It may sound like the stuff of Hollywood, but the sex trafficking trade is alive and well in the United States, and that includes central New York. Forcing young women and men into a life of prostitution is a very lucrative business, but there is a move afoot to end it in New York state.
Elisa Morales is the Syracuse Spanish Action League staffer who works with many of the victims of human trafficking who find themselves in central New York. She meets with them in local malls, college campuses, and parks.
"You know I have to tell you, the invisible people they walk amongst us," said Morales.
Sean Wrench, executive director of Forsaken Generation, a national group that wants to end human trafficking, says this forced prostitution happens all over America. He says traffickers buy and sell young women, using threats and other forms of coercion to force them into lives as sex slaves. And the average American is unaware this goes on under their nose.
"Every hour, 34 women are forced into prostitution in the United States. That's what should shock people. Every hour, 34 kids. And most people don't realize this is happening in our country. They think it is happening in other countries," said Wrench.
The Spanish Action League on Syracuse's Near West Side has become a touchpoint on this issue. The group, that focuses on counseling, advocacy and education for the city's growing Latino community, noticed about three years ago, an influx of women controlled by traffickers, looking for help.
"Why they really come here is because nobody speaks Spanish, and it's a way for them to breach the language," said Rita Panaiagua, executive director of the league.
Panaiagua says some victims of human trafficking often don't know what city they are in, much less what country, as they are ferried across the world in the dark of night, being sold outright, or being used to satisfy family debts. These women need a broad range of services, from legal help to mental health counseling. She remembers the case of a woman from Brazil, who found herself as a sex slave, living in Syracuse with her trafficker.
"After a few years, she had a child and was threatened by this person, that he will take the child away, that she would never see her child grow up. So now we have a domestic violence issue beyond the sex slavery," said Panaiagua.
That's why the Spanish Action League has signed on to support the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act.
Emily Amick is the legislative coordinator of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. She says there's optimism on this front in Albany.
"The TVPJA, which is being sponsored by Assemblywoman Paulin and Senator [Andrew] Lanza is currently in the Codes Committee, and we are excited we are building more support in the legislature and more people are coming on as co-sponsors."
She also notes three of the coalition's goals are included in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed ten-point Women's Policy Agenda. The big one says Wrench, would stiffen charges against traffickers. Right now if they're caught, traffickers face misdemeanor charges. Wrench says that has to change.
"Trafficking needs to be a violent felony in New York state. It's not a violent felony, so we need to have better protections for the kids. We need to put these traffickers away. And right now that's not happening in New York State," said Amick.
In the meantime, Morales continues meeting local and federal agencies, trying to help these victims unshackle their chains. And she says sometimes there are happy endings.
She was able to successfully help one woman who found the strength to break away from her trafficker. Morales says it started simply, as the woman was walking through the Destiny USA mall with her trafficker at her side.
"She's not giving an indication that she needed help. You can't see the chains, but they're definitely there. And she says as she was walking she made eye contact with a stranger. And the stranger smiled at her. And for that brief moment she says she felt human, and that changed her life."