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Labor Trafficking of Undocumented Migrants "Rampant" in San Diego

November 29, 2012 1:25 p.m.


Estela De Los Rios, Executive Director of the the Center for Social Advocacy-San Diego County.

Related Story: Labor Trafficking Of Undocumented Migrants 'Rampant' In San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition is about the exploitation of the most vulnerable members of the American workforce, migrant laborers. A San Diego state university professor has unveiled the first scientific study of labor trafficking in the U.S. based upon interviews conducted here in San Diego. And the stories told by this hidden population of workers reveals danger, injustice, and abuse. My guest, Estela de Los Rios, director for the center for social advocacy in San Diego County. Welcome to the program.
DE LOS RIOS: Thank you very much. I'm very glad to be here.
CAVANAUGH: This study was led by sociologist Sheldon Jung at San Diego state. How did you help him conduct this research?
DE LOS RIOS: We have been addressing human trafficking for the past eight years. Longtime addressing this issue because it's one of the top-3 crimes in the United States. And we have the relationship with the community in the outreach component as far as North County, south county, east region, so we have capacity to outreach to this migrant population.
CAVANAUGH: So you found the people to talk to.
DE LOS RIOS: Exactly, exactly.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let's talk about some of the overall findings of the study and then we'll move into how these interviews were done. The research reveals that nearly 1/3 of those interviews had experienced labor trafficking. What constitutes labor trafficking?
DE LOS RIOS: That's a good question. It's always a challenge of what is labor trafficking and what is labor exploitation. When it becomes a presence of fraud and coercion and threats and fears and physical abuses and sexual abuses and deception and lies, and also threatening to turn them in or to deport them or arrest them, it becomes a criminal act because you're holding someone without paying them, for example. You're holding them without their documents. There's even threats that if you say anything, they will kill your family back home, for example. There's a gentleman that came from Mexico because he couldn't afford his medication for his son that had cancer, and he came to this country, come now and pay later. He never finished paying that debt. And every timely said something, they would threaten to kill him or kill his son back home.
CAVANAUGH: Obviously that's an instance of someone being criminally misused by a trafficker. We hear so much about sex trafficking and we don't hear an awful lot about people who are abused or held hostage or mistreated criminally because of their employment. Why do you think that is?
DE LOS RIOS: Again, back to the same question about the fine line between labor exploitation and labor abuse and unsafe practices, and the fine line is the definition of human trafficking. The definition of human trafficking again constitutes coercion, fraud, lies, and physical threats. And an example, we had a young girl that was 12 years old and her mother that was trafficked into this country, and the mother sat there watching the little girl get raped, and the daughter sat there watching the mother get raped. And this is a crime, no matter how you look at it. The trafficker knew this, and these are safe houses that actually exist, not in Asia, not in Africa, not across the nation but here in our own backyards.
CAVANAUGH: That's a very important point. In this study, it says very specifically that we're not talking about people -- what's happening on the other side of the border before people are trafficked into the United States. Most of the labor trafficking abuses that are documented in this study happened after they came to the U.S. ; is that right?
DE LOS RIOS: Exactly. And when you talk about 31%, and actually 38,458 victim, that is huge, and that deserves some policy debate. That deserves policy making. Because this is a magnitude of the issue here in San Diego. This is why this research project and study is very important. It's intense, it has a landscape of how this issue is impacting our communities.
CAVANAUGH: Is it fair to say the only difference between what we generally know as sex trafficking and the labor trafficking that you're talking about is the kind of work that the people end up actually performing? Obviously sex workers will work in the sex industry. But when someone is in a different kind of profession but they're mistreated in the same way to either get them there or keep them there, that would be labor trafficking.
DE LOS RIOS: Exactly. And you brought up a good point. Sex trafficking is something that everyone is accustomed to speaking about. It's always women and children. And in labor trafficking we don't hear these statistics, we don't hear these crimes. They're not reported. Why? Because systematically, there's no information where can go and say, well, this person has been abused because of the labor work. And also this inadequate capacity for victims to speak up because they're so threatened to be kill or deported or any other kinds of threats.
CAVANAUGH: Right. We're talking about a study by SDSU sociologist Sheldon Jung, and he documented for the first time story was labor trafficking in the United States. This were some nontrafficking labor issues also included in this study. And they would be things along the lines of people not being paid, right?
DE LOS RIOS: Correct. 31% by the legal definition of human trafficking were identified, and 55% is exploitive abuses, which means these are practices, labor practices which means wage loss, the employer disappears when they would like their payment. And the most horrific experience that I found is these labors believe it's just a normal way of life. They don't see any fraud in that, they don't see any criminal act in that. They say, it's okay, next time we'll get paid. That's appalling to me.
CAVANAUGH: Now, when you -- you were associated with this study because you'd already had a network. Where to find, as they're called in this particular study, this hidden population of workers. You already had a network out to find. How were these interviews actually conducted? How were the people brought in and who asked them questions and what kind. Questions were they asked?
