Daily News

readers were no doubt shocked recently to learn that human trafficking and sexual slavery may be occurring right here in the Delaware Valley.

In the Berwyn case that the paper put on Page 1, the system apparently worked. The victims are in the process of obtaining the status allowing their continued presence in the U.S., and the traffickers are being prosecuted.

But what if those two courageous women had instead succumbed to the threats, violence and pressure of their handlers?

What if they had, against their will, begun to actually engage in prostitution? They would be no less victims of a brutal and heartless organization. But in Philadelphia, those women would likely not be on the road to citizenship - they'd be arrested and prosecuted for prostitution.

I've represented dozens of women in situations identical to that of the Berwyn case. The difference is that the women I see were involved in a massage-parlor operation in Philadelphia, and therefore are labeled criminals, not victims of sex trafficking.

Trafficking is rarely a "drag away from your home" situation. Women are brought here under false promises of legitimate work, only to find when they arrive that they will not be a part of mainstream America, but an incredible parallel society.

They begin working as domestics, or a restaurant or nail salon, for cash, far below the minimum wage. Because they don't speak English, they live in dorm-style apartments with other women and are easily controlled.

They send everything they can home to their families, who may be threatened by those who brought them here to ensure their continued cooperation in the U.S. When their boss tires of them, or some other need arises, they'll be moved to a new area, with new work. Eventually, they'll be told that they can make more money as a "masseuse."

They'll take lessons and be sent to a parlor in a large city. At first, it will be just massages. Then, through force or threats, they will be told to include sexual acts.

Meanwhile, their visas have expired, and nearly everything they earn goes to pay for housing, food and other expenses. They continue to live in this parallel world until they are too old to work, get arrested or die.

If one of these women is apprehended in Philadelphia, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency may arrest her for violating immigration laws while she also faces local prosecution for prostitution.

If she's a first-time offender, she'd typically be placed in a diversion program leading to the expungement of the arrest.

But if she's convicted of prostitution - a crime of "moral turpitude" - it can lead to her forced deportation back home.

SHE won't be eligible for the promised "T" visas designed to help the victims of human trafficking because (1) the federal government does not see her continued presence here to be the result of "force, fraud or coercion" and (2) she is too scared to participate in the prosecution against those that kept her here - a requirement to obtain a T visa.

So even though she was brought and kept here against her wishes, and sexually exploited, she'll be sent back to a country she no longer knows to a family that no longer recognizes her.

But any surprise that this situation exists right around us should be dispelled by a single look at the ads in the back of the city's weeklies.

All those notices of "Asian massage" or similar businesses are a blinking red light for all to see.

When we tolerate those ads, we also tolerate the traffickers who may be behind them. Only when the presence of the businesses affect our daily lives do we insist that they be shut down.

And when they are targeted, the members of the Philadelphia vice squad who perform the raids are concerned with making arrests to appease the community - perhaps they should also take the opportunity to rescue trafficking victims. That there is a link between prostitution and trafficking is hardly in doubt.

The issue is whether we will help with those victims wherever and however we find them. *

Marissa Boyers Bluestine is an assistant defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.