Immigration-Linked Prostitution Cases Pose Challenge

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

The business cards handed to men at a North Woodbridge grocery store didn't say much. Just a first name, a cellphone number and the phrase Casa de Carne, or House of Meat.

But their simplicity made clear the illicit purpose: sex.

Authorities say the cards solicit customers for highly organized prostitution rings that cater to Hispanic immigrants and chauffeur women from out of state. Although prostitution crosses ethnic and racial lines, these immigration-related cases raise complex questions about the interplay of local and federal law and are likely to pose special challenges for Prince William County police in the push against illegal immigration that began this week.

The police department has said it will treat illegal immigrants who are criminals differently from those who are crime victims. But in prostitution cases, the women involved might be both.

"A lot of girls we've interviewed don't even know what city they are in or what state they're in," said 1st Sgt. Daniel Hess, commander of a street crime unit that has handled several of the prostitution cases.

Before county police began the illegal-immigration initiative, they tried to prepare for every scenario. But a closer look at the rings reveals that the line between the local crime of prostitution and the federal crime of sex trafficking is often blurred in subtle details. Did the women knowingly choose to work as prostitutes? Or were they pushed into it by force, fraud or coercion?

Under county policy, officers are ordered to check the immigration status of crime suspects when they have probable cause to think they are in the country illegally. Victims and witnesses of crimes will not be subject to those checks.

"You can definitely see some gray areas or contradictions," Chief Charlie T. Deane said of the prostitution rings. "I think we just have to step back from all these cases and say, 'What are we trying to achieve?' Our philosophy, the overall goal, is to protect crime victims regardless of immigration status."

The department's new Criminal Alien Unit is expected to investigate these prostitution cases and matters such as fake-identification mills, gangs and illegal drugs. The six officers who make up the unit, working under the supervision of federal immigration officials, will have some federal authority, unlike the rest of the department's more than 500 officers.

"These detectives who have this training now understand the nuances of immigration law and how we can protect victims of human smuggling," Deane said. "The goal of these cases really should be the people who are running these operations, the people who are making the money."

In the prostitution cases uncovered locally, law enforcement officials say women get about $30 for 15 minutes and are allowed to keep half of that.

"They are called las treinteras," after treinta, the Spanish word for 30, said Dilcia Molina, a human rights advocate. "In the world of sex work, they are usually the cheapest and the poorest. They are the ones who are usually on the periphery."

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