Polaris maps suspected human trafficking cases in the U.S. in 2017, the latest year for which the anti-human-trafficking organization has statistics.

This Means War

Law enforcement, businesses, non-profit organizations and other anti-trafficking crusaders see progress in the front lines of the battle to “eradicate this awful evil”

It is probably not a surprise to many NFL followers that the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 in Atlanta. It also was not a surprise to law enforcement that nearly 170 people were reportedly caught that weekend engaging in the illegal sex trade, including those who trafficked children. 

To be sure, human trafficking does not always escalate during a major sporting event such as the Super Bowl, but those crusading against the illegal and sordid practice use the event to sharpen the public focus on the issue. More than a year in advance of the Super Bowl at Atlanta’s new Mercedes Benz Stadium, the city’s police force and mayor’s office worked with state and national law enforcement as well as anti-trafficking organizations and the business community to raise public awareness about the overwhelming issue of human trafficking. 

Human trafficking takes various forms. It crosses a wide swath of commerce.

Polaris, operator of the National Human Trafficking Hotline, has identified 25 different categories of human trafficking.

Polaris recently completed a study that mapped out how the trafficking of adults and children intersects business sectors in the U.S. The non-profit surveyed sex trafficking survivors nationwide and confirmed what most of us already know – that hotels and motels figure prominently in aiding the sex trade.

The report titled “On-Ramps, Intersections and Exit Routes: A Roadmap for Systems and Industries to Prevent and Disrupt Human Trafficking” shows how often human traffickers use airlines, car-rental agencies, ride-sharing services, banks and hotels to do business.

READ: A Polaris report shows human trafficking intersects all types of business in the U.S.

READ: Check out the growing numbers in human trafficking.

Types of Trafficking

The two overarching categories of modern slavery are labor and sex. 

Labor and sex trafficking spans across many U.S. business sectors. If human trafficking were a business, it would be 13th on the list of Fortune 500 … just before Chevron. 

Human trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion in revenue a year for traffickers, says Polaris.

The U.S. hospitality industry figures into both sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

WATCH:  What is human trafficking? U.S. Department of Homeland Security explains

Of the two trafficking scourges, labor trafficking is the least talked about, but it’s happening every day. Between 2015 and 2017, Polaris heard from nearly 500 probable victims of labor trafficking in hotels, motels, resorts and casinos. Most of the workers are in housekeeping, but others work in food service, at the front desk and as bell hops. 

While U.S. citizens are among the victims, the majority of the modern-day slaves are from Jamaica, the Philippines and India. Most of them come to America with H-2B work visas, believing they will make a lot of money they can share with their families back home. 

An H-2B visa is restrictive. It rarely can be used for any job other than what the worker first came to the U.S. to do. As such, the worker is tied to the abusive employer. In other cases, workers are in the U.S. illegally and in fear of law enforcement if they did manage to escape. 

Some – like M.C. – will take the risk.

Identified in court filings only by his initials, the young man had illegally migrated from India to Texas. He was caught and jailed, but his aunt, Leelabahen Chaudhari, paid his bail. She then drove M.C. to Kimball, Nebraska, where she and her husband, Vishnubhai, managed a Super 8. 

For more than a year, M.C. worked at the motel for no pay, said the U.S. Attorney of the District of Nebraska. The Chaudharis reportedly said M.C. was paying off his debt to them. They hid him from guests and other people who visited the motel, says the U.S. Department of Justice. In February 2013, M.C. escaped with the help of a guest.

The managers of the Super 8 in Kimball, Nebraska, were charged in connection with labor trafficking an illegal immigrant who law enforcement said was forced to work with no pay for more than a year before he escaped. (Internet photo)

The Chaudharis pled guilty in December 2017 to conspiracy and for harboring an alien for financial gain. In March 2018, they were sentenced to a year in prison, two years supervised release and made to pay M.C. $40,000 in restitution. The Chaudharis also were illegally living in the U.S., said officials. Upon the completion of their sentences, they will return to India. It is unclear if M.C. was repatriated. 

“This case is a reminder that labor exploitation occurs in the United States, not just overseas, and federal law targets those who profit from human trafficking and related crimes,” said U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly for the District of Nebraska, in a March 19, 2018, news release.

Labor trafficking occurs in other industries, including restaurant, agriculture and domestic work. 

Sex traffickers force adults and children into prostitution against their will. 

Contrary to popular opinion, a lot of sex trafficking involves children. Mostly girls under the age of 18. In fact, the average age of a child coerced into prostitution is 14. 

The numbers vary depending on the agency doing the reporting, but an overall estimate is 100,000 to 300,000 children a year fall victim to sex traffickers.

Also contrary to popular opinion is many adult prostitutes are slaves. They have not chosen to be sex workers. They are forced into it by pimps who dominate them financially, physically and emotionally. 

Slavery Survivor

Megan Lundstrom of Denver, Colorado, was forced into prostitution at the age of 23 by a man who held her children hostage. She was flown all over the country to meet up with buyers or find them on her own. She had a revenue target to meet each week or she wound not be able to see her children. She estimates she generated $250,000 a year in revenue for her trafficker, who pimped out several women at a time.