DE LOS RIOS: Thank you. That's a good word, hidden population, buzz they live in the shadow of fear. And when we were addressing this issue, we had a focus group. And we brought these migrant labors to our focus group. And we asked them a series of questions, appropriate questions that would make them understand what we were trying to investigate, and what the study was entailing. And we received a lot of information where we designed this 10-page questionnaire. Questions like have you ever had threats of physical abuse, including beating, kicking or slapping? Threats of sexual abuse? Physical restraints? Threats of harm to yourself or to your family? Restricting or deprivation, forbidden from leaving the workplace? Prevented or restricting communication to your family? Deception and lies telling you can't contact your family without permission, instructing you to lie to your employer, and also receiving bad checks, and depriving of food and sleep. And we would say what is that? What is deprivation of sleep and food? Well, some of these labors, they were promised we're going to pay you, we're going to feed you, we're going to house you, and yet these are deceptions and lies because they don't do that.
CAVANAUGH: You spoke with more than eight hundred participant, right?
DE LOS RIOS: Correct. 826. And the experiences ranged from cross-border transportation issues, from restrictions and deprivation again, deception and lies, and exploitation in regards to the trafficker. One gentleman said they promised they were taking me to New York, and he was in Escondido. And one of them said he thought he was in Indiana, and he was in Fallbrook, so they promise them that they're going to take them to these safe house where is they're going to find them jobs and job security. And also so they can provide for their families. And yet it's not a promise, it's a lie.
CAVANAUGH: Now, was there any follow-up done on these stories at all? In other words have any of the participants in the study reported these abuses to any other agency that could be fact-checked to see if this actually happened?
DE LOS RIOS: Yes, we actually would follow up with some agencies that would recover their lost wages. We had contact with attorneys that would assist them with their wages, wage loss and theft. And we gave them access to resources, community clinics for their health, we tried to get them as much resources available to them. And also let them know that if they are a am have, they have rights, they have opportunity to receive a visa for victims of violence.
CAVANAUGH: I guess what I'm really saying is that all of these abuses are self-reported. Was there any attempt to verify whether or not these things had actually happened to these participants?
DE LOS RIOS: Yes. And one of the attempts is first of all the interviews that we had, they were in intense. We recorded all our interview, we followed up with the victims that were willing to speak up. We contacted law enforcement, we followed up on some of the cases. But again the fear factor, the fear of if they do come out and say what happened to them, what will happen to them? Will they be the ones that are going to be deported, will they be the ones that are going to be incarcerated? There's a lot of fear. So more than once, they've chosen to just stay quiet.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what kinds of industries did the study find had the most trafficking abuses?
DE LOS RIOS: The No.†1 industry surprisingly was construction. And the next one was landscaping. And after that it was janitorial cleaning and others. But you would assume it would be agricultural because everyone assumes that all the time. But we wanted to get a good sampling. So we did interviews with people that worked in the restaurants, people that worked in daycare, domestic worker, living at home, selling from their homes. We wanted to get a wide spectrum and represent all the regions of San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: And were all the participants Spanish-speaking?
DE LOS RIOS: Surprisingly, yes, 98% were Mexican. Three languages, Mexican, Huasteco, and Huatulco, which are two languages that are not Spanish. So it was a challenge to translate all these surveys to their language, to Spanish, and then to English.
CAVANAUGH: I have to ask you, you told us that horrific story about the mother and her daughter who were raped. Was there any follow-up to that particular story? Was that reported to law enforcement?
DE LOS RIOS: The mother chose to not report that. Just even having the interview was a very traumatic experience for her. A lot of them were told that this was all confidential. They had the choice to participate or not, and that was our No.†1 concern was their safety and the confidentiality. So it was up to them if they wanted assistance.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are they still here or did they go back to Mexico?
DE LOS RIOS: We haven't had anymore follow-up since we finished the surveys. But we do reach out, and we'd ask whoever would like assistance, we would be able to give you that opportunity. But again, the fear factor. They're just comfortable saying, okay, this happened, and we just move on.
CAVANAUGH: Now, there's a line of thought that says when immigrants were -- when migrants put themselves into this vulnerable situation, they come to this country without going through proper channel, they don't have any documentation, they leave themselves open to this kind of abuse. And that it just goes with the territory. How do you respond to that line of thought?
DE LOS RIOS: Well, regardless whether this population is documented or undocumented, these are crimes. Crimes without a voice, and crimes that lead to acts of slavery. And this issue especially with trafficking remains a dark secret. And we cross the Atlantic ocean to top slavery in Indonesia and other countries but we have it here in our own backyard. And until we solve the immigration issue, these populations will continue to exist. They'll remain vulnerable to all forms of crimes, abuses, exploitations, and human rights violations, most importantly. The magnitude of this problem has just surfaced with this research study, and my hopes are that the next steps will be to have some public awareness on this issue, and to collaborate with law enforcement and create a safe process so that victims can come forward and receive assistance. And my main concern is to catch these criminals and prosecute the traffickers. This is a huge issue. And these statistics show just a little glimpse of the magnitude of this problem.
CAVANAUGH: Now, tell me a little bit more about how you hope this study is going to be used.
DE LOS RIOS: I would hope that the study would be used again as a public awareness campaign so that other communities in our local region but also on the national level, to understand that some policy-making has to change. Unscrupulous employees and traffickers have to be accountable. These numbers represent that there is a definition here of human trafficking. And again, this is modern day slavery. 27 million globally, and we have 38,000 here in our own region. So this is a huge issue. There's no easy solution. But everyone has to play a role to prevent this.
CAVANAUGH: You will find a link on our website to the report prepared by doctor Sheldon Jung of SDSU called looking for a hidden population, trafficking of migrant labors in San Diego County. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
DE LOS RIOS: Thank you very much for inviting me here today and giving me this opportunity.


CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Last week after Thanksgiving dinner, lots of people were so stuffed they thought they'd never be hungry again! Surprise! Even if your appetite has been dulled by holiday treat, we've got a weekend preview that's going to leave your tongue out and your stomach growling! Joining me to talk about some incredible eating events are my guest, Aaron Chambers Smith, editor in chief at San Diego magazine. Good to see you.
CHAMBERS SMITH: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: And Amy T. Granite is arts and culture editor and food writer at CityBeat.
GRANITE: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Let's start with a great new restaurant in little Italy, it's called Monello, and I continued has a great happy hour.
CHAMBERS SMITH: Monello means naughty little boy, and this is the second restaurant from the same owners and chef of Bencotto, which is a great newer restaurant in little Italy. So they've opened the 6 restaurant right next door, so it's sort of like the naughty little brother. One of the best features I think of Monello, they're calling it an aper Tivo, happy hour. And the whole thing is Milan street food. The owners are from northern Italy, from Milan. So they tried to bring some of the street foods back. And they have a happy hour where as long as you buy a drink, the chef sends out small plates for you compliment 18 from 4:00 to 7:00.
CAVANAUGH: What is street food for Milan?
CHAMBERS SMITH: Lots of tapas and small plates. One of the best things I had was a little mini-cal zone. But it's much better and fresher and lighter. It's a puffed up sort of dough with cheese, and a great homemade sauce inside, and it's just the perfect thing to eat with a glass of wine. They also bring out complimentary lupini beans. I like to think of it as an Italian edamame, and it's just the perfect little place to go.
CAVANAUGH: And they also have brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, right?
CHAMBERS SMITH: Yeah, so I think they're filling a void in little Italy and offering a breakfast every day. There's not a lot of breakfast places to eat there. Every day of the week, they have a traditional Italian style breakfast spread, which is most pastries and really good coffee. On Saturdays and Sundays that is correct I have a farmer's market brunch where they go to the little Italy Mercado, and the chef picks out whatever he loves and goes back and creates a brunch.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have a favorite item on the menu?
CHAMBERS SMITH: The panzerotti. I also had a great really seafood pasta. And this one was bigger, so it would be one to share. But fresh seafood, and the thing I like about them and their other restaurant is the pasta. The pasta they make, doesn't taste like regular pasta. They make it fresh in-house every day.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what kind of ambience?
CHAMBERS SMITH: It's kind of modern Italian. It's very sleek. And I admire the owners a lot for their esthetic and commitment to doing what they like and what they want to do, really doing it that Italian, sleek modern style. There's a lot of other trends in restaurants right now. Reclaimed wood and all these different lights, and things that you see recurring. And they really resisted falling into being trendy and being what's now and next. And they're just really committed to being very authentic. And it really does shine through. Valentina is sort of the detailed eye of the team.
CAVANAUGH: Now, a kind of different eating experience, Amy. Ramen Yamadaya. Is that how you say it?
GRANITE: Yes, that's right.

