Friday, November 21, 2014

In a Queens Court, Women Arrested for Prostitution Are Seen as Victims

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/nyregion/in-a-queens-court-women-arrested-for-prostitution-are-seen-as-victims.html?emc=edit_tnt_20141121&nlid=52322620&tntemail0=y

By 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, the defendants start filing into the fluorescent-lit hallway outside Judge Toko Serita’s courtroom in Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens, checking anxiously for their names on a sheet of paper behind glass. Many of the women are Chinese and find that their names, typed in English, are misspelled.
In the hallway, they speak mostly in Mandarin, in accents from across China. Some speak Korean. They meet with their court-appointed lawyers in the hallway, often helped by an interpreter born in Fujian Province and hired by the city courts. A snazzy dresser, the interpreter bounces from one defendant to the next; he has found himself adding terms to his usual vocabulary: prostitution (“maiyin”), illegal massage (“feifa anmo”), unlicensed massage (“wuzheng anmo”).
This is the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, which is marking its 10th anniversary next month, and which serves as a model for astatewide 11-court program that began last year. The intention is to change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals. Most are offered a deal: Take part in a set number of counseling sessions, usually five or six, and the charges will be dismissed and the record sealed.
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Outside the courtroom. CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
After 13 months, the five New York City courts are still a work in progress, their success tracked more in individual stories than statistics.
“This court is not devised to solve the problems of trafficking,” Judge Serita said of the program, “but to address one of the unfortunate byproducts, which is the arrest of these defendants on prostitution charges.”
All defendants in the specialized courts are presumed to be victims at risk, the first of many assumptions made, in part, because of the silence surrounding sex trafficking. That silence also makes it tougher to shift social mores. Not only do the police and the justice system still treat prostitution as a crime, but the women themselves, most undocumented, often don’t define themselves as having been trafficked — whether out of fear, shame or choice.
New York State’s progressive anti-trafficking law has no definition of a victim, but describes the coercive tactics a trafficker uses. These include fraud, physical injury, withholding or destroying immigration documents and exploiting debt.
At no point in the proceedings does the judge, the prosecutor or the defense lawyer ask if the defendants have been trafficked; nor is there a quid pro quo to give up a trafficker. It is rare, but the hope is that the women, perhaps after working with counselors, will feel comfortable describing the conditions that led them to prostitution.
“It’s a trigger mechanism to establish contact between individuals and service providers,” Judge Serita said of the court. “We know that five sessions is not necessarily going to change some people’s lives, but if they can establish meaningful contact with somebody else that can be used in the future, that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Inside the courtroom, the drama may seem perfunctory. The defendants have been charged with prostitution or loitering with intent to engage in prostitution, both misdemeanors. After arraignment, Kimberly Affronti, the assistant district attorney who has been the Queens court’s only prosecutor since its inception in 2004, decides what to offer the defendants after discussing options with their lawyers.
“This court is a lot more nonadversarial than other courts,” Ms. Affronti said. “It’s a team effort.”
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Judge Toko Serita listening to cases. She may hear 40 cases in three hours during one Friday session.CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
For a first offense, five counseling sessions is the primary option. A defendant can also plead guilty to disorderly conduct; a small percentage of clients choose to fight their charges and get sent to an all-purpose court.
During an initial appearance, Judge Serita will refer the defendant to one of the court-approved counseling organizations. Upon completion of the sessions, she will grant an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which means that if the defendant stays out of trouble for up to six months, the record will be sealed. Over the past year, her court has issued 398 such adjournments out of 639 cases heard.
The Queens court has changed significantly in the decade since Judge Fernando M. Camacho founded it. Dismayed at seeing the same American-born teenage girls reappearing in his court for prostitution, Judge Camacho said he wanted to break the cycle by offering them alternatives to a criminal record or incarceration.
Now, a majority of the defendants who sit in the worn walnut benches are either Latin American women or, even more often, older, undocumented immigrants from Asia, ranging in age from 30 to 50. According to statistics Judge Serita’s court has kept, Asian defendants represented 27 percent of the cases in 2010. In 2014, they have made up 40 percent.
