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Taking a Stand Against Human Trafficking

To Chris Killmer BA ’07, the stories are all too familiar. The Somalian nanny who worked for an affluent Salem couple for nine years without pay. The Mexican woman who was kidnapped and brought to Oregon to work on a marijuana farm, where she survived beatings, stabbings, and sexual abuse. The Portland teenager with broken ribs who was forced to bark like a dog so her pimp wouldn’t kill her.

Killmer is dedicated to shining a spotlight on these stories and the growing problem of human trafficking.

He is program coordinator for Outreach and Support to Special Immigrant Populations, a Catholic Charities program dedicated to serving victims of human trafficking. He also sits on the board of directors for Oregonians Against Trafficking Humans and serves on the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force.

“Human trafficking is akin to domestic violence 30 years ago,” says Killmer. “People are reluctant to talk about it. No one thinks it’s happening in their neighborhood.”

Human trafficking is defined as the use of force, fraud, or coercion for forced labor and/or commercial sexual exploitation. After drug dealing, Killmer says, human trafficking is tied with illegal arms trading as the world’s second-largest and fastestgrowing criminal industry. It’s estimated that between 15,000 and 18,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States— 80 percent of them women and children.

Perpetrators of trafficking crimes can be hard to spot. “There’s no specific profile of a trafficker,” says Killmer. “They run the gamut from gangs and organized crime rings to mom-and-pop outfits from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Many Oregonians are unaware that Portland is a hub for human trafficking. Killmer says several factors come into play, such as the city’s proximity to Interstate 5, which links Canada to Mexico; the state’s agricultural economy, which relies heavily on migrant laborers; and a young homeless population, which is vulnerable to exploitation.

Killmer traces his interest in politics and human rights to the eight years he lived in East Asia as an adolescent. When he came to Lewis & Clark, he jumped at the chance to double major in international affairs and East Asian studies.

“It gave me a good background on major world conflicts and helped me understand how migration and socioeconomic patterns can lead to human trafficking,” he says.

After graduating, Killmer joined the nonprofit Catholic Charities of Oregon. The staff includes attorney Samantha Dashiel JD ’09, who helps clients with immigration issues, and bilingual case manager Meagan Kent BA ’03, who handles day-to-day client case management. They not only serve people in need, but also support each other in work they say is frequently “daunting and overwhelming.”

By law, immigrant survivors of human trafficking are treated as victims, not criminals, and are entitled to immigration relief, says Killmer. They’re also eligible for assistance with food, clothing, housing, medical and mental health services, employment, and interpretation services. Killmer helps them obtain this assistance. He also writes grants and conducts public outreach programs to educate service providers, church groups, people who work in law enforcement, and the general public.

“Immigrant survivors of human trafficking often don’t understand our culture or the freedoms available to them,” he says.

Despite the frustrations of slow-moving legislation and tight financial resources, Killmer remains passionately committed to exposing human trafficking and to helping survivors.

Average citizens, he says, can help by studying the issues and honing their instincts and observation skills. Anyone with questions, concerns, or tips can call the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force at 503-251-2479 or the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888.

“Or call me at Catholic Charities in Portland,” he says, “and I’ll help you.”

—by Pattie Pace 

The Chronicle Magazine

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