DA’s office will create a Human Trafficking Unit to address labor exploitation

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Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr, at the podium surrounded by farm labor activists and staff, announced the grant at the December 4, 2018 Commissioners Court.
Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr, at the podium surrounded by farm labor activists and staff, announced the grant at the December 4, 2018 Commissioners Court.

Texas Border Business

EDINBURG – Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. is creating a Human Trafficking Unit with an emphasis on forced labor in the agricultural sector. The Unit, which will be the first of its kind in the nation, will be funded through a Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery grant of $356,783.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Texas ranks second in the number of reported human trafficking cases. In 2018, Texas reported 455 cases, second only to California with 760 reported cases.

“In forced labor, workers are often tied to the employers who hold them hostage to the job by taking away their immigration documents,” Rodriguez said. “They come to our country to work and then find that their wages are withheld or they are paid less than promised; they may work long hours with limited access to food and water, and some also suffer verbal or physical abuse. This is not acceptable.”

The Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative is a multi-disciplinary effort to combat human trafficking in the agricultural sector and is funded by the Arizona State University Foundation. The objective is to end traffickers’ impunity by supporting a justice system able to effectively; fairly and efficiently handle forced labor and labor exploitation cases; secure justice for victims of forced labor and severe forms of labor exploitation; discourage exploitative practices by bringing the Fair Food Program to Texas; and to amplify resources and increase coordination through multi-sectoral partnerships. The initiative will be guided by a victim-centered approach and will work to increase victim identification, support investigations, and increase labor trafficking prosecutions.

“We are very grateful to The Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery for funding this initiative and to serve as a pilot program that will be replicated in other parts of the nation,” said Rodriguez.

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Rodriguez understands how workers can be exploited.

“My parents were farm laborers and I grew up picking crops across the nation every summer,” Rodriguez said. “The difference is that we were free to work and were paid what we were due. That work helped pay for my college education.”

The grant will be used to hire staff to work in the Unit, including a Labor Trafficking Specialty Prosecutor to review, investigate and prosecute cases; a Labor Trafficking Specialty Investigator to work with local, regional, state and federal law enforcement agencies to provide guidance and training and to develop victim-centered responses to human trafficking incidents; and a Human Trafficking Taskforce Coordinator to strengthen existing Rio Grande Valley Anti-Human Trafficking Taskforce efforts and expand services in Hidalgo County and the Rio Grande Valley region.