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Migrants in New York City shelters falling victim to human trafficking

Officials say some migrants in NYC are falling victim to sex trafficking
Officials say some migrants in NYC are falling victim to sex trafficking 04:05

NEW YORK -- Human trafficking is a crime that preys on vulnerable men, women and kids, and now CBS New York has learned it's happening to migrants, many of whom are still in shelters, can't legally work and feel they are out of options.

An asylum seeker who arrived from Peru last year and is living at a shelter in Jamaica, Queens, told us vehicles pull up to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is now a migrant shelter, and pick women up.

"They usually leave at about 5 or 6 in the evening and return the next day at about 5 in the morning," the asylum seeker said. 

Some return in the middle of the night, others in the morning, many leaving their kids all alone.

"It's very sad because you can hear the children crying. Most of the time it's because they are hungry because there isn't someone responsible with them," the asylum seeker said.

The sound of children crying all night is hard to hear, and the women involved are hard to help.

"They are taken to the job sites. They are promised one thing, but they're not given that. Some are abused physically or sexually," said Ruth Archibald, co-owner of the Compass Cafe.

The cafe, just blocks away from the shelter and part of Hope NYC, is a safe haven for the community. The owners say proceeds go towards initiatives like eradicating sex trafficking.

These days, in addition to praying with migrants, connecting them to resources and encouraging them to report trafficking crimes, they're also offering free English-speaking classes.

"They came and they learned how to say no, how to ask the right questions, how to interview, how to communicate with employers," Archibald said.

Federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) are focused on rescuing victims and finding those behind trafficking and child exploitation.

"Trafficking is occurring right now here in New York in all five boroughs and the surrounding area," HSI Deputy Special Agent in Charge Darren McCormack said. "There was a young migrant woman from Queens who forced under the threat of deportation from her traffickers. She was driven upstate on a daily basis to have sex with anywhere between 40 and 60 men."

Arrests were made in that case, but the challenge for law enforcement is getting victims to speak up and report the henous crimes.

Last year, HSI New York's human trafficking task force identified 30 victims and made 38 arrests, but agents know there are many more victims and traffickers out there.

"Because of the trauma and the threats of violence to the person and/or the families, victims and survivors don't necessarily come forward," McCormack said.

On Long Island, ECLI-VIBES is an organization that provides services for survivors of all trauma. Counselors say they've seen an uptick in young migrants being sex trafficked, including teen girls and boys.

From 2022 to 2024, ECLI-VIBES was able to help 209 survivors; 45 were non-U.S. citizens, and that number, they say, is growing, too. Their biggest struggle is convincing young women to get out of the dangerous life.

"What do I have to offer them when they're making $800 in one night? What am I going to say to them, get a job at McDonald's?" said ECLI-VIBES co-founder Feride Castillo.

Agents and advocates are constantly doing outreach about what to look out for.

"If someone is being very hovering, you know, they will not allow the person to speak on their own, will answer all their questions for them," Castillo said.

But as the city grapples with the migrant crisis, desperation is kicking in for those who still can't work legally.

The asylum seeker we spoke to told us husbands at the shelters are even forcing their own wives into prostitution.

While it's unclear if she is a victim, she tells CBS New York she hopes by speaking up, she can shine a light on this dark corner of the migrant crisis.

"In working with families who have children, they should investigate to understand the circumstances everyone is going through," she said.

A city spokesperson told CBS New York police are now looking into trafficking at the Queens migrant shelter.

We're also told members of Mayor Eric Adams' team are at the shelter, offering education and other resources for potential victims.

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