CAVANAUGH: It's a little restaurant on Clairemont Mesa boulevard what. Sets this apart?
GRANITE: Two thing, really. One, it's the broth. It's a very special broth that they have. And it is Tonkatsu, and that is a 20-hour broth made from pork bones. So the marrow and the pork butter comes out of those bones and just makes this extremely rich, creamy broth that's the base for chunks of pork belly in their signature ramen. And then the other thing that makes different are the noodles. Typically ramen noodles are bouncy and crimped. And when you slurp them, broth can fly all over the place. But this broth is so special, and it pairs perfectly with the thin, straight noodles. They're almost like Angel hair pasta: It's white versus the yellow alkaline noodles that are really bouncy and texturally different. So when you're sipping and slurping this decadent broth, you're able to get all of the broth in your mouth versus all over your face which can happen with the bouncy noodles.
CAVANAUGH: It just sounds like a completely different experience. Do you have a favorite menu item that you order?
GRANITE: I think it's just called the Tonkatsu ramen.
CAVANAUGH: And does it have table service? What's it like inside?
GRANITE: It's table service. When I went, there was just one person waiting tables. So with a foodie destination like this, sometimes foodies don't care too much about expedient service, and the customer is always right. So you tend to put up with a little bit more in restaurant like this to get that authentic experience that you wouldn't get other places. So if you go, be prepared to be patient, wait a little bit of time. But it's worth the wait.
CAVANAUGH: Is this the only ramen restaurant?
GRANITE: It's actually a chain based out of Orange County. So not all chains are bad.