Megan Lundstrom, a sex-trafficking survivor, speaks on Jan. 11 at Delta Air Lines’ #Get On Board event. Lundstrom is founder of Free Our Girls, a nonprofit in Denver, Colorado, dedicated to creating awareness and rescuing survivors. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)

Lundstrom escaped her captor and formed Free Our Girls, a nonprofit dedicated to creating awareness and rescuing survivors. Lundstrom was a guest speaker at a Jan. 11 anti-human trafficking event Delta Air Lines sponsored in Atlanta. She said she met most of the buyers in hotels … and she was a frequent flyer.

WATCH: Delta Air Lines Jan. 11 human trafficking awareness event.

A couple of years ago, Delta Air Lines realized how its services were being used to propagate human trafficking. 

CEO Ed Bastion formed an anti-trafficking team to come up with solutions. So far, 56,000 Delta employees – including flight attendants, gate agents and pilots – have been trained to spot human trafficking.

WATCH: Delta Air Lines employees share how human trafficking awareness training makes a difference.

WATCH: Delta Air Lines airs in-flight video to put a face on human trafficking.

On Jan. 11, the Atlanta-based company marked Human Trafficking Awareness Day with an event for nearly 1,000 employees. 

Bradley Myles, president and CEO of Polaris, also spoke. In a former airplane hangar turned into a museum, Myers told the crowd about Polaris’s most recent study. 

“We have learned how interwoven trafficking is into so many different industries. It’s not like traffickers are sitting on an island committing trafficking. They fly on planes; they rent cars; they’re in hotel rooms; they’re on Facebook. All the things we do to live our daily lives, traffickers do, too.” 

Laws Enacted

Although many organizations such as Polaris have been waging war against human trafficking for a long time, more anti-trafficking warriors are banding together with law enforcement, the justice system and lawmakers to raise the level of awareness and spread the message that hotels that participate in trafficking – whether complicit or ignorant – will ultimately pay. 

Case in point is Yagna Patel, owner of the Roosevelt Motor Inn near Philadelphia, who is a defendant in a 2017 civil suit filed by a woman who claims she was sex trafficked as a teenager and the hotel staff not only knew it but aided and abetted the abuse. When this story posted, the case was scheduled to go to trial in March 2020.

The lawsuit is high profile as it is the first of its kind under Pennsylvania’s human trafficking legislation, enacted in 2014.

Other states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vermont have laws that either fine businesses or remove their licenses for participating in sex trafficking of minors. In California, a law enacted in the fall requires hotels to provide human-trafficking awareness training to employees. 

Besides state legislatures and non-profit organizations, those joining the fight against human trafficking are trade associations and members of Corporate America. 

Leading the way is Delta Air Lines.

“This is such an impactful issue,” Bastion said during the Jan. 11 event. Delta Air Lines, he said, is “involved in rescuing people and creating an awareness.”

Bastion has invited executives from various industries in the U.S. to participate in roundtable discussions about how to “eradicate this awful evil.” 

“In Corporate America today, we need to do more as leaders than just look after the well-being of our balance sheets and our earnings statements,” he said. “When we see issues, we have a responsibility to engage. We have a responsibility to speak, particularly when it impacts our business and livelihoods we create every single day. Airlines touch so many intersections in how trafficking occurs. It breaks my heart to think our equipment, our people, our services are used to facilitate evil.”

WATCH: U.S. Department of Homeland Security shows how sex traffickers target a people group.

“Bad actor hotels”

Camila Wright Zolfaghari is vice president of policy at the trafficking-prevention group called Street Grace in metro-Atlanta. Its focus is on preventing domestic child sex trafficking. Zolfaghari’s professional background involves battling human trafficking. She was Fulton County, Georgia’s, first human-trafficking prosecutor. And she became the state’s first deputy attorney general focused on prosecuting human traffickers. 

In August, Zolfaghari joined Street Grace. She spends her days lobbying lawmakers to enact laws to prevent human trafficking and to help survivors.

Part of her mission is to reach out to hotels. 

A misconception about hotels and sex trafficking is two edged. One side says hotel owners and managers are aware of the sex trafficking taking place on their property and they are complicit. The other side says hotel operators are not aware but when they realize what’s going on, they take steps to stop it. 

Both points of view are correct, said Zolfaghari. “There are good-actor hotels and there are bad-actor hotels,” she said during a phone interview. She talked about two similar cases. One hotel operator recognized a child victim from a missing-person alert and called authorities. 

In another hotel, staff members told two teenage runaways the police had come to the property looking for them. They told them to leave the premises so the business would not be blemished by the illegal activity. 

In the first case, the victim was rescued and entered treatment to help her recover from the trauma of being sold for sex. In the second case, police eventually found the girls, but it took weeks and their trafficker was not apprehended for three years. “The recovery process for these victims was longer and much more intensive because they had gone through it longer,” Zolfaghari said.

