Book Cover

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today

Kevin Bales & Ron Soodalter
University of California Press, 2009, 336 Pages
$18.95

Reviewed by Benjamin Thomas Greer*

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Many of us traverse our lives focused on our mundane daily tasks, eagerly awaiting the upcoming weekend when we can enjoy free time with friends and family. Unbeknownst to many, there is a growing segment of the United States population without that freedom. The daily focus of those affected is that of survival.  They are treated as an expendable and renewable resource, and their bodies are exploited to the maximum financial benefit of others. The United States Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually for sexual exploitation or forced labor purposes,[1] and the numbers are increasing.[2]

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today[3] sheds light on this dark and despicable crime of trafficking in persons. The authors expose and illustrate this inhumane practice by imparting stories from a direct and personal point of view.[4] They also highlight recent federal and state legislation attempting to combat this crime, and discuss legislative shortfalls and recommendations for how to mitigate them.[5]

The trafficking and subjugation of another is not a new practice.[6]  Many Americans, including law enforcement officials, believe that domestic trafficking has been limited to the transatlantic slave trade, or that it is only employed to a great degree in third world or fundamentally corrupt countries.[7] As the United States government is receiving mounting pressure to honestly assess the extent of trafficking within its borders,[8] legislators have been faced with the herculean task of properly defining and combating this crime.[9] Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA),[10] but much of the practical enforcement has only been realized slowly due to the inability of federal enforcers to fully address prosecutorial needs in this area.[11]

A significant number of states have followed Congress’s lead, making this form of modern slavery a state crime.[12] Unfortunately, prosecutions have been scarce and poorly executed. Generally speaking, law enforcement officials in smaller communities perceive trafficking as rare or nonexistent in their communities.[13] They make little to no distinction between sexual exploitation and forced labor—all are seen as nonexistent.[14] Larger jurisdictions have started to acknowledge and combat the more salacious category of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE),[15] and political officials use this topic in election material and conveniently find federal funding to organize trafficking task forces.[16] Due to this tactical recognition, law enforcement has developed a myopic view of trafficking, mainly focusing on CSE and leaving the other forms of servitude to flourish in the shadows.[17]

The authors draw an insightful and fitting analogy between the government’s enlightenment of all forms of trafficking and the enlightenment period in the 1970s, when governments employed a holistic approach toward domestic violence.[18] While domestic violence is still a significant problem, legislatures, law enforcement, and victim services are much more prepared to support victims and prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence than they are with human trafficking.[19]

The authors also do a magnificent job of not only illustrating victimization but of conveying the emotional injury sustained by the victims. One story involves Sandra Bearden of Laredo, Texas. Sandra lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in a solid brick home with a manicured lawn.[20] She is the mother of a four-year-old son.[21] By all outward appearances, she is a reputable member of society.[22] She, however, is a convicted felon—convicted for trafficking in persons—and is currently serving a life sentence.[23]  Sandra was looking for a housemaid and nanny but did not want to pay a lot.[24] She drove south to Veracruz, Mexico, where she met Maria, a twelve-year-old girl with little education and little to no future of upward mobility.[25] Sandra met with Maria’s parents under the pretense of providing a rich and meaningful education—a common fraudulent assertion and rationalization premise for traffickers—and smuggled Maria back to Laredo in her car.[26] Maria was immediately pressed into hard and lengthy labor shifts.[27] If she dozed off or slowed to an unacceptable pace, Sandra would pepper spray Maria in the face or, sometimes, hit her with broom handles or bottles.[28] Once, when Maria’s gardening skills were not up to Sandra’s standards, she was punished by having a garden tool jammed up her vagina.[29] When not working, Maria was chained to a pole in the backyard and was sometimes even fed dog feces.[30] It was only the attentiveness of a neighbor, peering over the back concrete wall while working on his roof, that uncovered these subhuman acts.[31] The most horrific fact of this story is that it is not unique.[32]

The one characteristic that all traffickers share is the desire to make or save money.[33] Traffickers are no longer discriminating purchasers and will buy and sell whoever they feel will save them money or make them a profit.[34] Whereas an average transatlantic slave in 1850 would have cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money, a slave now can be purchased for only a few hundred dollars.[35] Because the costs are so inexpensive and law enforcement is lax, purchasing a trafficked person could be considered a business expense.[36] Enslaved domestic workers like Maria represent approximately 25% of trafficked persons.[37] Trafficked labor is the second-highest category of trafficked persons, behind only CSE.[38]

Traffickers thrive in and require a clandestine environment that cloaks their illicit conduct. If closely examined, victimization will be found in almost every segment of our economy.[39] However, solutions cannot be fashioned for problems that law enforcement and governments do not fully understand or for which they lack awareness. To help elucidate the issue, the authors include an awareness checklist provided by Free the Slaves, an antihuman-trafficking nongovernmental organization,[40] in its handbook. This handbook notes that a worker is likely to be enslaved if he or she:

  • Is working or being held against his or her will
  • Is not free to change employers
  • Does not control his or her earnings
  • Is unable to move freely or is being watched or followed
  • Is afraid to discuss himself or herself in the presence of others
  • Has been assaulted, or threatened with assault for refusing to work
  • Has been cheated into payment of debt upon arrival
  • Has had his or her passport or other documents taken away[41]

The Slave Next Door begins to lift the veil of ignorance, shedding light on crimes subsisting under the radar. As Justice Brandeis famously stated, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”[42] This is a simple proposition but is difficult to achieve; we cannot begin to solve a problem without awareness. In a world where predators disregard human rights and the physical well-being of others, the innocent and vulnerable will continue to be at risk of subjugation for the sole benefit of others. Our legislatures and legal systems have begun to formulate the symbiotic structure necessary to prosecute trafficking and protect and support the victims.  The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today does an excellent job of highlighting the applicable laws, illustrating the extent and heinous nature of this crime, and proposing additional steps that law enforcement and governments can take to continue combating human trafficking.[43]


* Special Deputy Attorney General, California Department of Justice; New American Senior Research Fellow, San Joaquin College of Law; former Research Attorney, California District Attorneys Association; former Attorney, Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST). J.D., San Joaquin College of Law, 2008; B.A., Evergreen State College, 2002. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official position, if any, of the California Attorney General, California District Attorneys Association, or the CAST.

