When Jews around the globe usher in Passover on Friday, we celebrate the biblical story of the Exodus, when Moses delivered the people of Israel from bondage.
Meaningful as the Passover rituals are, for me the Exodus story is a jarring reminder that the horrific scourge of slavery still thrives today, not just in far corners of the world but throughout the United States and in Los Angeles, where I live. Because its victims are on the fringes of society — frightened, powerless and often unseen — this is a crime cloaked in obscurity and often unreported.
While it was Jews who were enslaved in Egypt 3,000 years ago, all of us today have a responsibility to become educated about human trafficking, to assist survivors in regaining their freedom and self-respect, and to support efforts to eradicate this vicious practice.
We can start in our own communities. A global gateway, Los Angeles is a leading point of entry into this country for victims of slavery and trafficking. Our city’s sprawling size, polyglot mix of cultures and urban anonymity make it ideal for traffickers transporting and concealing enslaved humans.
California has more reported cases of human trafficking — for labor and sex — than any other state. According to the FBI, Los Angeles has more incidences of child sex trafficking than any other American city — a dishonorable distinction.
In California, those most at risk of being sex-trafficking victims are girls and boys ages 12 to 14. Often these are youngsters our society has already failed to help; it’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of victimized youths were previously in the child-welfare system, but wound up on the streets, vulnerable to being ensnared and exploited. Half of all trafficking victims are minors, and 80 percent are female.
Nationally, according to the State Department, about 15,000 people are brought into the U.S. annually for exploitation. Victims of labor trafficking are predominantly immigrants, brought to this country illegally or on visas with promises of legitimate work.
But they are only part of this ongoing tragedy. The overwhelming majority of victims of sex trafficking — 83 percent, according to the Department of Justice — are American citizens, often children.
It is a grim picture, but there are green shoots of promise. Law enforcement has made real progress in rooting out and prosecuting traffickers. Social-service agencies, collaborating with community nonprofits such as the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking and Saving Innocence, are helping survivors who have escaped from trafficking build new and productive lives.
The federal Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act increased penalties for offenders and boosted funding for law enforcement, prosecutors and social-service agencies helping survivors of trafficking. The California Trafficking Victims Protection Act made trafficking a civil offense, in addition to a criminal violation, and strengthened remedies for survivors. Locally, our Board of Supervisors has allocated $7 million annually for prevention measures and recovery services related to child sex trafficking.
Those efforts are paying off in Los Angeles. Last year, the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office filed more than 200 human trafficking cases. The LAPD, through its San Fernando Valley task force, made numerous arrests of traffickers in 2017 while rescuing a dozen victims and referring nearly 100 more to social-service agencies. In a recent three-day sweep, the multi-jurisdictional L.A. County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force rescued 56, including 11 girls, bringing to more than 220 the number of people liberated since its inception three years ago.
The fight against trafficking is also being waged in cyberspace, with law enforcement agencies using technology to find and identify sex traffickers who are soliciting online. Congress recently passed a bill to give prosecutors and sex-trafficking survivors the tools to take criminal and civil action against websites that promote sex trafficking.
It is incumbent upon us all — not just first responders, law enforcement or social workers — to become educated and learn the indicators of human trafficking. Being well-informed is a good first step, and excellent resources are available from such federal agencies as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Being vigilant — as well as conscientious — is imperative. The young girl frequently standing on a street corner or the anxious, reclusive housekeeper next door could possibly be enslaved against their will. Don’t hesitate to speak up: 911 and the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline are a phone call away.
The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which I am proud to lead, recently awarded $300,000 in grants to seven local organizations that focus on programs, services and advocacy to support the recovery and reentry of human-trafficking survivors.
I am sometimes asked why a Jewish public charity takes an interest in this issue. My answer is simple: something as fundamentally contrary to the principles of civil society as human trafficking demands the efforts and resources of us all. That was true in the time of Moses, and it is true today. Together, in the words of Exodus, with outstretched arms we can lift the burden of oppression and deliver these victims from bondage.
Marvin I. Schotland is president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which manages more than $1 billion in charitable assets and awarded grants of $97 million in 2017 to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations.