USCCB brings awareness workshop to Houston, a human trafficking hot spot

February 10, 2015

HOUSTON — As a young girl growing up in Laredo on the border with Mexico, Zoe Martinez remembered hearing her family tell stories of acquaintances who were held against their will by employers, promised wages that were never paid and were threatened if they dared to leave or speak out. 

After a day-long workshop to learn about human trafficking, it dawned on Martinez what had actually been going on. 

"It's ... scary. It's shocking," she said. "I realize that the stories I used to hear were really stories of human trafficking," she told more than 200 people gathered at the Cathedral Centre for a day-long anti-trafficking workshop offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). 

In a campaign to end one of the most pernicious and pervasive assaults on human dignity in the world, representatives from the USCCB were in Houston Jan. 24 to present the bishop's Amistad Movement, a community education campaign to help the local Church, particularly its immigrant communities, learn to spot, report and prevent human trafficking.

Participants who completed the intensive workshop were certified as human trafficking community educators and many planned to take what they learned back to their work places and churches.

With its international airports, seaports and spaghetti bowl of major freeways linking states and even nations, Houston is ranked first and second in the country for the incidence of sex trafficking and human trafficking overall. Human trafficking is a federal crime in which perpetrators employ force, fraud or coercion to exploit individuals, often women and children, for commercial profit. Trafficking need not involve movement of victims across international borders nor the exploitation of foreign nationals, as many mistakenly think.

Hilary Chester, assistant director for the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services Anti-Trafficking Services Program, said despite its unfortunate status, Houston had done more than most other metropolitan areas to implement anti-trafficking measures and is home to a number of organizations and coalitions that are working on the problem.

Participants from more than 50 parishes, numerous non-profits and other faith communities learned that human trafficking involves sex trafficking and forced labor of both skilled and unskilled workers. Victims can be educated or uneducated, documented or undocumented and diverse in age, race, class, gender, religion, culture and nationality, though immigrant communities, uneducated women and children are often the most vulnerable. 

The crimes, Chester said, are often "hidden in plain sight" and being perpetrated by individuals well-known in their respective communities. 

The Catholic Church in the U.S., she added, had been at the forefront in fight against human trafficking for many years by helping craft federal laws defining and addressing the problem. Catholic social services providers help survivors access aid and other services, as well as provide case management and legal assistance. 

Chester said parishes, too, have a critical role in raising community awareness and providing aftercare for victims, the very reason for the awareness training being offered in Houston. 

Convinced that the Catholic Church had something unique to offer, Wendy Garaghty, the parish outreach coordinator at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart who coordinated the USCCB workshop, said a group had been discerning for some time how to meaningfully involve the parish in the issue over the past year. 

The first step they took was to become a "Shepherd Community," registered and pledged to the USSCB to educate the parish. The Co-Cathedral, she said, is now partnering with YMCA International to help relocate trafficking victims to emergency housing, an endeavor which has clearly shown God's hand at work in the lives of volunteers and victims. 

More ambitious plans are in the works to collaborate with another nonprofit to open a safe house for fleeing victims.

Garaghty said that following the Amistad workshop, her group would being engaged in more prayer to determine where God was calling them to help further, whether in focusing on sex trafficking or the huge void in awareness of labor trafficking among bad actors in the hotels, restaurants and other service sectors that exploit immigrants. 

For more information on the USCCB's Anti-Human Trafficking Program visit