[1]. U.S. Dep’t of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 23(2004), available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/34158.pdf.

[2]. Maudisa McSween, Investing in the Business Against Human Trafficking: Embracing the Fourth “P”—Partnerships, 6 Intercultural Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 283, 283 & n.1 (2011).

[3]. Kevin Bales & Ron Soodalter, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (2009).

[4]. See, e.g.id. at 19–21 (chronicling the experience of Ruth, who was beaten and threatened by her “employers” in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.).

[5]. See id. at 198–203 (describing model legislation to combat trafficking, and recognizing shortcomings including limited, ineffective use of agency resources, the unwillingness of states to impose liability on businesses and organizations for violations, and limited protections for victims).

[6]. See 22 U.S.C. § 7101(b)(22) (2006) (recalling the history of human trafficking in the United States, including the abolition of slavery in 1865).

[7]. See Bales & Soodalter, supra note 3, at 12 (claiming that public officials are unaware of many forms of slavery that exist today).

[8]. See, e.g.id. at 6 (arguing that the exact number of slaves in the United States is unknown).

[9]. See id. at 199, 200–01 (recognizing that states’ definitions of key terms in trafficking statutes have varied and that efforts to protect victims are complex and difficult to implement).

[10]. Pub. L. No. 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464 (codified as amended at 22 U.S.C. § 7101 (2006)).

[11]. See Barbara Ann Stolz, Interpreting the U.S. Human Trafficking Debate Through the Lens of Symbolic Politics, 29 Law & Pol’y 311, 331(2007) (describing the legislative debate surrounding the TVPA as guided by an interest in enacting legislation rather than a moralism by which a more robust measure could have been passed).

[12]. See Bales & Soodalter, supra note 3, at 199–201 (discussing variations among states’ trafficking laws with respect to the sentencing of violators).

[13]. Id. at 187.

[14]. Id.

[15]. See, e.g.id. at 179–80 (chronicling the efforts of a law enforcement official in Tampa to pursue suspected sex traffickers).

[16]. See 22 U.S.C. § 7103(a) (2006) (authorizing the President to establish an interagency task force to combat trafficking); Hadia Hakim, Recent Development,Support for Arizona-Style Immigration Bills Spreads During Gubernatorial Elections Despite U.S. v. Arizona Ruling, 25 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 237, 237 (2010) (observing that concerns related in part to human trafficking, fueled debate during the 2010 gubernatorial campaigns).

[17]. Bales & Soodalter, supra note 3, at 12.

[18]. See id. at 25–26 (comparing the process by which public awareness of domestic violence arose during the 1970s with the current learning process regarding human trafficking).

[19]. See id. at 25, 26 (acknowledging the availability of resources to combat domestic violence, and explaining that there is only a “glimmer of an organized response” to human trafficking).

[20]. Id. at 3.

[21]. See id. (characterizing Sandra as a person who “you’d chat with at the mall or supermarket . . . the sort who might live next door”).

[22]. Id.

[23]. Id.

[24]. Id.

[25]. See id. (describing the “dirt-poor village” where Sandra and Maria met and Maria’s inability to fulfill her dream of obtaining a formal education).

[26]. Id. at 3, 78.

[27]. See id. at 4 (recounting that Sandra used “violence and terror to squeeze work and obedience” from Maria).

[28]. Id.

[29]. Id.

[30]. Id.

[31]. Id.

[32]. Id. at 5.

[33]. Id. at 18 (recognizing that “domestic slavery is unique among the many types of bondage in that it is less about making money than it is about saving money”).

[34]. See generally id. at 12–14 (recognizing money as a predominant consideration in traffickers’ decision making).

[35]. Id. at 6.

[36]. See id. (juxtaposing the low cost of modern slaves with their disposable nature to owners to the extent that it is cheaper for them to buy another slave than to give one medicine for an illness).

[37]. Id. at 12.

[38]. See id. at 18 (identifying enslaved domestics as the second-highest category of trafficked persons); see also Udara Jayasinghe & Sasha Baglay, Protecting Victims of Human Trafficking Within a ‘Non-refoulement’ Framework: Is Complementary Protection an Effective Alternative in Canada and Australia?, 23 Int’l J. Refugee L. 489, 491 (2011) (observing that 43% of trafficked individuals are victimized for CSE and 32% for labor exploitation).

[39]. See Bales & Soodalter, supra note 3, at 6 (“We do know that slaves in America are found—or rather, not found—in nearly all fifty states, working as commercial sex slaves, fruit pickers, construction workers, gardeners, and domestics. They work in restaurants, factories, laundries, and sweatshops.”).

[40]. For more information about this organization, see Our Mission: We Liberate Slaves Around the World & Attack the Systems that Allow Slavery to Exist., Free the Slaves (2011), https://www.freetheslaves.net/SSLPage.aspx?pid=285.

[41]. Free the Slaves, Slavery Still Exists and it Could Be in Your Backyard (2008), http://www.freetheslaves.net/Document.Doc?id=69.

[42]. Louis D. Brandeis, What Publicity Can Do, Harper’s Wkly., Dec. 20, 1913, at 10. He made this comment in response to “social and industrial diseases” at the time. Id.

[43]. If you think you might know of an enslaved person, you can call the Human Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.