WASHINGTON — In Immokalee, a dozen Hispanics spent long days in the fields then were forced to sleep in a rental truck. In Boca Raton, Filipino workers pulled grueling shifts at country clubs then returned home as captives, fed rotten chicken and denied medical attention.
Stories such as these from recent years in Florida are chilling examples of human trafficking — an issue officials say is growing but often overlooked.
"It's a much bigger problem than I think most people are aware of and Florida, unfortunately, plays a role," said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The state, in fact, is considered one of the hotbeds for human trafficking in the United States, where each year as many as 20,000 people are brought against their will or under false pretenses and forced to work or held captive.
Rubio said he wants to use his Senate platform to call more attention to the issue. The problem is most associated with prostitution, but forced labor is more common in Florida. A year ago in Pinellas County, FBI and local officials found 27 people living in two homes and suspected they were being forced to work at a Country Super Buffet. The case is still under investigation.
"People think slavery is something that happened 150 years ago and to the extent it's happening, they think it's happening halfway around the world, which it is," Rubio said in an interview. "But it's also happening here."
Rubio addressed the issue during a speech Thursday on the Senate floor, saying he was shocked to learn the extent of the problem when he first got interested late last year.
Rubio said he'd work with colleagues to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which updates a law passed in 2000 and enjoys bipartisan support (Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is a co-sponsor.) The measure supports international efforts to identify the sources of trafficking and strengthens enforcement measures.
Rubio's interest began with his wife, Jeanette. Last year, she saw a TV miniseries about the subject and began to study the issue. Mrs. Rubio has met with advocacy groups and sat in meetings of her husband's staff.
Rubio's office said the lawmaker is raising the issue during nomination hearings for ambassadors and in meetings with foreign officials. He is also a member of the Helskini Commission, a Congressional panel that works on global human rights causes.
During a hearing Wednesday, a leading advocate, Martina Vandenberg of Freedom Network USA, said challenges include a failure to protect victims, which contributes to what she deemed an "abysmally" low number of prosecutions.
"Many victims come from countries where corruption is utterly rife and they assume that the United States is no different," Vandenberg told Rubio. "And indeed, that's what the traffickers have told them. The traffickers have told them time and time again, that once they are captured by U.S. law enforcement they will be detained."