By DAVE SCHWAB | La Mesa Courier
[Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series on human trafficking in San Diego County.]
San Diegans battling human trafficking for sex and labor were recognized Nov. 27, at La Mesa Soroptimist’s 62nd annual pre-Thanksgiving community breakfast at the Handlery Hotel.
Those working to stop human trafficking and assist its victims were thanked and honored for their work. Honorees included: Kathi Hardy, executive director of Freedom from Exploitation Inc. and director of operations at Survivor Leader Network of San Diego; Kiley Lizama, program manager with I Care; Catherine Hanna-Schrock, program director of kNOw MORE; Ami Carpenter and Jaime Gates, professors and co-principle investigators from University of San Diego overseeing research study on human trafficking; Suyapa Ulloa, outreach leader of PETALS (human trafficking ministry) at Rock Church; and Generate Hope.
Soroptimist International of La Mesa’s Lisa Moore thanked the gathering, acknowledging visiting Soroptimist dignitaries. She then introduced mistress of ceremonies Geni Cavitt, former KGTV-TV 10 News broadcaster and producer, writer, and editor of Cavitt Productions.
“It is horrendous, terrible and unimaginable — yet it goes on all the time,” said Cavitt of sex and labor trafficking. “I’ve learned so much more over the last few years about what sex trafficking does to people. Everyone who works in the sex trafficking area is so brave. It’s not easy.”
Cavitt introduced keynote speaker Yusef Miller, a former Camp Pendleton Navy Corpsman and founder of Mosques Against Trafficking (MAT), a networking awareness team of mosques and musallas, now nationwide, collaborating against human trafficking.
Characterizing trafficking as a “daunting” and “huge” topic, Miller said, “This is an $810 million industry in San Diego, second only to drugs and a cut above guns. We’re in the top 13 list of worst cities in the nation.”
Dispelling trafficking misconceptions, Miller noted “80% of those trafficked are American-born and raised. So this is an American problem that needs an American solution from the American people. It’s our issue, our child.”
Pointing out the average age of those trafficked is 14 to 16, Miller said, “No one is immune to this industry.” He added people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status are “more vulnerable,” especially runaways whom he said, “get propositioned for sex within 48 hours of running away.”
Sex trafficking is increasingly occurring online, where “older males pose as younger males” to lure victims whose families they threaten once they’ve been recruited into the illicit trade, Miller said.
To combat online trafficking, police are now setting up sting operations online with officers posing as perpetrators to lure traffickers trying to lure young women into the trade.
Sex trafficking is not a coincidence, Miller added.
“These people are not snatched from the street,” he said. “They’re in our homes. They go to school with us. They’re our children. They’re our co-workers.”
Progress is being made on eliminating the stigmatization of sex trafficking victims being categorized as “prostitutes.”
“Recently, we changed the laws,” Miller said adding those below age 18 are no longer saddled with proving they’re not criminals.
“It was a huge step,” he said. “Women used to lose their lives to this stigma of being a prostitute.”
Trafficking carries over to labor, said Miller, noting he knew of an instance where labor traffickers would take enslaved laborers making tacos out, shoot a goat in front of them and then tell them, “What we did to that goat, we could do to you.”
The situation is bad but there is hope if communities get together and work cooperatively, Miller said.
“San Diego is the leader in the nation in fighting human trafficking,” he concluded. “With our help, we could be just that much better.”
The pre-Thanksgiving community breakfast is sponsored each year by Soroptimist International of La Mesa, a nonprofit volunteer service organization of women, active and retired, working together to improve the lives of women and girls.
Soroptimist, which means “best for women,” was started in Oakland, California in 1921 and now has clubs in about 124 countries and territories, including several throughout San Diego County.
In 2011, local Soroptimists formed STAT! (Soroptimists Together Against Trafficking), to assist victims and survivors.
As part of its work annually, STAT seeks out survivors of trafficking who are trying to improve their lives through education or training and presents them with Soroptimist “Live Your Dream” cash awards that recipients can use to offset any cost associated with their attaining higher education.
— Reach Dave Schwab at email@example.com.