A form of what some call modern day slavery has law enforcement in the Rio Grande Valley partnering up with a local victim service agency.
The sale of human beings for sex or labor is a crime that plagues the entire nation, according to the Rio Grande Valley Human Trafficking Coalition.
The crime is one that can be decreased along the Texas-Mexico border.
"Unfortunately this is where they're going to get smuggled through. And so, smuggling is the gateway to human trafficking,” said Rosie Martinez with the coalition.
Martinez works directly with immigrants, who are in the country without proper documentation, and others who have been identified as victims of human trafficking.
The identification process, however, is one that comes with challenges. That’s because it can be difficult for law enforcement to differentiate between someone who was willingly been smuggled into the U.S. and someone who was kidnapped in order to be sold for profit.
“If we don't identify them here then that means they're going to be sold and taken to other areas, and then it's going to be a problem for another area in the nation," Martinez said.
One victim of human trafficking, referred to as Paulina to protect her identity, shared her story with Action 4 News. Paulina was smuggled into the U.S. after she was coerced through false promises by her husband.
“He told me that we were going to come here. We were going to have more opportunities for our son to go to school so that he wouldn’t live the same kind of life I did in Mexico,” Paulina said in Spanish.
Like many victims of human trafficking, it was Paulina’s immigration status that made her more vulnerable.
“He started stopping me from going out. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t go certain places because immigration would take me,” she said.
Paulina isn’t alone. Unauthorized immigrants are less likely to ask for help for fear of being deported, according to a report published by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
It’s why it took her nearly 10 years to cry out for help.
“I never called the police because of that fear. If I called the police, they’re going to investigate and find out that we aren’t from here and they would deport us all. My son too,” she said.
The Human Trafficking Coalition helps victims of human trafficking.
“This is where they warehouse humans. This is where they select them, and this is where they sell them,” Martinez said. “If smugglers and traffickers are willing to kidnap 80 to 100 people, when are people going to realize that it’s a safety concern for all the people that live in the neighborhood?”
The coalition is working to train local, state, and federal law enforcement officers on the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking.
As for Paulina, she’s been able to get help from a victim services center who also informed her of her rights as an immigrant and a victim of human trafficking. She hopes others who have been forced into a life they don’t want to live can find a way out.
“People don’t have a price. We are not objects that belong to anyone and we shouldn’t allow the violence for any reason, not because of necessity or hunger or lack of knowledge. There are ways to move forward,” she said.
Human trafficking victims who are in the country illegally can stay while their cases are being processed.
Potential victims can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.