Fourteen cities are being targeted in a new campaign aimed at alerting people about human trafficking, federal immigration officials have announced.
The "Hidden in Plain Sight" initiative, sponsored by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, features billboards highlighting "the horrors and the prevalence of human trafficking," which the agency says is equivalent to "modern-day slavery."
The words "Hidden in Plain Sight" are displayed on the advertisements with a toll-free number people can call to report situations where they believe people are being sexually exploited or forced to work against their will.
Cities in the new campaign are Atlanta; Boston; Dallas; Detroit; Los Angeles; Miami; Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; New Orleans; New York; St. Paul, Minn.; San Antonio; San Francisco and Tampa, Fla.
Bruce Foucart, an ICE special agent in charge of New England, said officials hope the billboards persuade residents to report suspected cases to ICE or local law enforcement.
"It's difficult to identify victims and it's difficult for them to tell their stories," said Foucart.
About 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked each year around the world and about 17,500 of them end up in the United States, according to ICE. Immigration officials say the victims are lured from their homes with false promises of well-paying jobs but are trafficked into the commercial sex trade, domestic servitude or forced labor.
Foucart said victims who cooperate with law enforcement are offered temporary status and can later apply to stay in the U.S. permanently.
Jozefina Lantz, director of New Americans services at Lutheran Social Services in Worcester, Mass., welcomed the new campaign and said the public is generally unaware that human trafficking is occurring near their homes.
"Often the victims get mistaken for undocumented immigrants," said Lantz. "It's not the same because these people were abducted from their homes and forced into trafficking."
Lantz said her group has recently helped trafficking victims from Africa and South America.