Collier groups work to address human trafficking problem

The Naples Daily News

By Janine A. Zeitlin
May 11, 2005

Putting human trafficking on the front-burner in Collier County government could result in locating victims in day-to-day government work and striking the root of slavery, advocates say.

Decision-makers stamped May as Human Trafficking Awareness Month at Tuesday’s Collier County Commission meeting, while lauding the work of two Collier-based groups — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Center.

“We all need to be involved to be able to bring this problem under control,” said Commissioner Jim Coletta, whose district includes Immokalee, where farm fields have been the site of forced labor investigations.

Other cases include an enslaved maid in a Naples mansion who had to stash food for herself in the garbage. In a sexual slavery case, traffickers shuttled women to Bonita Springs and Collier homes to have sex with dozens of men a night.

Estimates gauge between 18,000 and 50,000 people are trafficked into this country each year.

Coletta and Anna Rodriguez, head of the Immigrant Rights Advocacy Center, said county code enforcers should be trained to spot red flags.

Locks or barbed wire to keep people inside the property are clues that code enforcement officers might see when investigating complaints, said Rodriguez, whose work rescuing more than 14 trafficking victims has made her a nationally known trafficking expert.

“They might be the first person to find victims,” she said, adding that health department staffers who do home visits for pregnant women should also be trained.

Michelle Arnold, Collier code enforcement director, said she’s open to the idea but it’s not something officials are trained in now.

Coalition staff estimate the farmworkers rights group has helped free 1,000 people from slavery since the early 1990s. Coalition leaders have trained FBI agents on human trafficking.

In the last decade, Collier decision-makers have moved from denial to recognizing trafficking as a problem in their back yard, said Julia Perkins, a Coalition staff member.

Perkins and Gerardo Reyes, a Coalition staff member who came to Immokalee from Mexico for farm work, said they hope the commissioners’ stance against trafficking will help lead to reform of conditions in the agricultural industry that make the business ripe for slavery.

“We want to see the day when we won’t have to get a recognition like this,” said Reyes, referring to the proclamation in his hand encased in the regal blue folder.

“We want to eliminate the possibility of more cases of slavery. . . I don’t know how long it will take to get there but we’re on the right path.”

For more information on trafficking and to report victims, call the Immigrant Rights Advocacy Center at 774-4300, or Coalition of Immokalee Workers at 657-8311.