If Judge Serita, 53, seems sensitive on the bench to the plight of new immigrants, perhaps it is because she, too, was an immigrant, coming to this country with her parents as a 5-year-old from Sapporo, Japan. As an only child attending elementary school in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, in the late 1960s, she would bring the lunch her father, an artist, packed for her in a bento box. “I used to get teased all the time,” she said.
She turned an inclination for public service into work as a Legal Aid appellate lawyer and was appointed to the bench by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2005, becoming the first Japanese-American judge in the state court.
On Fridays, Judge Serita usually hears more than 40 cases in three hours. “How are you today?” she asks each of the women, inquiring whether they take English classes and praising their progress. Several defendants said they noticed less that she was an Asian woman and more that she had a warm demeanor. On other days, she presides over the drug treatment andmental health courts in Queens.
The trafficking court, she acknowledged, is a Catch-22: For people to feel less like criminals, they must first go through the criminal justice system.
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A woman leaving Human Trafficking Intervention Court after her case was heard.CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
Leigh Latimer, the Legal Aid Society lawyer assigned to Judge Serita’s court, agreed. “There is a somewhat more recent view that clients are potentially victims, but we’re still arresting them at a very rapid pace,” she said. “We’re trying to solve their problems through being arrested, which is not an affirming process.”
Judge Serita has tried to offset that by assembling a large network of counselors and court advocates. Judge Camacho originally partnered with Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, and Judge Serita has added a half-dozen more, including two that work with Asian women: Restore NYCand New York Asian Women’s Center. On Fridays, counselors from those groups stand with clipboards outside the courtroom, waiting to sign women up.
Moving in and out of the courtroom is Paul Puma, 40, the head court officer for the trafficking court. He, too, must make assumptions.
“When at any time a defendant comes in escorted by a male, I just ask the male to step outside,” Mr. Puma said, adding: “Nine times out of 10, I know I am speaking to their handler, or whatever you want to call them.
“I don’t want them in the court,” Mr. Puma continued. “I want the women free to be able to take advantage of the services this court offers. I don’t have a legal right to stop them from coming in there. But I tell them, ‘I’ll let the judge and the prosecutor know that if you insist on being here for this young lady, they’re going to want to know who you are.’ ”
One Mandarin-speaking man who waited outside seemed less than encouraging about the counseling sessions his female friend would be attending.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he said in Mandarin, “this is just propaganda.” He would not give his name.
On several Fridays, nearly a dozen women said during interviews in Mandarin that they did not feel like trafficking victims, but victims of the police. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity because their cases were still pending.
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Paul Puma, the head court officer.CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
“My name has been tarnished,” said one woman, who was upset that her case was “lumped with all those others.” She denied performing a sex act, but the police report contradicted that, Ms. Affronti said.
Another woman explained that she was arrested at 4 a.m. on her sixth day of work. She and her sister, who quit after the second day because she sensed “something was not right,” owed more than $80,000 to friends and family members who raised the money for them to come to the United States from Fuzhou.
That type of pressure to pay back smuggling agents — often with interest as high as 12 percent — is considered “debt bondage.” It is a more subtle condition of human trafficking, but is pervasive in New York’s Asian communities, lawyers say.
“Of course we have to borrow,” said the sister who was not arrested. “Who has that kind of money?”
The women who accept the court’s deal attend full-day group counseling sessions once a week; they often begin the day with yoga, and then learn about the court process, their rights and prostitution laws.
X. — who asked to be identified only by her first initial because she had not told her family in China she had worked as a prostitute — told a common story of debt bondage. Last November, she owed $60,000 to the travel agent who arranged for her entry to the United States. Because she had to pay $500 for her airport pickup, she soon began running out of money.
She could not find a job without work papers, and by the time she started looking through the classifieds of World Journal, a popular Chinese-language newspaper, she was desperate.
The section is full of ads for so-called authentic massage — “tuina” — and there are plenty of questionable ones, too, like those looking for a “spicy little sister” or “a woman tender and warm.” One ad seeking massage workers promised $500 daily; another, “tens of thousands” for a month.
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The hallway outside the courtroom.CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
She was 42, alone and broke; she agreed to work at the first place that was hiring.
It was not until her new boss drove her to the job — in a Queens house — that first day, she said, that he told her she would be performing sexual services instead of massages. “All the women like you who come here and don’t have friends to help them — they all do it,” he told her.
One month later, she was arrested and felt humiliated. But after she appeared before Judge Serita and completed the counseling sessions, the charges were dropped and her case was sealed.
Ms. Latimer, the Legal Aid lawyer, put X. in touch with Sanctuary for Families, an organization helping victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence; Sanctuary is now working on a visa application for her and arranges medical appointments for her problems incurred during that dark month last fall.
“I recognize that I took the wrong path,” X. said in Mandarin in an interview recently, interpreted by Rosie Wang, 26, a legal fellow at Sanctuary and recent graduate of Columbia Law School.
“But,” X. continued, “I also think that if I didn’t, and these bad things didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be connected to so many people who have helped me so much.”
Despite the court’s innovative ambitions, it hasn’t always been able to meet the day-to-day needs of the women whom it aims to help. As the number of Asian defendants has surged in Queens, the private counseling agencies, already short of money, have had trouble keeping pace. Over the summer, defendants faced waits of up to six weeks to begin their court-mandated counseling with the New York Asian Women’s Center or Restore NYC. Both organizations said recently that there currently were no waits.
Danielle Sennett, a public defender with Queens Law Associates who is assigned to the court, said any delay could make it more difficult for clients to get work and could keep them stuck, living in danger. “Some women who are in high-risk situations are not being served,” Ms. Sennett said.
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Rosie Wang, a legal fellow with Sanctuary for Families, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence.CreditUli Seit for The New York Times
The courts do not keep a record of recidivism, although if women are rearrested, they often return to fulfill more counseling sessions. Despite efforts by the New York Police Department’s vice enforcement squad, advocates say the message has not always filtered to the precinct level to treat women as victims when arresting them.
So far this year, the Police Department recorded 686 arrests in Queens on misdemeanor charges of prostitution and loitering, including 149 in the 109th Precinct, covering Flushing, which is where most of the massage parlors in the borough operate.
Queens Criminal Court has only 15 cases pending for trafficking, a felony that is tried in a separate courtroom, deliberately far from Judge Serita’s court.
“In a system that prioritizes a high volume of low-level arrests, you still have to ask: ‘Who is getting arrested?’ ” said Kate Mogulescu, the supervising lawyer of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project for the Legal Aid Society in New York. “What’s the endgame?”
The New York State chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, acknowledged that “the focus should be on the demand, on the traffickers and the buyers.” But he added: “The reality is we don’t make decisions as to who gets arrested, and we want to assure that these victims get the assistance that they need and ultimately get out of ‘the life.’ ”
M., 40, who asked to be identified only by her first initial because she is undocumented, is one of those trying to get out. Arrested on a prostitution charge in Queens in May, she went through the counseling program at the New York Asian Women’s Center; when it was over, the group told her to call if she ever ran into trouble again.
M. said she had been working at what she thought was a legitimate Manhattan massage parlor in September when her bosses forced her to perform commercial sex. They beat her and threatened her life if she did not continue, she said. Desperate, she called the Women’s Center, which swiftly connected her with Sanctuary for legal help.
Ms. Wang, who came to this country from Chengdu when she was 1 and jokes that she speaks Mandarin with an American accent, met with M.
Gradually, M. felt comfortable telling her of the abuse and became emboldened by Sanctuary’s support. “After the incident happened where I was trafficked, I was feeling very lost,” M. said in an interview, with Ms. Wang interpreting. “But now I feel like I have the courage to talk to people about it, including law enforcement.”
Like many Chinese immigrants who settle in Flushing, M. had applied for political asylum when she arrived. The lawyer she approached said it would cost $3,500 and demanded $500 upfront, which she paid. His office has since closed.
Sanctuary explained to her and many other clients that political asylum is rarely granted and applying for it risks deportation. Instead, women like M. are better off applying for a T Visa, reserved for victims of trafficking, said Melissa Brennan, Sanctuary’s senior staff lawyer in Queens. In July, Ms. Brennan created a free project involving seven New York law firms that have since given 34 immigration consultations. The program is now helping nine clients, including M., to apply for legal status.
“Launching this project, I never expected to see the level of disclosure that we have,” Ms. Brennan said. Six women have told Ms. Wang that they were victims, and Sanctuary is following other cases of potential trafficking.
In a court that is based on assumptions, success can be hard to define. Or it can come splashing down in grateful tears.


