There are an estimated 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). The US attracts migrants and refugees who are particularly at risk of vulnerability to human trafficking. Trafficking victims often responding to fraudulent offers of employment in the US migrate willingly and are subsequently subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude in industries such as forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
Santiago travelled from Mexico to the United States and was trafficked into forced labour in California when he was 21 years old. Without papers, Santiago was vulnerable. When he asked his employer for his salary, she called immigration and had him deported, then arranged for him to cross back and then kept him in debt bondage for the expenses of his journey.
I told my wife, ‘I’m going to America to do something.’ I was 21 years old and a father. We didn’t have enough money for rent. I was discharged from the police and I couldn’t find a job.
I would have crossed no matter what because at that time my son was sick. He was a little child back then and needed to get therapy. People will cross the border if they are in need or afraid. The poverty in Mexico is too extreme. Either way they are risking their lives. If we don’t cross the border, nothing happens. If we stay, there is violence.
When I made it to California, a man came by and asked me if I wanted work. I was in Encinitas and I didn’t have a job. I remained at home, locked up, when everyone else left for work. So the man came by, he gave me a job in Rancho Santa Fe. There were dirt trucks with wheelbarrows, it was raining, and I shoveled sand into the horse stables. It was so that the horses wouldn’t step on too much mud.
When you’re poor, you’re vulnerable. They paid me $30, $40 for working eight or ten hours. Some friends told me that I was working for free.
Betty’s Tacos would hire people without papers. We didn’t have papers and Betty didn’t ask for our papers. At first, I felt fine working for Betty but then not so much. When I tried to get my money, she would get angry with me.
She wouldn’t pay me and she would fire me. All of us who worked there were on the edge with our rent payments. She owed everyone.
I felt like a prisoner. Betty took my papers. She called immigration on us and had us deported. Then she arranged for us to cross back, but she kept us in a hotel for two months before we could go. Once we got back, she gave me a bill for all the expenses. She took the money she said I owed her out of my pay and I got almost nothing. They threatened to kill us if we complained or didn’t do what they wanted.
You should have rights even though you don’t have papers. They think that you can’t do anything, but legally you can.
When I went to the FBI offices I realized it was true what had happened. The FBI showed me several pictures and asked me if she was the person they were looking for. At the Human Trafficking program they helped me. It’s a long but safe process.
Narrative source Youth Underground, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing human trafficking through youth education, awareness-raising and advocacy.
Original narrative can be found here: