HOUSTON – Sex trafficking and human smuggling make big headlines in Texas. They are both forms of human trafficking that victimizes many. Yet experts say another form of trafficking that is easier to accomplish is creating what many consider modern day slavery.
It is called labor trafficking and the traffickers take advantage of the current visa programs to get away with it.
In fact, some victims of labor trafficking may not even know they have been trafficked.
Nanbam Blessing Daniels had big dreams for herself and family back in Nigeria. She thought coming to the United States with her so-called boss would make that happen. That is until she learned she was a victim of labor trafficking.
“I didn’t know I was going through that,” Daniels said. “I didn’t know people realized it.”
From Nigeria to Houston
In 1993, a Nigerian prince moved to Texas and attended the University of Houston.
Houston quickly became Eze Madumere’s second home, but he still had a life back in Nigeria.
“I work as house help, do everything in the house, take care of the kids, drop them off in school, pick them back up,” said Daniel, who started working for the prince in 2010 in Nigeria.
But one day, Daniel’s world changed. She would leave her 8-year-old daughter and family for temporary work.
“He never said anything. He just say, ‘Go get your passport. You’re going to the United States,’ and that’s it,” Daniel said. “I never knew it was gonna be permanent.”
Prince Madumere brought Daniel to Houston on a tourist visa and put her to work at his suburban home.
“She was working there, you know, essentially 24/7 for her waking hours,” said Duchoang Daniel Pham, an attorney with the Equal Justice Center. ”Instead of paying her wages, like you should normally, he told her that he would be sending money to her family in Nigeria.”
Daniel said she was under the impression her wages would be sent to her family in Nigeria to care for her daughter’s education and life.
“There was no promises [in the United States]. But, there [were] promises back in Nigeria before coming,” Daniel said.
When KPRC 2 asked her what would happen if she ever left the prince’s home on her free own will, Daniel replied, “I don’t want to say that.”
What is labor trafficking?
Daniel, like so many other victims of trafficking, believed the promise of security like the one made by Madumere.
However, Daniel’s life in Houston was non-existent. She had no phone, she slept on an air mattress in the living room, and when she started to make friends at church, Madumere quickly put an end to her worship.
Experts said this is classic trafficking behavior.
“Labor trafficking is the use of force fraud and coercion for the purpose of obtaining someone for modern day slavery for debt bondage or forced labor,” said Elise Griesmyer, the Catholic Charities Associate Legal Director of St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance.
Catholic Charities is just one of the local nonprofits working to help victims of labor trafficking escape that system.
Victims of labor trafficking are typically not picked up off the street and forced to work. They may look more similar to Daniel’s case.
“Human trafficking isn’t just kidnapping. It isn’t just abduction; human trafficking usually is done by someone who has a close relationship or kinship to you. And is taken advantage of that,” said Samantha Ledesma, case manager with the YMCA International Trafficked Persons Assistance Program. “A lot of these labor trafficking cases can be with foreign nationals.”
“I think when we see stories about trafficking in the media, they tend to take either the form of smuggling, you know, immigrants found in the back of an 18-wheeler, or they take the shape of sex trafficking for young American girls. And both of those things are so narrow in focus that we miss how broad trafficking is,” Griesmyer said.
The gaps in U.S. visa programs
Many victims of human trafficking are undocumented. Daniel’s case comes on a tourist visa, then there are those who come on worker visas, like the H-2 program.
According to Griesmyer, the H-2A and H-2B visa programs are used to help with employment issues when a position cannot be filled with a U.S. citizen or another person already in the country.
Employers will sponsor a person from another country to bring them to the states for the job.
However, it creates a “huge power imbalance,” Griesmyer said. “And if they complain about working conditions or hours, or the type of work that they’re being forced to do, they know that their employer could have them deported at any moment.”
The Department of Homeland Security allows 88 countries to apply for H-2 visas.
Between 2018 and 2020, more than 15,800 people were identified by the Human Trafficking Hotline as labor trafficking victims, with nearly 3,700 holding an H-2 visa.
According to the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration nearly 7,500 people applied for H-2 visas in Texas during the first three quarters of 2022.
