A Massive Effort Pays Off—N.Y. Anti-Trafficking Law
June 20, 2007
Earlier this month, Governor Eliot Spitzer, flanked by New York state legislators, signed into law the strongest state anti-trafficking legislation in the country. Depending on the source—including the UN and the United States State Department—the number of women, children and men bought and sold around the world for labor or sexual servitude varies anywhere from four to twelve million. And these numbers do not include those trafficked within the borders of their own country. All sources acknowledge the alarming magnitude of this form of modern-day slavery. And all agree that 80% of the trafficked individuals are women and girls, most of whom wind up in the multi-billion dollar commercial sex industry. Without the protection of strong anti-trafficking laws, women and girls subjected to sexual slavery can be treated as criminals rather than receiving the services they need. For example, Lydia (real names withheld), sexually abused as a child growing up in Venezuela, was just out of high school and working at a hotel when she met the first man who ever showed her any kindness. When Eduardo later called her from the United States, offering a good job and happiness, she followed him. Upon her arrival, after she handed over her life savings, Eduardo said she was still indebted for airfare, food, and board. The “good job” was at a brothel on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, an experience Lydia calls serial rape. “In one night,” she told advocates, “I was forced to have intercourse with almost twenty men.” She married one of her nicer “johns” but suffered severe domestic abuse even while pregnant. Arrested three times on charges of prostitution, she is now in deportation proceedings because of her convictions, fearing separation from her two young daughters. The new state law, a number of years in the making, is a national model in helping law enforcement identify and protect trafficking victims like Lydia and punish the long chain of individuals who buy and sell women and girls as sex trade commodities. The law will also provide relief for others enslaved in private homes, sweatshops, agricultural fields, and massage parlors. In the mid 1990s, Equality Now, a New York based international human rights organization, discovered Norman Barabash’s sex tour operation, Big Apple Oriental Tours, in Bellerose, Queens, not far from the brothel where Lydia was later trapped. For $2,195, the tour would fly American men to the Philippines or Thailand for 12 nights of “real sex with real girls—all for real cheap.” Although the business violated state laws against promoting prostitution, the Queens district attorney’s office showed no interest. Equality Now enlisted Gloria Steinem and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in an intensive campaign to engage the media and pressure the legal establishment, but Barabash continued to profit with impunity. Finally Steinem wrote a letter to Eliot Spitzer, who had just been reelected state attorney general, urging him to look into the case. In July 2003, after a year-long investigation, Spitzer issued a temporary restraining order, the first of its kind in the country, to severely restrict Big Apple Oriental Tours from organizing or advertising sex tours and to effectively disable the company’s website. He followed up with a criminal indictment. (The trial is scheduled to begin in a few months.) Steinem’s letter proved to be the lynchpin of Spitzer’s “crusade” against sex tourism and human trafficking, which he would bring with him to the governor’s office. A coalition of women’s rights and service provider groups—with support from more than 80 advocacy, religious, labor, and community groups across the state—had mobilized to push for an anti-trafficking law in New York, an arduous task. Assembly members Jeffrey Dinowitz and Amy Paulin had sponsored legislation that more than 100 colleagues signed onto. The New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition publicized the elements needed for a strong bill—including stiff penalties for traffickers, services for victims, a definition of the crime that included fraud and deception, and penalties for patronizing sex tours. Elements that seemed straightforward to coalition members seemed to elude many legislators. The result was a bill gutted to the extent that the coalition could no longer support it by the end of the session—legislative dysfunction that New York Times columnist Bob Herbert described in a column entitled “The Pimps’ Friends in Albany” (July 6, 2006).
After the stinging defeat, Equality Now and the coalition decided the public needed to be fully engaged. The coalition gained a new optimism with Spitzer’s election as governor in the Fall of 2006. With an advisory council chaired by Steinem and including such public figures as former governor Mario Cuomo, businesswoman Georgette Mosbacher, Meryl Streep, and Karenna Gore Schiff, it organized a press conference with Eve Ensler of V-Day and launched “Albany Watch,” a series of weekly rallies in downtown Manhattan.
Governor Spitzer’s outstanding new director of policy, Peter Pope, had been one of the architects of the Big Apple Oriental Tours case. He began drafting a new bill, negotiating with Charlotte Hitchcock, counsel to Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, to engage the speaker’s focus. A bill that had been given no chance in the past few years won unanimous votes in both the Assembly and the Senate.
If the law is applied properly in New York, traffickers will face jail time and trafficking survivors will be eligible for such services as health care, emergency housing, job training, and immigration protection. Prostitution laws are amended to increase penalties for patronizers, in recognition of the role the demand for prostitution has in promoting trafficking. Sex tourism is now explicitly criminalized.
A letter calling attention to an abuse hidden in plain sight, public advocates working to cooperate and mobilize a constituency, and public officials willing to exercise leadership have prepared the way for New York to remain at the forefront of this human rights campaign. But the work goes on. Advocates and state agencies will soon roll out a comprehensive public education campaign as well as training programs for law enforcement and others working on the front lines. Meanwhile, the law’s passage is a victory for all those who take small, but significant steps to ending the scourge of human trafficking and for its survivors, who want nothing more than to rebuild their lives in freedom and reclaim their dignity.