skip navigation
Support KUOW
Former Washington State Representative Velma Veloria was instrumental in passing the first bill in the country making human trafficking a crime at the state level. Photo by Lauren Love.

Former Washington State Representative Velma Veloria was instrumental in passing the first bill in the country making human trafficking a crime at the state level. Photo by Lauren Love.


Human Trafficking: Our Legislative History

Sara Lerner

Washington took its place at the forefront of the modern anti–slavery fight in 2003 when the state became the first in the nation to criminalize human trafficking on the state level. What forced this problem to be faced head on? Why did it take six years to see the first conviction?


Today we begin our four–part series looking at human trafficking. We'll learn what the scope of the problem is and we'll come to understand Washington state's historic role in combating it.

The Showbox Sodo in Seattle is transformed into a dining hall. Guests are finishing their chicken and fish. Many already won hotel stays, climbing trips, or African scarves in the auction raising money for the Asian and Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center.

A woman walks up to the podium. She wants to tell her story tonight. She was a human trafficking victim.

Woman: "Three years ago, before I came here to the United States, I had many beautiful dreams. People promised me they would love me like a family member, like daughter or their sister. But when I got here in the U.S. my dream did not come true."

Two women stand with her. They don't say a word. The speaker was so nervous she asked her case managers to join her. She's not saying what kind of work she did or where she lived. But we know it was here in Washington.

Woman: "Every day they push me to do the job that I did not want to do. I have to work from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Sometime they woke me up at 2:00 a.m. in the morning and forced me to work. They did not allow me to go anywhere by myself."

The woman doesn't want me to say what country she's from. Her abusers know people. They could track her down.

But she's free now and safe.

This woman's story parallels so many: perpetrators might know their victims, prey on their hopes, bring them here, and keep them isolated once they arrive.

Trafficking of persons does not only mean moving people. Twenty–two Chinese stowaways snuck into Seattle in a shipping container down at the port a few years ago. That was smuggling. If someone arrives that way and is then sent off and coerced into doing some sort of work, — that's when the situation becomes human trafficking. The simplified definition is forced labor.

Kathleen Morris is at the dinner, too.

Morris: "I'm the program manager for the Washington Anti–Trafficking Response Network, also known as WARN."

She was one of the woman standing in support at the podium.

Morris: "You know we think of trafficking as this huge network of organized crime, which it can be, but it can also just be a couple that wanted a nanny but didn't want to pay for it."

Morris' job is to assist human trafficking victims — anything from helping them obtain a visa to signing them up for English classes. She also educates the public. She has a personal policy to never say no to a speaking engagement.

Morris: "I think when people hear human trafficking, they think about sex trafficking mostly. A lot of people probably think of an Asian woman who's young and maybe working in a brothel or a massage parlor. And that's true. But it's not the only image that there is."

She says she wants people to understand that, in her experience, labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking.

Morris: "We see construction workers, restaurant workers, domestic workers. We see people in agricultural work."

And, Morris says, in the area of human trafficking, our region sees a lot of activity.

Morris: "I hear that over and over and over again: hotspot, hotspot, hotspot. The U.S. government Department of Justice recognizes that Washington state is a hotspot for human trafficking. We are on an international border. We have an international port. We have a huge agricultural industry in Eastern Washington."

We may be known for being a hot spot, but Washington state is also known for something else: we're leaders in fighting human trafficking. We were one of the first states to receive federal grants towards anti–trafficking efforts. We're better at identifying victims than other states. Our success stems in part from bills passed in 2002 and 2003.

Man: "Mr. President, 43 yea, 6 excused."

Speaker: "Having received the constitutional majority, substitute House Bill 2381 is declared passed. The title of the bill be the title of the act."

Washington enacted historic legislation: the first state level criminal statute on human trafficking. That's because we were forced to face this problem head on after a series of tragedies.

Veloria: "I would not have introduced the bill if it weren't for those murders."

Velma Veloria was in the House then, representing Seattle's 11th District. She was one of the first Filipino American state legislators. Now she works for a nonprofit and refers to herself as an activist. She remembers how it all began.

Veloria: "Ok so in 1995 Susanna Blackwell who was a mail–order bride was murdered in a King County courthouse while she was waiting for her day in court along with her two friends."

Susanna Blackwell was from the Philippines. She met her husband, from Kirkland, Washington, through an international matchmaking agency. She moved here and married him and he soon began abusing her, physically and mentally.

She eventually leaves. Later, they fight in court over the dissolution of the marriage. 25–year–old Susanna brings two friends to the courthouse to testify on her behalf. Both are Filipino women.

Veloria: "So they're sitting there waiting for their time to go to court and Susanna Blackwell was already eight months pregnant. The guy comes through, shoots her right through the stomach, to kill the baby and her, and then her two friends."