“So a lot of abuse crops up in that system that could be easily resolved if we gave immigrants more flexibility to work within that same field, but the ability to change employers,” Griesmyer said.
Again, people with H-2 visas cannot change jobs to escape their situation. In Daniel’s case, it took a call to get her out.
The call to freedom
Daniel worked under the prince in Houston thinking the conditions she was subjected to were normal.
A savvy family member took action to get Daniel out of the situation.
“When her family friends eventually learned that she was in Houston and working for this Nigerian politician, they basically asked, you know, ‘Hey, we want to see you. We want to, we want to spend time with you.’ And she wasn’t able to do that under her employer’s orders,” Pham said.
Her friends called the police realizing something was wrong, but Daniel was fearful of what would happen.
“I thought I was going to be deported,” Daniel shares. “I had no idea what was going on. So, like they said, it was human trafficking. And I had no idea I was going through that.”
The lawsuit against the prince
Victims of human trafficking, whether it is sex trafficking or labor trafficking, are able to sue to recoup any damages, like for wages or mental anguish.
That’s how Daniel was put in touch with Pham at the Equal Justice Center.
Daniel, with the help of Pham, filed a federal civil lawsuit against the prince.
KPRC 2 Investigates reached out to Madumere for comment on the lawsuit. His attorney responded with the following statement:
“Please note that my client was traumatized by the allegations made against him in the lawsuit and he filed a counterclaim for defamation. The parties agreed to a mutually agreeable settlement and discharged their claims against each other. My client does not wish to revisit this matter.”
The details of the settlement are private, but Pham said it was “a decent amount of money.”
It is important to note that Prince Madumere was never criminally charged with labor trafficking.
The challenges in prosecuting labor trafficking
Labor traffickers are often not criminally prosecuted for the exploitation of workers, according to Pham.
“It’s hard to grapple with this definition and understand that labor trafficking is not just a workplace violation, it’s a human rights violation,” Griesmyer said.
Proving the case of labor trafficking is difficult and is made more challenging by what every agency needs: Money.
“The federal resources in law enforcement are always stretched thin, because there’s so many demands upon what kind of cases they take,” said former Southern District of Texas United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson.
Magidson said the infrastructure to handle labor trafficking cases is not there because of the larger immigration issue.
“We just have law enforcement at the border trying to stop people,” Magidson said. “Even in the sense of forced labor, they’re always going to be looked at in terms of multistate investigations. In other words, is this something that’s being done by a cartel? Is this something that’s being done by organized crime?”
Houston advocates say few of their cases are ever prosecuted.
“It’s more of so the individual learning to cope and to heal in their own way,” Ledesma tells us.
Is there a solution to labor trafficking?
Infrastructure could come in the form of two paths, and both require bipartisan support from Washington D.C., which is hard to accomplish these days.
The first path would require a change to how employers who sponsor immigrant workers are properly vetted or monitored. It would also give visa holders the opportunity to change jobs if their employer was abusing their position.
The second path leans on enforcing the current laws while adding more oversight to the process. This would require a joint effort from law enforcement, federal agencies, state and city leaders, and grassroots advocates or nonprofit organizations.
This path is in development in Houston.
“There’s also a huge coalition, which is the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition that has over 50 organizations working together to really, you know, fix these gaps in services,” Ledesma said.
One way to get the coalition working is through the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.
“If an employer confiscates passports and an investigator finds out that is the case indeed, that something is going on, then our investigators are trained to report these incidents to our district offices,” Regional Director Esther Del Toro Oliver said.
The assistance program helps trafficking victims with finances, case management, counseling, shelter, food, GED classes or anything else.
“We also know that Houston is a model for the response to human trafficking, that we had one of the first federally funded task forces to address human trafficking, that our Mayor’s Office has set up a task force as well. And it’s been used as a model, not only nationally, but internationally as well for how we respond as a city as a municipality and as a state to human trafficking,” Griesmyer said.
“Freedom is good,” Daniel tells us. “So for whoever is going through what I went though, I want to say speak to somebody. You can always trust someone out there. Speak if you have the opportunity. Make one phone call and that’s it.”