Texas Border Officials Pilot Anti-Human-Trafficking Unit

South Texas farm workers
File Photos: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Texas border officials announced the launch of the nation’s first-of-its-kind law enforcement unit aimed at thwarting human trafficking in the Rio Grande Valley.

Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, Jr., said Friday this special human trafficking unit will focus on forced labor in the agricultural sector, the region’s largest industry. Rodriguez told local news outlets the Rio Grande Valley is more prone to cases of human trafficking and labor exploitation because of its close proximity to the border with Mexico.

The unit is a pilot program funded by a $356,783 grant from the Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery, a multi-disciplinary effort to end human trafficking, according to Texas Border Business.

In 2017, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University launched this three-year initiative to target human trafficking in the agricultural sector. The institute chose to begin this initiative in Texas and partnered with the Human Trafficking and Transnational Organized Crime Section of the Office of the Texas Attorney General, according to the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force 2017 report from the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. It also teamed up with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in the anti-labor trafficking effort targeting agricultural workers in south and northwest Texas.

“In forced labor, workers are often tied to the employers who hold them hostage to the job by taking away their immigration status,” said Rodriguez.” He noted that, in these cases, some employers pay migrant farm workers an amount less than promised or have them work long hours with limited access to food and water. He claimed that some victims suffer from verbal or physical abuse.

The Hidalgo County DA said his parents were farm laborers. Rodriguez said he was thankful they avoided this kind of predatory abuse. “The difference is that we were free to work and were paid what we were due,” stated Rodriguez. “That work helped pay for my college education.”

In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline ranked Texas second to California in the number of reported human trafficking cases. Texas reported 455 and California, 760, down from one year earlier when the hotline accounted for 792 cases in Texas and 1,305 in California. Florida placed third in 2018 with 367 cases, and 604, in 2017.

The hotline, operated by Polaris, a nationwide anti-human trafficking project, identified reported that of the 455 cases reported in Texas last year, 59 were labor trafficking, 323 were sex trafficking, 45 were sex and labor trafficking, and 28 were unspecified trafficking. Of the victims, 383 were female, 69 were male, and less than three were deemed gender minorities.

In July, Gonzalo Martinez de Vedea, a program manager with the Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery estimated seven to 12 percent of agricultural workers in the Rio Grande Valley showed “red flags” of being trafficked.

The initiative aims to discourage forced labor and labor exploitation and end traffickers’ impunity by supporting a justice system that is able to effectively, fairly, and efficiently handle these types of crimes. Those involved with the pilot program also plan to bring into Texas the Fair Food Program, a partnership among farmers, farm workers, and retail food companies that ensures human wages and working conditions for laborers. The grant money will go to staff unit positions that support the unit’s mission in stopping labor trafficking.

According to KRGV, the Rio Grande Valley unit will operate for two years and, will then be reviewed for a possible extension. Rodriguez said the anti-human trafficking program will eventually be replicated in other parts of the country.

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