Human trafficking has come to Minnesota

Tatiana Ivanova is a victim of international human trafficking.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The story of international human trafficking is primarily about women. Women with dreams of a better life who are lured into the U.S. with promises. When they get here, though, they find a very different world than they imagined. One of prostitution or servitude.

Tatiana Ivanova, an attractive Russian woman in her early 40s, unwittingly became a trafficking victim.

In 2002, she met an American man on Yahoo personals. After a short Internet courtship, he came to Moscow and they married. Ivanova says they then moved to Minnesota.

Lawyer Sonseere Goldenberg helped Ivanova gain legal residency in the U.S. under the federal Violence Against Women Act.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"When I moved here," she says, "after the first week, it was like a different person. It's not the same man anymore."

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Ivanova, not her real name, is hiding her identity because she fears being discovered by her former husband. She says the man she married enslaved her, punished her physically and sexually, and manipulated her emotionally.

"Sometimes we're going for shopping," she explains, "and it's like, 'Why you looking at this man, why is this man looking at you?' 'Which man, I don't see any man around.' Or he will stop and will ask somebody, 'Why are you looking at my wife?' I don't know, maybe it's something wrong with his head, I don't know."

Ivanova's husband would not allow her to leave the house without him. He forbade her from getting a job, even though she has a degree in computer science. The husband wouldn't let her use the phone or the computer.

They're courted by men who are looking for submissive non-American wives who will keep a home, who will be a slave in the bedroom, who will do all of their tasks, and control everything they do.

Ivanova was not allowed to speak Russian in the house with her teenage son. And he forced her to spend her days cleaning the house, and one of his old apartments.

After about five months, Ivanova met another Russian woman living nearby in Eden Prairie who helped her escape to a battered woman's shelter.

Ivanova's lawyer, Sonseere Goldenberg, says at first glance, Ivanova's case doesn't look like trafficking, because she went willingly into the relationship with somebody she met online.

"But, it's a typical pattern," Goldenberg says. "Where they're courted by men who are looking for submissive non-American wives who will keep a home, who will be a slave in the bedroom, who will do all of their tasks, keep them cooped up in a little apartment, and control everything they do."

Goldenberg says in these cases, the husband, or trafficker's, trump card is the threat of deportation.

Goldenberg secured Ivanova's permanent residency through the federal Violence Against Women Act. It's one of several pieces of legislation in recent years making it possible for trafficking victims to stay in the country legally.

Last year a U.S. Department of Justice report likened trafficking in humans to modern-day slavery. It estimates up to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. From that number, the report estimates 18,000 come into the United States each year.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas
State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, is sponsoring legislation to create a statewide human trafficking task force.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Lawmakers in a number of states, including Minnesota, are starting to take notice of the problem.

"It's a worldwide problem," says Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. "To the extent that we have international women in Minnesota, we're not sure yet."

Pappas is authoring several anti-trafficking bills in the Senate this session. One bill proposes spending $200,000 to create a statewide human trafficking task force, to root out what she calls a "hidden problem."

"They don't speak the language," she says. "They don't know the culture. They may come from a country where law enforcement is paid off, or in cahoots with what's going on, and so they really have nowhere to go. When you think of all the basements, all the locked rooms where people could be, how do you even find them? It's going to be very, very difficult."

If the Legislature funds a task force, it would build on last year's trafficking legislation. Pappas and her House colleague, Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, sponsored legislation setting penalties for those convicted of trafficking, and secured $100,000 to commission a comprehensive report on the problem in Minnesota.

That report is due to lawmakers next Fall.

Danette Buskovick is a researcher with the Department of Public Safety's Office of Justice Programs. She is authoring a statewide analysis of the scope of Minnesota's international human trafficking problem.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The study's author, Danette Buskovick, is a researcher with the Department of Public Safety's Office of Justice Programs. She says there's no data on trafficking in the state. She thinks that may be because police and social service providers don't know it when they see it.

"Minnesota has been in denial that this could happen in our state," Buskovick says. "But it is happening."

To collect data, Buskovick sent a survey with some clear definitions of trafficking to 200 service providers across Minnesota.

"We got a count of 14 victims of labor trafficking," she says. "And a very conservative estimate of 107 victims of sexual trafficking."

The victims come from countries including Mexico, Russia, Laos and the Phillippines.

Buskovick suspects the numbers are much higher. She believes trafficking mostly goes unreported, because of victims' fear of deportation and lck of knowledge about how to get help.

Linda Miller
Linda Miller is executive director of Civil Society, an organization helping international traffic victims access health and legal services.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

When Buskovick asked survey respondents whether trafficking is a growing problem in the state, she says, tellingly, half the survey respondents said yes, and half said they didn't know, because they just don't understand what it is.

Efforts are already underway in the city of St. Paul to combat trafficking and educate police and service providers on how to recognize traffic victims.

St. Paul Police Sgt. John Bandemer works full time investigating human trafficking. He was assigned in December after his department received a grant from the federal government.

Bandemer says, right now, he's investigating two possible rings sexually trafficking foreign women in the Twin Cities. He thinks there could be between eight and 20 victims. He says while arresting traffickers is a priority, his role is to help victims, not put them in jail.

"The act they're committing may be illegal," Bandemer says. "But because of the circumstances they're doing it under, we're not going to prosecute those people and we're certainly not going to send them back. Because oftentimes -- it's been documented -- they get sent back and they go right to the hands that trafficked them in the first place."

Bandemer works closeley with lawyers at Civil Society, a nonprofit agency, which helps trafficking victims obtain visas, get work permits and access health care.

Executive Director Linda Miller says in the past 10 months, Civil Society has helped 24 international trafficking victims in Minnesota. All but four are women who have 15 children among them.

Miller says assuring trafficking victims they won't be deported is critical to building trust and helping them survive.

"Forming that trust is particularly a problem, because they are in a situation where why would they trust anyone again," Miller says. "And they're from non-democratic countries where they have not learned of a system that can help, they've only learned of systems that hurt."

Miller's organization provided the lawyer who helped Tatiana Ivanova stay in the country and divorce her abusive husband. Ivanova says finding her way to Civil Society, and getting the help she needed, saved her life.

"The most important thing is to meet good people in your life," Ivanova says through tears. "It doesn't matter if American or Russian or whatever, but if you meet them they will help you. And now, if I can help somebody I'll be happy to do that."

Ivanova says she's already encouraged a handful of women she knows to call Civil Society and get help.