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Human Trafficking: The Hidden Cost of the American Dream

By Katie Vloet
Oct. 21, 2014

Professor Bridgette Carr, '02, has heard customers at restaurants ask endless questions about the food: Is this dish gluten free? Is the produce grown within 50 miles of here? Were the chickens happy before they gave up their eggs?

Prof. Bridgette Carr (center) discusses human traffickingWhat if, she wonders, we paid the same attention to the people who work in the restaurants? "Never have I heard someone ask about the human beings used in the process of bringing food to us," Carr, the director of the Michigan Law Human Trafficking Clinic, said Monday (Oct. 20) at a panel discussion about "The Hidden Cost of the American Dream." Carr added, "We do it all the time; we don’t see them."

The discussion was part of a series of events at the University of Michigan designed to draw attention to human trafficking, often referred to as modern-day slavery. It was sponsored by Price of Life​, along with the offices of state Sen. Judy Emmons, a Republican, and state Sen. Rebekah Warren, a Democrat.

Michigan Law is at the forefront of the national discussion about human trafficking because of the Clinic's representation of trafficking victims and the advocacy work of Carr, her colleagues, and students.

Carr also is a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Taskforce and was appointed to Michigan's first Commission on Human Trafficking in 2013 by Attorney General Bill Schuette. The Commission’s report informed legislation that the governor signed into law last week: measures that extend the statute of limitations for human trafficking prosecution, permanently establish the Human Trafficking Commission, strengthen penalties for human traffickers and johns who solicit teenagers for prostitution, and provide a presumption of innocence for minors accused of prostitution.

The new laws represent important progress in the fight against and recognition of human trafficking, Carr and the other panelists said Monday evening, but much more needs to be done.

Emmons said she is pleased with the actions of her colleagues and the governor, but she remains disappointed that other measures did not pass, including a bill that would have required adult businesses to pay a $3 fee per customer. The money would have been put into a domestic violence and sexual assault fund.

The state also needs to enact safe-harbor laws for victims, said panelist Tabitha Woodruff, regional coordinator of the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition at the Salvation Army, where she supports the Coalition's anti-human trafficking work. If you're under the age of consent, you shouldn't be able to be charged with prostitution, she said.

Kelly Carter, an assistant attorney general in the criminal division of the Michigan Department of the Attorney General, pointed out that the age of consent in Michigan is 16; anyone younger than that cannot be charged with prostitution. But Carr added that younger girls can be—and often are—charged with other offenses if they are picked up for prostitution. What needs to happen, she said, is a cultural paradigm shift that would change people's perceptions of these young women, from criminals to victims.

Panelists discussed how prevalent human trafficking is, and reminded the audience that it consists of more than just sex trafficking. "It's not a crime of transportation; it's a crime of exploitation," Carter said. Forced labor and exploitation are prevalent in the travel and tourism industry, restaurants, agriculture, and domestic work. Moderator Ron Soodalter, author of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (University of California Press, 2010), told of a couple in Farmington Hills, Mich., who enslaved a 14-year-old girl. They promised to bring her to the United States for a good education, but instead she was forced to work in their home without compensation, beaten regularly, and raped by the man.

"It is right next door. It is in my area. It is in Ann Arbor. It is in Bloomfield Hills. It is on Mackinac Island," said Emmons, whose district is in mid-Michigan.

The panelists encouraged the audience—largely made up of U-M undergrads—that they can make a difference and that they should educate others about the pervasiveness of human trafficking. "Inherently we know that it's wrong for people to belong to other people," said R. York Moore, founder of Price of Life. "Women and men were created to live free."

Read more feature stories.​​​​​

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