With stronger border and seaport enforcement, and with more vigorous Immigration and Customs Enforcement and FBI interior policing, last week’s massacre across several Atlanta massage parlors may never have happened. The immigration status of the deceased victims is as yet unknown; they may be U.S. citizens. Six of the eight killed were, reported The Associated Press, Asian, ranging in age from 33 to 74, seven women and one man.
Nevertheless, the harsh fact remains: deprived of trafficked and exploited illegal immigrants to hire, owners/operators, some also illegally present, could not manage their thriving massage parlor business as they do today – mostly unchecked. Finding the businesses isn’t hard; they’re listed in the phone book and are internet accessible. Customers have no trouble seeking out massage parlors, but, for the most part, law enforcement has a hands-off attitude.
Well-known for years is that international sex trafficking into the U.S. is an illegal but lucrative business and that many of the young women smuggled end up as prostitutes working under the flimsy guise of masseuses. No one knows exactly how many illegitimate massage parlors operate in the U.S., but the total could be tens of thousands. Cities with populations as small as 50,000 often have several so-called spas, all open for business from early morning until late at night.
In his evening television program, Tucker Carlson advised that when his staff did an internet search, it found more massage parlors than Starbucks in the neighborhood housing the Gold Spa, Aromatherapy Spa and Young’s Asian Spa where the shootings occurred. The Department of Justice announced that, “Atlanta is a major transportation hub for trafficking young girls,” and is “one of the 14 U.S. cities with the highest levels of child sex trafficking.”
Throughout Georgia, 165 illicit massage businesses have been identified that provide sexual services to at least 1,000 customers daily and generate $42 million in annual gross revenue. The U.S. Department of Justice Human Trafficking Task Force found that the average victim is first exploited for commercial sex between the ages of 12 to 14. Experts claim that traffickers take advantage of different countries’ maritime law discrepancies to easily smuggle their victims and eventually make huge profits. By land or sea, human exploitation is big business. The International Labor Organization estimates that the 25 million global victims generate about $150 billion in annual profits for the criminal organizers.
Victims are relocated to a foreign country where they cannot speak the language. Traffickers frequently take away the victims’ travel and identity documents, telling them that if they attempt to escape, their families back home will be harmed or the victims’ families will be forced to assume their debt. Men, women and children that are encountered in brothels, sweatshops, massage parlors, agricultural fields and other labor markets may be forced or coerced into those situations and potentially are trafficking victims.
According to the Department of State, the U.S. is the preferred destination for thousands of men, women and children globally trafficked and lured into illegal sexual practices and labor abuses. Many are enticed from their homes with false promises of well-paying jobs. But once they arrive, they are forced or coerced into prostitution, domestic servitude or menial farm and factory labor.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, U.S. Ambassador to China from 2017 to 2020, received a letter from a fellow Iowan who described how smugglers typically ply their trade. In 2017, Branstad’s correspondent met with a young Asian woman jailed in Iowa on prostitution charges. She had no family nearby and spoke only Mandarin. Through a translator, the woman told her story: an adult woman who promised her wealth and security as a U.S.-based massage therapist brought her to Las Vegas on an easily obtained tourist visa.
Within a few weeks, the victim was sent to Atlanta and then to Los Angeles where she was told she’d have to pay off her transportation expenses by first working at a local massage parlor and then at a Northern California spa. Eventually, she was sent to Iowa and placed at yet another massage parlor. In the unlikely event that any federal agency might have been pursuing her, the victim with the help of the perpetrators was always one step ahead of law enforcement.
The U.S. is the smuggler’s preferred destination because sneaking in is comparatively easy, payoffs are high and the likelihood of being apprehended and prosecuted is slim. Sex trafficking awareness is increasing; the FBI has a hotline to phone in suspected crimes. But so far, no significant dent has been made to stop felonious human smuggling. Ramped-up border and aggressive interior security is needed, and the Biden administration should, in light of the Atlanta tragedy, make enforcement its top priority.