GRANITE: In my book. So yeah, this is definitely an example of had that. And they just have a really solid reputation for making this excellent ramen.
CAVANAUGH: And how much would it cost?
GRANITE: I think that the -- I think it caps out at around $12 with everything that you'd want to add into it. But I believe that the more basic version I got was around $9.
CAVANAUGH: We move to a holiday festival, and Chilipalooza.
CHAMBERS SMITH: It stands for south park and Northpark, pushed together, SONO.
CAVANAUGH: It's the gathering of the two neighborhoods!
>> Yeah, I guess there's a rivalry between them. I lived in south park and I didn't really sense it. But I think now that each one is just growing and getting new things and new restaurants and new organizations and associations and groups, are I think they're just developing their own identities. And maybe there is a little bit of a rivalry there. So this event, the organizers are billing it as sort of no more rivalry, and no bickering! We're coming together for the holiday season.
CAVANAUGH: So both of these neighborhoods are trendy and both known for really interesting restaurants. What will be on hand? What will we find?
CHAMBERS SMITH: It's in the middle of the day, so it's very family-oriented as well, and there is food and music and shopping and beer, of course. And a kids' zone. Very family-friendly, and the beer is going to be held inside the beer garden which from the photos they have online on their blog looks like it was very well attended last year. So sort of prepare for crowds, but all the great local beers will be there. They're going to have lots of shopping from local vendors, and of course food and a whole Chilipalooza.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you with that, but also there's music?
CHAMBERS SMITH: There is music. I have to cheat because there's a list of 20 different bands that are playing. And they do have two different stages. Some of the bands so far, the Fremonts, unestate, Adams and eves, and this one I thought was cute, McKinley elementary school is right there on the border, and I guess they have a children's flamenco group, and they're going to be playing in the afternoon on one of the stages. And I think some of the proceeds from some of the different vendors are going to be donated toward McKinley elementary school.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, let's get to the chillipalooza, this is an annual event, right?
CHAMBERS SMITH: It is, and I think it's very well organized. It's San Diego ceramic connection that organizes it every year. And this is the 16th. You pay $20, and you get to pick a bowl from one of their shops, that someone has locally created. And immediately $10 goes to the elementary school. Then the other $10 gets you five different taste, and tons of these great restaurants from all over San Diego are going to be there with their best pots of chilli. So you take your bowl around and you get five different tastes. Restaurants like Alchemy, the Linkery, Starlight, very hip restaurant in south Mission Hills. I think there's, like, 15 different restaurants that are going to be there.
CAVANAUGH: And is there a judges?
CHAMBERS SMITH: There is a judging, and you get to vote, and there's definitely a competition.
CAVANAUGH: We move to the big front door on park boulevard. What is big front door, also known as BFD?
GRANITE: BFD is an acronym that I'm not going to say on public radio.
CAVANAUGH: Very good!

GRANITE: But it is a big deal. Big front door is a special deli. They have excellent prepared foods that you can take away, like a chipotle potato salad. They have an orzo salad that's really good. They have a great selection of local craft beer, boutique wines from the region, craft sodas, and then they sell local goods like Sadie Rose Bread which is used for the sandwiches they make there. And all of the sandwiches are made from meats that are prepared in-house, you know, rubbed down with spice blends in-house and roasted there, and it's just really wholesome food that you would expect from your relatives' house in the countryside. And the decor is like that too.
CAVANAUGH: And if your relatives really knew how to cook.

GRANITE: There you go.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I understand this is where fine dining meets a sandwich shop. And you tell us about the people who put the big front door together?
GRANITE: Sure. It's Steve and Laura riley. And Steve who also goes by Sheep, I learned that today, not quite sure the meaning of that, but it's fun. So Steve or Sheep, he has a long running career in San Diego working with Deborah Scott. And the last place that he was at was Kensington grill. So he's taken his culinary knowledge and also a sandwich shop background that he had when he lived in Arizona and worked at a sandwich shop there. So he's really melded his past and current passions at this kind of high-end sandwich shop, I would call it.
CAVANAUGH: You have a favorite there.
GRANITE: I do. It's an open-faced Turkey sandwich. It starts off with a slice of sour dough bread, and then it gets a big scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy, and it has hunks of house-smoked Turkey. And this Turkey is not dried out like your grandma makes it. It is juicy and succulent, and that smoky flavor really adds something to this Thanksgiving in a box. It's -- their hot sandwiches are served in this box. It makes it a little bit difficult to eat. But everyone around you is enthusiastically eating. No one really cares if it gets you messy.
CHAMBERS SMITH: Do they give you a knife and a fork?
GRANITE: Yes, yes they do.
CAVANAUGH: There is a counter service delicatessen. Do they have tables?
GRANITE: Yeah, be so the interior is actually done by Paul Basil, and he is the designer behind local hot spots like craft and commerce, underbelly. It's kind of a minimalist chic interior with lots of natural light. There are a couple patio tables right outside of the big front door.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now I would imagine -- I was looking through the menu of their big front door. And they even make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sound fabulous. What other creative sandwiches can you tell us about?
GRANITE: Well, one of them that's been written up on San Diego magazine's website is the loins of fire sandwich.

GRANITE: Aaron Jackson wrote about the loins of fire, made it sound absolutely delicious: The pictures are beautiful. You should check it out, and go eat that. But it's roasted pork loin with chilli, Poblano, garlic aioli, cilantro, so everything at this place is full-flavored, fresh, and dynamic.
CAVANAUGH: 4135 Park Boulevard, open daily from 11:00 to 8:00.