Immigrant Prostitutes: Victims or Criminals?

Theresa Vargas, Washington Post, March 7, 2008

The business cards handed to men at a North Woodbridge grocery store didn’t say much. Just a first name, a cellphone number and the phrase Casa de Carne, or House of Meat.

But their simplicity made clear the illicit purpose: sex.

Authorities say the cards solicit customers for highly organized prostitution rings that cater to Hispanic immigrants and chauffeur women from out of state. Although prostitution crosses ethnic and racial lines, these immigration-related cases raise complex questions about the interplay of local and federal law and are likely to pose special challenges for Prince William County police in the push against illegal immigration that began this week.

The police department has said it will treat illegal immigrants who are criminals differently from those who are crime victims. But in prostitution cases, the women involved might be both.

“A lot of girls we’ve interviewed don’t even know what city they are in or what state they’re in,” said 1st Sgt. Daniel Hess, commander of a street crime unit that has handled several of the prostitution cases.

Victims or criminals?

Before county police began the illegal-immigration initiative, they tried to prepare for every scenario. But a closer look at the rings reveals that the line between the local crime of prostitution and the federal crime of sex trafficking is often blurred in subtle details. Did the women knowingly choose to work as prostitutes? Or were they pushed into it by force, fraud or coercion?

Under county policy, officers are ordered to check the immigration status of crime suspects when they have probable cause to think they are in the country illegally. Victims and witnesses of crimes will not be subject to those checks.

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The department’s new Criminal Alien Unit is expected to investigate these prostitution cases and matters such as fake-identification mills, gangs and illegal drugs. The six officers who make up the unit, working under the supervision of federal immigration officials, will have some federal authority, unlike the rest of the department’s more than 500 officers.

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In the prostitution cases uncovered locally, law enforcement officials say women get about $30 for 15 minutes and are allowed to keep half of that.

“They are called las treinteras,” after treinta, the Spanish word for 30, said Dilcia Molina, a human rights advocate. “In the world of sex work, they are usually the cheapest and the poorest. They are the ones who are usually on the periphery.”

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Scott Hatfield, chief of the human smuggling and trafficking unit for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency takes a “victim-centered” approach to such cases, not deporting women who are found to be victims. He said federal officials often reach out to local police to teach them the signs of sex trafficking. One is whether someone else is holding a woman’s travel documents. Another is whether she fears for her family, whether in the United States or overseas.

Well-organized circuits

Montgomery County police, active in investigating this type of prostitution, said women travel well-organized circuits from hubs such as New York and New Jersey to states such as Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“They might be in Prince William this week, in Philly the next week and then the following week here in Gaithersburg,” Montgomery vice Detective Thomas Stack said. “We’ve come across address books and cellphones, and you can see there are brothels in every Latino community in the East Coast.”

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Unlike massage parlors that sell sex, the prostitution rings are harder to track because they move from one short-term rental home to another. Hess said it is not unusual for police to receive complaints about a home, go to it and find evidence that the operation has just shut down. A search of a Hylton Avenue home led to several arrests, Hess said, but there was evidence that others had just left. Mattresses without sheets lay in every room with condoms and lubricants.

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