No More Lolas
Lola was a slave in the United States for 35 years. Not in the 1860s—but one hundred years later. With no visa, no English language skills, no money, and no contacts, Lola spent her life serving a family that lived in the suburbs. The family had children that went to school, neighbors that came over to watch football, and well-to-do colleagues. You never would have guessed they also had a slave.
Today The Atlantic published an article, “My Family’s Slave,” by Alex Tizon documenting his family’s history and his childhood being raised by a slave. Tizon writes about growing up questioning Lola’s place in his family and balancing his love of her with his need for her.
Tizon’s family brought Lola with them to the United States in 1964 with legal documents and a promise that after they were settled she would earn an allowance. She never got it. And after Lola’s papers expired the family held their control of her life even tighter. If Lola had been discovered while trying to travel home to the Philippines, the whole family could have been put in jeopardy and deported. Like modern slaves around the world, Lola never got to go home, never received any pay for her work, never had a place to sleep, never had a real meal, always facing punishment and abuse.
Unfortunately, Lola’s experience is not an isolated one. The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people live in slavery today. Sixty-eight percent are exploited for labor, including domestic servitude. Labor exploitation is usually hidden, making it hard to identify those who need help. Often these victims spend their entire lives working in terrible conditions, too fearful or unable to report it. Like Lola, most never see justice for the terrible crime committed against them.
When you consider that of the 297 convictions for human trafficking in the United States in 2015, only six were for labor trafficking cases, it’s evident that these cases are hard to identify and prosecute. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, only 1,057 of the 7,572 calls it received in 2016 reported labor trafficking. Labor exploitation hides in legitimate businesses and residential households across the country, a hindrance to identifying these crimes.
Public awareness about the signs of trafficking is essential to eradicating slavery. If neighbors, friends, and community members are educated, trafficking is harder to hide. Law enforcement also needs increased coordination between the federal and local level in order to identify labor trafficking victims. We should place an emphasis on training agents to investigate these crimes using a victim-centered approach, and utilize coordination to gain the expertise necessary to uniformly investigate trafficking cases of varying complexity. To do this, U.S. Attorney’s offices need to staff a human trafficking coordinator who ensures increased investigation of potential cases. A prosecutor focused predominately on trafficking would develop necessary partnerships in the community to identify trafficking and oversee awareness initiatives.
No one should be a slave, forced to live an isolated life in the shadows. Tizon’s story of Lola’s life is heartbreaking and complicated. What is not complicated is the need to dedicate our society and our government to ensuring no one else is trapped in Lola’s fate.