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Enslaved at the Border

MARTA AND LUISA had always fantasized about leaving their small town in northern Mexico to become dancers in a big city.

As the teenage sisters sat in the bed of a rusted pickup truck speeding toward the U.S. border, they thought their dreams would soon become reality. After sunset, the truck screeched to an abrupt stop. A middle-aged man with a skeleton tattoo on his arm hopped out of the driver’s seat, gritted his yellow teeth, and mumbled, “Vamos.” The time had come to complete the journey by foot.

Marta and Luisa walked closely behind the man and his two associates for hours along the desert paths they believed led to a brighter future. When they crossed the border into Arizona at about midnight, the tattooed man forcefully grabbed 16-year-old Marta and separated her from her older sister.

He explained that although he previously offered to help the girls cross the border for a small fee, the transportation cost had risen. Now Marta would have to work to pay off her debt. Alone.

Cecilia Hilton Gomez, director of Hispanic outreach programs for Free for Life International, describes the way that many human traffickers prey on vulnerable girls hoping to emigrate to the United States from Mexico and other parts of Central America. Since girls like Marta often have little education, lack formal paperwork, and have no knowledge of English, they become prime targets for traffickers looking to profit by selling women to brothel owners in the U.S.

“This is an epidemic, and it’s increasing,” Gomez states. “A lot of people think slavery has been gone for years, but it’s one of the largest criminal enterprises that exists now, and it’s right here in America.”

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