“It really makes a difference whether hotels are hiding trafficking or letting the traffickers operate and financially benefitting from traffickers being there,” she said. 

Hotel managers and staff that report suspicions of child sex trafficking are not only saving the victims. They also are protecting other employees and guests. 

Quite often, deciding to call the police is an act of bravery, Zolfaghari said. A hotel that participates in sting operations or is vigilant in reporting trafficking to authorities might get a negative reputation for a time because police frequent the property. “The hotel is determined to be part of the solution and that attracts law enforcement to the hotel.” Still, when it comes to finding the courage to fight the scourge of child sex trafficking, the good outweighs the bad.  “Law enforcement knows who the good guys are,” Zolfaghari said.

Street Grace is lobbying the Georgia state legislature to adopt a proposal that will encourage hotels to report suspected trafficking. 

The measure is still in being drafted, and it’s one of Street Grace’s priorities this year. Toward that end, Street Grace has teamed up with AAHOA to lobby the Georgia legislature to enact anti-human-trafficking laws. 

Street Grace also works with the American Hotel & Lodging Association, but because AAHOA members are hotel owners, the association can significantly and more quickly affect change at ground zero. “We’ve really had great conversations with them about how they can be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Zolfaghari said.

On Jan. 11, Human Trafficking Awareness Day, AAHOA issued a news release telling how the owners’ organization is combatting the crime through training, noting the hotel’s front desk is the front line in the “fight against this heartbreaking exploitation.” AAHOA partners with anti-trafficking organizations such as Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking and Polaris, as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign. 

For more information about AAHOA’s efforts to combat human trafficking, please visit www.aahoa.com/htat. 

AAHOA member Vipul Dayal long ago became an anti-sex-trafficking warrior. He grew up in a 24-room motel on Harry Hines Boulevard in northwest Dallas, Texas. 

In the 1970s and ’80s the street earned the nickname Hooker Hines because of the area’s burgeoning illicit sex trade. He said he grew up fast, helping his father run the property. He saw a lot things most kids should not see. The family lived at the motel until Dayal was 13 years old. “When I was young I did not know these people did not have a choice. I thought they wanted to this,” he said.

Today, Dayal lives in San Diego, California, with his wife and three children. He is a charter member of the San Diego Hotel/Motel Human Trafficking Awareness Partnership Initiative. He has helped AAHOA shaped its human trafficking awareness program and he has lobbied for anti-trafficking laws at the California state legislature on behalf of the California Hotel & Lodging Association. 

Dayal is one of two hotel representatives in the organization, which started with 10 people. The goal of the original group was to gather data on human trafficking, to get a handle on the size of the problem. The initiative has significantly grown over the years and is now a citywide collaboration dedicated to fighting the crime, creating awareness and aiding survivors.

Dayal said the hotel industry has come a long way in recognizing human trafficking and its negative impact on a community. The CHLA conducts awareness training for its members and lobbied the state legislature to enact laws that make such training mandatory for hotel owners and their staff.

The effort is starting to yield significant results, he said. “Last year, because of the training in San Diego the city was able to bust human trafficking rings.” Many of the cases were activated by hotline calls from hotels. 

As awareness grows, the next step is passing laws to enforce reporting. California will have more laws, and Dayal anticipates federal regulations. 

What’s missing, he said, is selling the moral duty to fight sex trafficking, no matter the cost to your hotel or its reputation. “Morally, you have to do what’s right. If you know morally that this is happening, you just have to report it. It’s preventable if you think about it.”

Dayal said at one time San Diego was ranked eighth in the nation for child sex trafficking. Thanks to the efforts of the hotel/motel initiative, it is winning the war. Still, it means fighting one battle at a time and not giving up. 

Owner of about six hotels in San Diego, Dayal sees sex trafficking escalate during major sporting events and conventions. However, advanced training of businesses and their employees, heightened awareness all around and law enforcement initiatives have in recent years significantly curbed the surge in sex trafficking at those times.

Britany Anthony is strategic research manager at Polaris.

Anthony talked to us just days before the Feb. 3 Super Bowl in Atlanta. Contrary to popular belief, she noted the data Polaris has gathered over the years shows no significant spike in sex trafficking during major events such as sporting tournaments and conventions. 

During our interview, Anthony said over and over again labor trafficking, sex trafficking – including domestic child sex trafficking – occur every day of the year. 

One caveat here: Polaris is a national hotline. So its data is compiled differently than say a local organization involved in awareness campaigns or rescuing victims.

From Polaris’ perspective, Super Bowl weekend prompts conversations around human trafficking but the crime happens every single day. The Super Bowl merely holds a magnifying glass over the issue. During such public events, Polaris lends its services and helps coordinate outreach efforts.

Human trafficking “happens 365 days a year,” Anthony said. “The Super Bowl weekend is really no different. Although we take the opportunity to reach more people, we also say the same traffickers will wake up Monday morning [after the Super Bowl] and keep doing the very same thing.”

Back to Top