By Azriel James RelphNBC News Investigations producer
updated 7/11/2011 9:19:43 AM ET
On a recent sweltering afternoon, two women sat at a restaurant table in a small American town, sharing conversation and a cookie and keeping cool. The normally busy eatery was quiet, but even if it had been packed they would have been the oddest couple in the room – a woman who came to this country illegally and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
"Very, very good," replied the woman across the table in a heavy South American accent.
"How's your back? Is it treating you OK?" asked the agent.
We can’t tell you their actual names. Special Agent Jones, her gold badge clipped to her belt and and ICE logo on her black government-issue polo shirt, often works undercover. Naming her could blow that. And her companion, whom we’ll call Laura, is a crime victim. Using her real name or showing her face could give her tormentors all they need to retaliate. They are both women in their 30s, but the gray streaks running through Laura’s dark hair are suggestions of the pain she has endured.
Laura is a victim of human trafficking who risked her safety by testifying against the man who brought her to this country and forced her to work as a sex slave for at least seven years. Special Agent Jones was a part of the team that saved her.
Their unusual relationship is the result of an alliance that has developed over the past decade, as U.S. law enforcement agencies have sought to enlist victims to help dismantle the growing number of human trafficking rings operating in the U.S.
To do that, they must overcome the fear that the victims have for both their captors and for ICE and other law enforcement agencies. One of their main tools to accomplish that is a special “T Visa,” which offers the victims a path to freedom — and even citizenship — in exchange for their help putting modern day slave runners behind bars.
But a review of the program by NBC News shows that while the visas are effective in gaining cooperation, they aren’t being used nearly as often as they could be, leaving thousands more men, women and children at risk.
Whirlwind romance, heartbreaking betrayal Laura can’t remember some details of her ordeal, including how long ago she was smuggled into the U.S. — somewhere between 10 and 12 years ago, she reckons. But others — like how she got here — are seared into her memory.
She met a man in her home country when she was in her 20s. He swept her off of her feet, and told her he loved her. She took him to meet her family. When he asked her to go to the U.S. for six months, they cautioned against it, but she was in love and couldn't say no. They boarded a flight north and only then, on the airplane, did he lay out what he really had in mind for her.
"You're going to the United States," she remembers him telling her, "to work like a prostitute." Laura said she wanted to scream for help, but he told her to remember that he knew where her family was. "I have a lot of friends and I know where everybody lives," he threatened.
It was a cold winter night when she landed in Washington, D.C. The man passed her off to a couple who took her directly to an old house. She laid awake all night in shock, listening to rats scrape around. All she could think about was how she wanted to phone her family — if only someone in this unfamiliar and unfriendly place could help her make a call.
But Laura had no allies in this frightening new land. She was now an unwilling sex worker in brothels catering to immigrant Latinos in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Atlanta and New York. She remained the "property" of her trafficker, who arranged her movements, as well as those of other women and girls he lured to the U.S. with similar false promises.
She remembers one especially horrific night in Maryland. "I slept with 103 men," she says. "That is the worst day in my life."
And she was not alone. "I remember, he say, 'You no make money, because the other women [had sex with] 130.' A lot of people don't believe it, and say 'No, it's impossible.'"
Not only is it possible, it happens all the time, all across America, according to Bradley Myles, executive director of Polaris Project, a nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
"Basically there's this whole sex trafficking network that exists in the United States, and it predominantly targets and victimizes women and children from Latin American countries," Myles said.
Fear of incarceration due to her undocumented status and concern for the safety of her family kept Laura from attempting escape or contacting authorities. But one day, that fear turned into hope, when Special Agent Jones came through the brothel door.
"I love to protect and serve the people of this country — whether they are citizens or undocumented aliens," Jones said.
During her early years as an ICE agent, Jones worked on Secret Service details for President George W. Bush, and Sen. John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. An avid runner — ICE agents have to be in top physical shape — Jones helped guard Bush when he went jogging. But when she was asked by the Secret Service whether she would like to join the agency full-time, Jones declined. She had her heart set on working undercover investigations with ICE.
She wanted to make sure that the protection extended to the community she was policing, that the illegal immigrants would be treated with humanity and fairness. "At the end of the day, we're all people here," she said.
Three years ago, after approximately eight months of surveillance and undercover investigation — including late-night stakeouts, digging through trash, getting evidence any way they could — Jones and fellow ICE agents approached a house on a quiet street in an average American suburb and knocked on the door. They knew that the front door was not shielding a family sitting around a dining room table discussing their day, but a brothel where women and girls as young as 14 were being forced to have sex with "Johns" who paid $25 for 15-minute sessions. The women and girls worked all day and night, and almost never saw a penny.
Laura had been in this brothel network for over seven years by now. She had managed to make contact with her family about five years into her ordeal. They told her that she needed to contact law enforcement.