“I just don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” M. said.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bangladesh Intercepts Ship Holding 600 Trafficking Victims

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/world/bangladesh-intercepts-ship-holding-600-trafficking-victims.html?emc=edit_tnt_20141118&nlid=52322620&tntemail0=y&_r=0

NEW DELHI — The Bangladeshi Navy said Tuesday that it had intercepted a small ship holding more than 600 victims of human trafficking the day before.
The passengers aboard the ship, mostly from Bangladesh or Myanmar, had been heading to Malaysia, M. Rashed Ali, a navy spokesman, said by phone from Dhaka. The ship reached the Bangladeshi harbor of Chittagong on Tuesday evening.
The victims were found aboard a trawler flying the Myanmar flag, Reuters quoted the navy spokesman as saying. The boat was in the Bay of Bengal about 135 nautical miles from St. Martin’s Island, part of southernmost Bangladesh.
Many Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and impoverished Bangladeshis risk the journey in hopes of earning money overseas. During the first 10 months of this year, the Bangladeshi Coast Guard intercepted and detained 900 trafficking victims.
“These are poor people, and they travel in inhuman conditions, on top of each other,” said M. Mashric Ur Rahim, a Coast Guard commander.
The journey to Malaysia from Bangladesh typically includes a stopover in Thailand and lasts six to 10 days, with illegal passengers moving between boats, trawlers, and small ships.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Immigrant Surge Rooted in Law to Curb Child Trafficking

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/us/immigrant-surge-rooted-in-law-to-curb-child-trafficking.html?emc=edit_tnt_20140707&nlid=52322620&tntemail0=y&_r=0

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The Immigration Debate’s Twin Issues

As tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors cross into the United States this year, immigration reform is stalled. The issues are related but not the same, Here’s why.
 Video CreditBy Christian Roman, Carrie Halperin and Emily B. Hager on Publish DateJuly 7, 2014. Image CreditEric Gay/Associated Press
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Continue reading the main story
WASHINGTON — It was one of the final pieces of legislation signed into law by PresidentGeorge W. Bush, a measure that passed without controversy, along with a pension bill and another one calling for national parks to be commemorated on quarters.
“This is a piece of legislation we’re very proud to sign,” a White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, told reporters on Dec. 23, 2008, as the president put his pen to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, named for a 19th-century British abolitionist. “This program has been very effective around the world in trying to stop trafficking in persons.”
Now the legislation, enacted quietly during the transition to the Obama administration, is at the root of the potentially calamitous flow of unaccompanied minors to the nation’s southern border.
Originally pushed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers as well as by evangelical groups to combat sex trafficking, the bill gave substantial new protections to children entering the country alone who were not from Mexico or Canada by prohibiting them from being quickly sent back to their country of origin.
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President George W. Bush signing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. CreditCharles Dharapak/Associated Press
Instead, it required that they be given an opportunity to appear at an immigration hearing and consult with an advocate, and it recommended that they have access to counsel. It also required that they be turned over to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the agency was directed to place the minor “in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child” and to explore reuniting those children with family members.
The Obama administration says the law is partly responsible for tying its hands in dealing with the current influx of children. Officials have suggested that the White House might seek flexibility in the law’s requirements when it asks Congress to provide emergency funds to contend with the latest immigration crisis, a request that could come as early as Tuesday. About 52,000 minors without their parents have been caught at the Southwest border since October.
“Giving the secretary of homeland security additional authority and discretion that he can use to confront that situation more efficiently, making sure that we are acknowledging the humanitarian issues that are at stake while also enforcing the law, is a priority,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Monday. “It’s the priority of this administration, and if you listen to the public comments of Democrats and Republicans, it sounds like it’s a bipartisan priority.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who helped write the measure, said the White House does not need new power to act. “That law already provides the administration with flexibility to accelerate the judicial process in times of crisis,” she said. “The administration should use that flexibility to speed up the system while still treating these children humanely, with compassion and respect.”
On Capitol Hill, Democrats said they expected that the administration’s initial request for border money would not push for changes in the trafficking law but that the White House would try to work with relevant congressional committees to eventually win revisions.
Democrats have shown reluctance to endorse narrow immigration law changes after House Republicans balked at a much more sweeping overhaul and seem hesitant to tinker too much with the William Wilberforce Act.
In a recent letter to Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said Congress must ensure that the provisions of the trafficking victims act, “which passed the House and Senate unanimously and was also signed into law by President Bush, are fully enforced, so that due process is provided to unaccompanied children and the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children is protected.”
Republicans, who are calling for changes that would make it easier to send them back, blame President Obama for the surge of children at the border, saying he provided a lure by instituting a program that deferred deportations for some immigrants who entered the nation illegally as children.
They say the effort to point to the Bush-era law is a meant to deflect attention from the administration and make both parties culpable.
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Boys waited to make phone calls in June at a United States Customs and Border Protection center in Nogales, Ariz. CreditPool photo by Ross D. Franklin
Representative Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican and a chief backer of the original bill, said multiple factors contributed to the crisis, including “exploitation of our laws, the ungoverned space in Central America, as well as the desperate poverty faced by those deciding to cross.”
“With all these factors in mind, it’s hard to think that today’s situation at the border can be directly attributed to a law that’s been in effect now for six years,” Mr. Fortenberry said.
What many can agree on is that the Wilberforce law was not enacted with the idea of dealing with the current flow of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors or providing an incentive for children to reach the border.
“It is classic unintended consequences,” said Marc R. Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. “This was certainly not what was envisioned.”
Given the tense partisanship that now surrounds nearly every aspect of border policy, it is hard to imagine that a bill making such substantive changes could breeze through Congress. But the trafficking measure did so in the Bush administration’s last weeks, and it did so with bipartisan backing without so much as a recorded vote in the Senate.
Advocates saw it as a breakthrough on sex trafficking after Congress had already scuttled an earlier attempt at broad immigration reform despite the strong backing of Mr. Bush.
Just two House Republicans — Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona and Representative Paul Broun of Georgia — opposed the measure when it first passed the House in 2007, but it went through Congress without opposition and with little notice in the post-election session of 2008.
Aides to Mr. Flake, now a senator, said he did not foresee the current problems but was more concerned about holding the line on federal spending at the time. He now backs revising the law. “Congress needs to change what it can, as soon as it can, to ensure that these unaccompanied minors are sent home without delay,” he said.
Immigration advocates say that they see no need for changes in the law and that the Obama administration should be able to work within the existing framework to bring some order under a law that is working to meet its original purpose.
“First and foremost,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, who was an immigration adviser to Senator Edward M. Kennedy at the time of the bill’s passage, “there was a recognition that these kids are incredibly vulnerable when they are moving across international borders alone.