Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan to crack down on human trafficking, submitted to the state Legislature as part of his Women's Equality Act, comes as New York lags behind other states in attacking the problem.
Experts say thousands of people are trafficked every year in New York -- as sex slaves or forced farm workers. Yet relatively few arrests are made, largely because of legal obstacles and the victims' fear of coming forward.
"In New York, as far as human trafficking is concerned, we're where the domestic violence movement was 25 to 30 years ago," said Emily Amick, a lawyer with Sanctuary for New York Families, an advocacy group.
Cuomo's proposed legislation would toughen penalties, making trafficking a Class B felony -- a violent crime with a minimum sentence of 5 years. Offenders now face as little as a year in jail.
"Governor Cuomo's legislation recognizes the incredible violence of human trafficking," Amick said.
Under the measure, sex slaves arrested in connection with prostitution could cite trafficking as a defense -- a move advocates believe could lead to more investigations of human slavery rings. Prosecutors would also no longer have to prove juveniles were coerced or tricked into slavery.
Though experts say New York is a human trafficking hot spot, just 77 people were arrested last year, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice. California authorities made 599 arrests in the first half of 2012, statistics show.
Nine out of 10 planks in Cuomo's Women's Equality Act, which includes workplace measures improving pay equity and ending pregnancy discrimination, enjoy bipartisan support. The governor wants the legislature to act before it adjourns Thursday.
The bills' fate, however, is uncertain because Cuomo's proposal includes an abortion bill opposed by conservatives, including Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).
The Senate has approved its own anti-trafficking bill. But the Assembly wants to strengthen the human trafficking laws that are among Cuomo's bills.
Most victims U.S. citizens
New York City is a magnet for runaway teens and home to a large population of low-income and undereducated people, many of whom are immigrants. There's also convenient access to international airports.
Trafficking is often viewed as purely an overseas problem. But that's not the case.
"The greatest percentage of any nationality of our victims is U.S. citizens," said David Rogers, the FBI's human trafficking program manager. "That is something most people don't understand."
Statistics are sparse because it's a hidden crime that occurs behind closed doors, or ensnares people who fear being reported to child care or immigration authorities.
Following raids earlier this week, 11 owners or managers of 7-Eleven convenience stores on Long Island and Virginia are accused of exploiting workers living her illegally by forcing them to work long hours and confiscating their pay.
At least 11,268 trafficking survivors in the metropolitan area were in contact with private service providers from 2000 to 2010, according to a 2011 Hofstra University study.
Nearly 88 percent were women and almost 72 percent were trafficked for sex, with other victims forced into domestic or farm labor. More than half were younger than 18 and two-thirds were born in the United States, the study found.
In Nassau and Queens counties, an emerging trend is traffickers bringing in Asian women from other areas to local massage parlors, according to a federal prosecutor who requested anonymity. Those sex slave cases are tough to prosecute because many victims fear bringing dishonor on their families.
"They'd rather be deported than have their family back home find out," the prosecutor said.
'I tried to leave'
Many victims won't talk to authorities because they're too traumatized. Others have been threatened with violence.
"He knew exactly how to break me," said Kenya, whose four-year ordeal as a sex slave began when she was 18. She spoke recently during a conference call with Amick, her attorney.
Amick said all of Kenya's related convictions were expunged June 10 in Manhattan.
Her ordeal began, she said, when her father locked her out of their Queens home and she was taken in by a man she thought loved her. He turned out to be a pimp. Later, after being sold to another pimp, the teen said she was forced to have sex with men in hotels.
"I tried to leave and he beat me with a bat," said Kenya, an alias she uses for protection.
Currently working as a waitress, she said she wants to become a social worker so that she can help other human trafficking survivors.
"There are still a lot of girls out there who need my assistance," she said.