In many ways, Kent County is a great place to live. This is a forward-thinking community that still has a deep appreciation for its historic roots. A vibrant arts community with world-class museums and art galleries exists alongside top medical facilities and research institutes. From beaches to color-tours to skiing, this is a year-round tourist destination. Families looking to make this their home are attracted by our growing economy, good schools and friendly neighborhoods. At the same time, an energetic urban scene and strong universities are a draw for young people.
Despite this, it is the unfortunate reality that human trafficking does, indeed, happen here.
Like others, our community possesses characteristics that can be easily exploited by traffickers in what is, at its core, a highly lucrative commercial enterprise. At the mercy of the laws of supply and demand, those living in precarious economic situations, isolated culturally and socially, or existing on the margins of our community fall victim to traffickers working to fill the seemingly insatiable demand for cheap goods and commercial sex.
The West Michigan agribusiness sector includes more than 9,000 farms and nearly 1.1 million acres of harvested crop land. It produces one-third of Michigan’s total agricultural sales, contributing $1.5 billion to the regional economy and providing more than 26,000 jobs1. In no small measure, those jobs are held by a migrant workforce. “Poor English language skills, extreme poverty in countries of origin, and fear of reprisals for reporting unlawful labor conditions make many immigrant farm workers particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking2.”
The West Michigan commercial transportation infrastructure is closely connected to numerous major regional hubs1. While this serves to speed goods to market and is an inextricable part of our economy, it is their inherent transience that makes the truck stops and rest areas dotting our highways attractive places for sex traffickers to sell their victims.
Our local hospitality industry has grown as our region becomes an increasingly popular location for large-scale events and national conventions3. Hotels – filled with guests frequently coming and going and often unfamiliar to hotel staff – provide convenient, temporary cover for traffickers looking to service sex buyers.
Lastly, the socio-economic conditions that can make people vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking in the first place are widespread in our community. The economic growth Kent County has experienced in recent years remains stubbornly out of reach for thousands. One in six people in our community lives in poverty4. With few economic options, adults and children alike are often coerced into dangerous situations to simply put food on the table and a roof over their heads. And while economic poverty puts people at risk, emotional poverty is particularly dangerous for children. At the end of 2013, 1,165 children in Kent County were temporary wards of the court and 258 were permanent wards5. In 2012, 14,863 cases were investigated by Child Protective Service for abuse and/or neglect5. Every year, nearly 2,000 young people experience homelessness throughout the Grand Rapids area6. Without a supportive, caring family, a child will look to others to find a sense of belonging and to feel loved. To paraphrase the words ascribed to a trafficker, “Promise [a child] the world and they will follow you to hell7.”
Human trafficking is real. It is here.
Responding as effectively as possible – to help victims and hold traffickers accountable – is the purpose of the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force.
- See generally SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER, CLOSE TO SLAVERY: GUESTWORKERS IN THE UNITED STATES (2007), available at http://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/Close_to_Slavery.pdf.
- Crain’s Detroit Business, “Michigan’s hotel room market still growing, but there’s a downside, tourism experts say.” March 08, 2015 UPDATED 3/12/2015. http://bit.ly/1OV0DV4
- U.S. Census. 2009-2013. quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/26081.html
- Grand Rapids HQ. hqgr.org