The Greater Houston area is often touted by business and community leaders for its economy, proximity to the port and international trade, but these attributes are also connected to something else—human trafficking. The I-10 corridor, which runs through Houston, is designated as the No. 1 route for human trafficking in the country by the U.S. Department of Justice, and it is estimated that 25 percent of victims in the U.S. are trafficked through Texas.
“When people say the hub for human trafficking is Houston, it’s really the Greater Houston area,” said Robert Sanborn, executive director for Children at Risk. “You’re going to see a lot of sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas of the county because it becomes easier for traffickers to operate there.”
Human trafficking in Houston
Human trafficking is considered a form of modern-day slavery through which individuals are forced to provide services or labor through the use of force, fraud or coercion, said Edwin Chapuseaux, investigator with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
“Human trafficking is an offense against a person and a violation of civil rights,” Chapuseaux said. “With a trafficker, the person doesn’t let go of individuals. He wants them to make money for him and will hold onto that person as long as he can.”
Houston is considered a hub for trafficking due in part to the interstate highway systems that run through the area, namely I-10, which connects California and Florida.
“We also have [Bush Intercontinental Airport] on the north side of town and Hobby Airport in the south, so there are a lot of opportunities for traffickers to move seamlessly in and out of the city,” said Misa Nguyen, deputy director for Houston-based nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking.
Houston and unincorporated Harris County’s lack of zoning laws may also make the area more attractive to traffickers, she said.
“You can sometimes have a massage parlor next to a day care, so in that regard, traffickers can have a number of different businesses that are fronts for human trafficking,” Nguyen said.
YMCA International has served domestic and international victims of human trafficking for 11 years, providing them with access to food, counseling, medical care, transportation and other necessary social services, said Constance Rossiter, trafficked persons program director for YMCA International in Houston.
Victims—who can be of any gender, age or race—are typically from vulnerable populations who may have experienced abuse and violence or are looking for a better life in the U.S., Rossiter said.
“I think when most people hear about trafficking they think it’s an international problem,” Sanborn said. “Indeed, there are about 15,000 victims who come across our borders every year for trafficking. But there are 200,000 domestic girls involved with trafficking as well. It changes the dynamic immediately when you see the problem is much more domestic.”
Connection to Tomball, Magnolia
In the outlying areas of Houston, local law enforcement entities in Tomball and Magnolia are trained to identify and combat human trafficking. Tomball Police Chief Robert Hauck said there have been instances of human trafficking in Harris County Precinct 4 and other nearby areas, but he is not aware of any specific cases in the Tomball city limits.
“Human trafficking is absolutely an issue in the Houston region, and at any given time it could become an issue in the city of Tomball,” Hauck said. “I think it would be nave for us to think it wouldn’t happen in our community. We do take it seriously and will do anything and everything we can to combat it in our area and combat it in the adjacent areas.”
In an effort to deter human trafficking, Hauck said it is important to work with the community to locate and report suspicious or criminal activity at local businesses.
“I will tell you with 26 years of experience [in law enforcement], feeling safe is more important than being safe,” Hauck said. “If you don’t feel safe in a community, it’s not safe to you. Keeping actual crime down is important but just as important or more so is a community that feels safe, is involved with the police department and knows the department will vigorously respond to their requests.”
In Montgomery County, Magnolia Police Department Sgt. Jose Lopez said an increase in visitors from Houston during holiday weekends has brought some gang activity to the area in the form of robberies and break-ins. Thanks in part to officers specifically trained to identify gang activity, several of the members have been arrested, Lopez said.
Despite a surge in people traveling to the area, Lopez said human trafficking has not become a concern in the community, however, residents should remain vigilant to detect and report warning signs of human trafficking in the Magnolia area.
“That world [of human trafficking] right now is based on a lot of money, and these guys do anything to throw it off,” Lopez said. “We have a task force that works with the FBI, and we discuss what issues the Montgomery County detectives are having. If [human trafficking] happens in Tomball, it’s going to happen here.”
A growing number of organizations that serve Tomball, Magnolia and the Greater Houston area are making an effort to combat human trafficking by raising awareness and offering various services to help victims.
For the last nine years, nonprofit organization Shield Bearer has provided counseling services to those in need at its four locations in the Houston area, including one in Tomball. Three years ago, a sister agency asked the organization to start seeing clients affected by human trafficking, Shield Bearer Executive Director Roy Wooten said.
“The biggest thing that we’re doing is helping women and girls that have been rescued and helping them work through the complex trauma that they’ve been through,” Wooten said. “We have been involved in the healing process of over 100 women and girls. Over 75 percent of the women have been domestically trafficked, and about 25 percent of the women have been internationally trafficked from mainly Central American countries.”
Many of the 100 women and girls counseled for human trafficking at Shield Bearer were rescued from the Greater Houston area, Wooten said. On average, the exploitation of girls through domestic human trafficking begins between the ages of 11 to 13, and traffickers often control them through the use of drugs, he said.
Shield Bearer also works with several sister agencies in the Greater Houston area to help victims of human trafficking, including Redeemed Ministries, which has a residential program for women and girls who have been trafficked.
“I don’t want people in Tomball and Magnolia to think [human trafficking is] a problem for some other place,” Wooten said. “We don’t think maybe the reason [a business is] sketchy may be because human slavery is happening on the other side of the wall. Where there is demand, supply will pop up even in our good conservative areas of Tomball and Magnolia.”
Another nonprofit organization, Arrow Child & Family Ministries in Spring, collaborated with Children At Risk to establish Freedom Place in March 2012. Located 30 miles outside of Houston, the 110-acre safe house and sanctuary offers a recovery program for underage female victims of human trafficking.
Freedom Place is the first long-term comprehensive care facility in Texas for underage victims and one of five such facilities in the country, said senior development director Emily Waters.
In another effort to raise awareness regarding human trafficking, Jason Arcemont, Tomball resident and board member with nonprofit Resale with a Purpose, plans to break a world record by running 850 miles across Texas in October from El Paso to Orange as part of his event, Texas Freedom Run.
“A couple years ago, an organization called Love146 came out to our church and educated us about these horrible [human trafficking] statistics,” Arcemont said. “I felt compelled to do something, and it hit me that I should combine my passion for this issue and my endurance to put on this event and see what attention we can raise.”
So far, Arcemont has raised about $30,000. Donations can be made online at www.texasfreedomrun.com.
In Texas, more than a dozen bills related to human trafficking passed in the 2013 legislative session, creating tougher criminal and civil consequences for traffickers as well as measures to better protect the victims.
“There weren’t many laws written in the past that allowed prosecutors and law enforcement to go after traffickers,” Sanborn said. “When trafficking was defined, by very name, it sounded like transportation was involved, but it’s not about that at all. It’s about forced labor, and that’s why passing legislation becomes so important.”
Signed into law in 2013, House Bill 2725 mandated the Texas Education Agency and state departments of Family and Protective Services and Health and Human Services come up with curriculum to teach educators and welfare workers about trafficking.
Additionally, Senate Bill 92 from the 2013 legislative session introduced diversionary court programs, allowing minors who get in trouble with the law for prostitution related to trafficking to get their record dropped and get the social services they need.
“There are still a lot of areas of the law that need to be focused on in regard to trafficking, including treatment for victims and ending demand,” Sanborn said. “We wouldn’t have this problem if there weren’t men buying young girls and women who have been trafficked. In a sense, [trafficking] starts with demand, and as a community we will have to change our habits.”