Veloria says, at this point, the Filipino community is "up in arms." Then, over the next few years, two other high profile incidents surface involving abuse and mail–order brides and one of them is another murder.

Veloria: "What we did was, like, we turned this anguish into anger."

Veloria works with local women's service providers. They begin asking questions. They find other women from abroad who also have no support system, who are also expected to work as servants.

Veloria: "And then we began to say, okay, there's something happening here and it's not just a mail–order bride issue. There is something deeper."

Veloria realizes the problem goes beyond domestic violence. This is domestic servitude. It's a form of human trafficking. By 2001, Veloria helps organize a human trafficking conference at the University of Washington.

By 2002, she has a bill ready. It'll put money toward a study that will examine the scope of human trafficking in Washington state. She's hoping to gather evidence to show the real impact of the problem so, the following year, she can pass the bill that makes human trafficking a state crime.

In February of 2002, it's time for the house floor debate on Representative Veloria's bill. Both Democrat and Republican legislators support it with short speeches. Then, it's Veloria's turn.

Veloria: "A state with international borders, and international airports and waterways that bring Washington that much closer to Asia and a consumer population. Yes! This state is a consumer state for trafficked women. Traffickers find this state a lucrative market. So I urge you please support this bill. Thank you. "

It passes the house without opposition. Then, the bill makes its way through the Senate. Two weeks later, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a public hearing on it. It's a big day for Veloria.

Veloria: "I wanted to make sure that a lot of the folks that I had worked with would come to testify in favor of it so that there was no excuse that the legislature would not vote in favor of it. So I organized everybody and to my surprise there was this man I didn't know where he came from or who mobilized him."

Le: "I guess I'll speak first. My name is Hai Tree Le. An employee of Microsoft."

I was, like, kind of watching and I was hoping that he would be there to support the bill.

Le: "There's a garment factory near Indonesia. Established in 1999 in American Samoa, a territory of the United States."

Le is a Vietnamese American who works for Microsoft. He tells about terrible labor abuse at a garment factory in American Samoa. The female workers weren't allowed to leave and they weren't paid. The company operated there so its products could carry the Made in USA label. Le brings two survivors to the hearing with him.

Veloria: "And you know I was really thankful that he was there to support the bill. And it was, you know, it really kind of clinched it. Because then he had the victims there."

The bill passes out of committee. A week later, it passes in the Senate.

Veloria is thrilled. The next year, 2003, she's able to pass the bill that makes human trafficking a crime. Washington state has pushed itself to the forefront of the human trafficking fight.

Now Veloria can relax a bit. She's helped make this horrible injustice a crime under Washington state law. She watches and waits for state charges. And waits.

The years go by. Nothing happens. No one is prosecuted under a human trafficking charge.

Until 2009.

It's November. Velma Veloria is driving to the King County courthouse. Prosecutors charged 19–year–old DeShawn Cash Money Clark with two counts of human trafficking. He's accused of being a pimp and coercing young women to work for him as prostitutes.

This is what Veloria's been waiting for.

Veloria: "It's great because I think now we can begin to test the law. Before they said, oh the law is too unwieldy, You know we don't need to use it. Blah blah blah."

In six years, this is only the second human trafficking state charge. The first, by a prosecutor in Spokane in 2007, was dropped in a plea bargain. Why so few charges? Veloria has her suspicions.

Veloria: "I think a lot of the reason that it took so long to use it is because people, number one, didn't know that there was a law and then number two didn't know how to actually use it to charge the criminals."

King County prosecutors say other cases just weren't appropriate for a human trafficking charge. Plus, they acknowledge when it's time to test a law, they want a slam dunk case.

There are many charges on the federal level. The Western Washington U.S. Attorney's office is known for actively pursuing human traffickers. That office saw fourteen cases related to the crime in the last three years. But Veloria believes state prosecutions will bring more attention to the issue locally. And state convictions.

Court Clerk: "We the jury find the defendant DeShawn Cash Money Clark guilty of the crime of human trafficking in the second degree."

Clark eventually is sentenced to 17 years in prison. The case is on appeal now. Veloria is pleased but it's bittersweet. She'd rather there not be any human trafficking. But she has another reason to be excited. The spotlight has been shining on human trafficking lately, beyond this King County trial.

Veloria: "Suddenly, there's a lot of activism around it. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the education is happening! That's what I wanted to do, that's what I wanted! I want the attorney general and public to take up the issue. I want all these other people to take up the issue. I'm excited I got the work started, ok, and now it's up to the people, the activists around this issue, to continue and move it forward."

And move it forward they are. Later we'll learn how activism around human trafficking is exploding.

I'm Sara Lerner, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2010, KUOW

This is part one in a four–part series on "Human Trafficking in Washington State."