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News >  Idaho

Prevalence of human trafficking debated

Rebecca Boone Associated Press

NAMPA, Idaho – Young women are ripped from their homes, smuggled into a foreign place and forced to marry older men or work as prostitutes against their will.

Some lawmakers say it’s not a problem just in the meanest regions of Thailand or India but in Idaho as well.

Certainly, the issue is sexier than Capitol restoration and more frightening than property taxes – two other issues also to be studied by Idaho lawmakers this summer. But for all its salacious intrigue, human trafficking in Idaho, law enforcement officials say, may be little more than a paper tiger.

“Human trafficking, though unfortunately more common than people think, is still in the category of being fairly unusual. So when it happens, it’s something we pay particular attention to,” said Carl Rusnok, a regional spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, based in Dallas. “But in Idaho? Not to my knowledge.”

Democratic state Reps. Donna Boe of Pocatello and Anne Pasley-Stuart of Boise led the effort to get lawmakers’ approval of an interim committee to study human trafficking this summer.

“We have identified a real problem here in Idaho,” Pasley-Stuart said. “There are women who are being brought in as brides and are relegated to human slavery.”

Those claims are backed by Yolanda Matos, the assistant director of Valley Crisis Center who said she has seen the problem firsthand.

“I call them ‘baby brides,’ ” Matos said. “I’ve dealt with an average of one a year for the past five or six years – women who were very young and in domestic violence situations.”

The women she helped all came into the United States in similar ways, Matos said. An older man, usually Hispanic and middle-aged, goes to Mexico and finds a poor family with a young daughter. The man offers between $200 and $300 in exchange for the parents’ permission to marry the girl. Then the child bride – often as young as 14, Matos said – is smuggled into the United States, where she is kept as a wife and a virtual prisoner in her own home.

Because the girls rarely speak English, know no one other than their “husband” and have little knowledge of local culture, they effectively are trapped, Matos said.

“Picture yourself when you were 15 or 16, how much you knew about the world,” Matos said. “These women don’t know what an ATM is, what a checkbook is. One woman couldn’t tell me her address because she didn’t know what a house number was.”

Matos said she doesn’t generally meet the women until they have been married a few years.

“Usually by the time I’m involved, he’s beaten … her and she’s older,” Matos said. “All of the women I have spoken to tell me this is not their choice but an arranged situation.”

But law enforcement agencies, including the Nampa and Boise police departments and regional prosecutors, say they never have encountered a child bride when responding to domestic violence calls. However, Matos claims the problem often is missed by investigators, who may be more focused on documenting the abuse than on subtracting the years the girls have been married from their ages.

“They’re not putting the connection together or they chalk it off to the culture, and they shouldn’t. No culture supports abusing children,” Matos said.

None of Matos’ former clients was available to be interviewed, she said, because they have escaped their husbands and returned home to Mexico.

The Ada County prosecutor’s office, Boise city attorney, Boise Police Department, Nampa Police Department, U.S. attorney’s office, Idaho attorney general’s office and local immigration officials all said they have not had any reports of child brides or prostitution rings.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Justice called on states to form committees to study human trafficking or create laws to deal with the problem. Religious and anti-domestic-violence groups jumped onto the issue, and some lawmakers took up the cause.

In Idaho, some politicians have cited two incidents to justify the legislative committee: the potential movement of a polygamous clan from Canada to North Idaho and the arrest of two men who allegedly were bringing Korean woman illegally into the United States from Canada. Those men were arrested en route to California, authorities said.

However, the men were charged with smuggling humans, a charge that presumes the women were not being brought into the United States against their will. That’s different from trafficking, in which humans are coerced or forced into virtual slavery.

Meanwhile, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has found no evidence to support suspicion of child brides among the polygamous group in Boundary County, and law enforcement agencies have no reports of laws being broken there.

Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, one of the leaders of the interim committee, said it simply is too early to tell if trafficking even happens within Idaho state lines.

“There is a feeling that there’s quite a lot of human trafficking occurring nationally and there may be some in Idaho, so we need to find out,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to lose control of this issue.”

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