Victims of human trafficking are not only men and women, but teenagers and young children. They're subjected to force, fraud or coercion to turn them into unwilling participants of the sex trade.
Robert Sanborn:Î¾ "When we started talking about human trafficking three or four years ago, really, no one knew what were talking about."
Dr. Robert Sanborn is president andÎ¾ CEO of Children at Risk, which presented the Texas Summit on the Trafficking and Exploitation of Children. He says people are just beginning to learn that Houston is the hub of this modern-day form of slavery.
Sanborn: "They're coming from Latin America, but they're also coming from Africa. They're also coming from Asia. They're also coming from Eastern Europe, and they're all coming up on the border, and Houston is just very diverse. You don't stand out when you're in Houston, no matter where you come from. And so, we're a big city. It's easy for these victims to get lost."
Sgt. Mike Barnett is a 20-year veteran with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. He and his team investigate breaches of the peace at licensed premises where alcohol is served. Four years ago, he worked with the FBI on a human trafficking task force that resulted in the rescue of about 120 woman and girls who'd been enslaved and forced into prostitution.
Barnett:Î¾ "When I started this case, I would not have believed there were human slaves in this state. And after we got involved in it and my eyes were open to it, it's a much bigger problem than what people think."
In response to the growing recognition and alarm over the prevalence of human trafficking, the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition was established. Alyssandra Granado is coalition manager. She presented an overview of the problem.
Granado : "Texas is very vulnerable to trafficking. The DOJ has identified the I-10 corridor as the main trafficking route, a very popular route to bring individuals in and out, and through different states, through different cities. Also our demographics are very diverse, and so individuals are able to blend in with society."
She says since 2006, one fourth of all trafficking victims in the United States came from Texas.
Granado: "It's a very real issue. It's happening in our streets, it's happening to our own American citizens. Every single day this is their reality."
Sgt. Mike Barnett says the TABC can nail owners of liquor license permits involved in forced labor and human smuggling violations.
Barnett: "And the key to combating it is to educate everyone: law enforcement, citizens, reporters like yourself. Anybody that'll listen needs to know this is going on, because as long as it's quiet and nobody knows, it's very easy for them to get away with it."
Pat Hernandez, KUHF...Houston Public Radio News.