicts, every act, every moment, every conversation and certainly anything of value is seen as just another step to, or obstacle to, escape or relief, however temporary.

About a year ago, the young woman we know had been arrested.

She was arrested for soliciting, but was actively involved in a drug house and various other illegal activities.

Her mother was ecstatic that, for a short time at least, she knew where her daughter was. But, for better or worse, they didn’t keep her long.

She’s back on the streets, subject to any degradation any anonymous stranger comes up with.

Her probability of survival decreases every day. Sores, disease and infections, even under the best of circumstances were always a potential threat – in the age of COVID, much more.

She’s not an alien, or even a stranger. She could have gone to school with you or someone you know.

She, and her parents, could have been your neighbors.

Trafficking takes many hands to make it work. And it will take many hands to stop it, but we can.

And we must.

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