Keep illegal businesses closed after stay-home order lifts

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We find ourselves navigating a world swirling with grief in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily we confront constraints, yet there is hope as people come together to support health care workers, celebrate unsung heroes like our grocery clerks and share resources with one another during this hardship.

While many Michiganders rally to support one another, there are others in our community who are seeking to take advantage of this awful situation to advance a number of criminal activities, including human trafficking.

Over the last year, our community leaders have prioritized efforts to disrupt and dismantle human trafficking networks operating in our communities. One type of activity pervading our state is in Illicit Massage Businesses (IMBs). Across the United States, IMBs make up a sophisticated, exploitative industry that includes more than 10,000 storefront establishments, according to Polaris the National Trafficking Hotline. IMBs violate a variety of local and federal laws, while often committing civil code infractions and human rights violations. IMBs are establishments with registered business names that advertise the provision of “massage” and other spa-related services. Under this suspicious description, illicit massage businesses can obtain clientele and revenue by providing commercial sex acts.

IMBs provide a unique cover for human trafficking. They are ostensibly tax paying, registered businesses providing “massage services.” IMBs may violate labor laws by paying women in tips alone with no guaranteed hourly wage or by withholding paid wages. Workers’ housing and travel to and from the business also are typically managed, contributing to control of their freedom of movement. The role of debt bondage and other forms of coercion points to the vulnerabilities of workers/victims and the potential for human trafficking. In 2019, Heyrick Research, a counter human trafficking organization based in Virginia, estimated that 84% of the illicit massage businesses in the U.S. are made up of Chinese-born individuals who often arrive on B1/B2 tourist visas, which shows human traffickers manipulate immigration status for their financial gain.

Our community collectively counters this human rights violation through the Kent County Area Human Trafficking Coalition with Solutions to End Exploitation (SEE). In fall of 2019, the city of Grand Rapids created and passed a new ordinance that aims to reduce crime, including human trafficking, in IMBs. Most likely you have seen the businesses — often dimly lit entrances next to darkened windows offering cheap massages late into the evening. According to a 2018 research study SEE conducted in partnership with Calvin University, estimates show a total gross yearly economy of IMBs in the Grand Rapids area to be $6 million a year.

This is a complex problem, yet not one our community faces alone. On April 15 SEE released the economy of demand study for the Denver Metro Area estimating a total gross yearly economy of over $35 million in the IMB. This research is a further catalyst for leaders to mobilize and disrupt human trafficking. In a January 2020 press release, the Denver district attorney and police chief said that a Denver grand jury indicted two male and female co-conspirators for financial crimes from allegedly profiting from the trafficking of humans. “At the core, this case is about a well-organized human trafficking ring,” the statement read. The ringleaders were charged under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act and multiple other related charges. Organized criminal activities within IMB human trafficking networks can include tax evasion, money laundering, visa and immigration fraud, and smuggling.

As a result of the current stay-at-home order in Michigan, nearly all of these IMBs remain closed, thus halting the revenue human traffickers need for their criminal enterprise. Evidence suggests some human traffickers may be operating clandestinely, yet with storefronts shuttered, financial insolvency may be looming. It is possible IMB owners could seek to pursue recently approved small business assistance programs to keep their criminal conglomerate afloat, resulting in the continued victimization of vulnerable women, most of whom suffer from isolation, do not speak English and owe large debts to their traffickers.

This stay-at-home order presents an unprecedented opportunity to prevent these illegal businesses from reopening. Joining in multi-sector collaboration can create an innovative response.

A simple, cost-effective campaign would be a comprehensive landlord engagement, which involves law enforcement entities communicating with building owners who lease to IMBs and informing them about potential illegal activity taking place at the location. A strategy like this in San Jose, California, led to the demise of IMBs in the community.

In addition, elected leaders throughout Michigan could unite to protect the massage industry as a health care business and require a health code for operation. Any business using massage language in their name or advertising requires state therapist licensure. Yet there are hardly any local codes outlining health code operation requirements within the establishment concerning sanitary conditions.

Such moves would shine a light on these criminal locations, particularly in cases where victims are forced to illegally live on-site, while also preventing IMB owners from quickly generating revenue upon the conclusion of this health emergency.

Exploitative enterprises thrive when they remain hidden. When we expose the darkness, we can unleash freedom. Our commitment to protecting those who face exploitation cannot be passive. Let’s choose to come together and actively take steps to decimate human trafficking.

Rachel VerWys and Missy Weismann operate Solutions to End Exploitation in Grand Rapids.

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