The Rutherford Institute

John W. Whitehead

Sex Trafficking: The Real Immigration Problem

April 10, 2006

by John W. Whitehead

While debates concerning immigration rage over economics and labor, little has been said about the Mexican women and children being bought and sold as sex slaves. The third largest crime scheme after drug and weapons trafficking, sex traffickers transport at least 18,000 captives into the United States each year.

In fact, the U.S. is one of the top destinations for sex traffickers. And trafficking rings have become adept at penetrating U.S. suburban areas. High rates of trafficking are found in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas and Washington, as well as other areas.

The southern border of the U.S. is the main thoroughfare for sex trafficking. Girls are smuggled into the U.S. from all over the world through this gateway. But trafficking along this route is not limited to rings based only in Mexico. “Tijuana is a good crossing point because it’s a prostitution zone,” said Melissa Ugarte, a sociologist for EYE, an agency aiding children in crisis in San Diego. “It’s easy to get from Tijuana into Arizona, California, Texas, to New York. It’s simple.”

Tijuana, a border town, is a short drive from San Diego. It provides a daily flood of sex-hungry tourists and a police department that looks the other way. Each trafficking ring uses its own route from Tijuana into the U.S. Some drive girls into the U.S. by flashing counterfeit documents at the California border. Other sex slaves are slipped across the border on foot and then shuttled by van to brothels through a network of covert “safehouses” spread across the country.

Tightly organized groups of pimps known as “Los Lenones” operate as wholesalers. These pimps collect human merchandise and make deliveries to brothels in thriving sex-trafficking hubs in major U.S. cities. One of the largest trafficking operations is based in San Diego. It was recently uncovered when child welfare officials teamed with county sheriffs and raided one of many houses of prostitution hidden in lower-class neighborhoods.

The discoveries shocked these officials to the core. The first thing they saw was a girl no older than 14, dressed in provocative clothing. What moved them was not the girl’s appearance, but the look of sheer terror in her eyes. The girl, whose name is Paola, had been kidnapped from her home in Oaxaca, Mexico, and smuggled into the U.S. as part of an extensive prostitution ring. During her first days in America, Paola had been passed through multiple exploitation camps. Because of her beauty, she became preferred merchandise and day and night had to service long lines of men, both indoors and out. But of the twenty dollars that each “client” paid, Paola received nothing.

Housed in squalid conditions, hidden away from the public in innocent-looking neighborhoods, girls like Paola are suffering the darkest form of abuse and exploitation. The sex-trafficking pimps have various ways of procuring these victims. They build an emotional relationship with them; convince the adolescent girl and her family to let her be taken to the U.S. to work; or they kidnap them. The girls are bound to their captors by both emotional and physical bonds and are often told that the pimps will marry them. Desperate to escape from their destitute lives in Mexico, they unknowingly walk into a life of exploitation and terror. Many of the girls have children, and a pimp is usually the father. The children are often snatched from their mothers and kept as hostages. When a girl tries to escape, she is told that her child will be killed.

Melissa Ugarte was first introduced to sex trafficking when she met Reyna, a victim of the sex traffickers. When Reyna was rescued, she had a split lip and was covered in bruises. At age 11, Reyna had been given to a local police chief in Puebla, Mexico, by her desperate father. She was raped often and bore a child that she could not support. So when she was offered a job as a servant in the U.S., she had no choice but to leave her child. After being forced to prostitute herself for a week in Tijuana, she was moved to San Diego and into the farm workers’ exploitation camps. Now participating in a program for child victims of exploitation, Reyna has been reunited with her child. She was one of the lucky ones.

In the nearby neighborhood of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the tortured bodies of young Mexican girls have begun to appear. Abandoned by their clients and dons, the bodies remain unclaimed because they are presumed to be undocumented. Since they are not reported missing from their hometowns, they remain the nameless victims of abuse.

American and Mexican officials are fighting the heartbreaking problem from both ends. However, both supply and demand must be addressed in order for a solution to be reached. Dr. Janice Crouse explains the evil nature of the business: “The demand fuels the industry,” she said. “Unlike drugs which are only usable once, a human being may be sold over and over again, sometimes 30 times a day, to make money. When a victim is used up in one market, he or she can be sold to another pimp, transferred into another area or moved into another aspect of the criminal activity.”

Unfortunately, much of the demand comes from within the U.S. Most people who pay for sexual acts are men seeking to “own” a human being, even for just a short while. And while the demand is great, the supply is ever-expanding and always getting younger. Children as young as 11 are forced into the slavery that will break their spirits and, for many, result in death.

What can be done? The Bush Administration has acknowledged the human trafficking problem, and President Bush has mentioned the problem in several major speeches, but more has to be done than mere talk.

Federal trafficking legislation has only been in place since 2000. It provides stricter penalties for trafficking and gives victims a variety of benefits, including a special temporary visa for three years. The victim can get medical counseling, psychological counseling and emergency shelter. However, the catch is that the victim must testify against her traffickers—something that most girls, out of fear, will not do.

Stricter control of the Mexican-American border would reduce the volume of human cargo. Raising awareness of the issue at the local and federal government levels could result in a reduction of the facelessness of the crime, as well as encourage local law enforcement to take on the issue. Moreover, pressure must be placed on the federal government to protect and aid the victims of trafficking without penalty. These women and children are not prostitutes. They are victims of human rights abuses and must be treated as such. Otherwise, all of the clamor over illegal immigration in the U.S. is nothing more than political hot air.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at

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