FOX23 Investigates human trafficking, forced labor in Tulsa

TULSA, Okla. — Human trafficking is a much bigger issue in Tulsa than many people realize. One kind of trafficking is called “forced labor.” It’s when people are forced to work, often in terrible conditions.

FOX23 Investigative Reporter Janna Clark has been looking into this.

This kind of human trafficking typically involves people from other countries getting tricked into coming to the U.S. for a better life. Once they get here, they find out they have to work like slaves.

Clint Johnson is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District in Oklahoma. He said human trafficking — or labor trafficking — is something law enforcement is trying to combat in the state.

Janna asked Clint what human trafficking looks like in this area.

“That’s going to be a lot of ties we’ll see internationally, when you have individuals that come over, illegally into the country, people hold on their documents that can force him to work in certain vocations,” Clint explained.

Oftentimes, according to Clint, traffickers trick their victims into coming to the U.S.

“Working in the hospitality industry, working at a ranch at a farm,” he explained. “Well you normally see there is somebody that is paid somebody illegally to come into the country, paid someone to get them there, then they get here. And [they] tell them they have to work off that debt.”

Clint also said the traffickers sometimes confiscate the victim’s personal information.

“They take their documents,” he said. “They take their phones. They take their money, what money they do have, and they put them in an untenable situation where they’re basically working for free until they work off this debt, which never gets worked off.”

Janna asked Clint if his office has had any success prosecuting people involved in this kind of trafficking.

“Those cases have happened,” he said.

Clint said his office prosecuted a case against a Tulsa couple — Ronald Rodriguez-Paz and his wife Eva Juarez. Tulsa Police said the couple paid someone around $6,000 to smuggle a teenage girl from Honduras to the U.S. Once she arrived, the couple made her work for them.

FOX23 previously reported that when the 15-year-old girl was granted refugee status, police said Rodriquez-Paz sponsored her and brought her to an east Tulsa neighborhood to live with him and his wife.

“He was from Honduras,” Clint recalled. “And basically made a minor work for him. Housekeeper type of situation.”

Once the girl got to Tulsa, court records indicated the girl was immediately forced into working for them without pay.

For about six months, police said she did housework and became the full-time caregiver for their four kids. Court records also said Rodriguez was “verbally abusive towards her and physically assaulted her several times.”

Shortly after the couple’s arrest, a neighbor told FOX23 he was stunned.

“I never imagined our neighbors right there would have a stolen little girl working for them for free,” he said. “That’s crazy.”

The free labor went beyond the household. Court records said Rodriguez got fake paperwork for the girl and got her a job at a restaurant. He kept the money she earned and told her she needed to pay back the money he spent getting her to the U.S. The girl told police she couldn’t go anywhere without supervision, had no freedom and no access to her personal documents.

“You never know what your neighbors are capable of, I guess,” the neighbor added.

Rodriguez-Paz was sentenced to 14 months in prison in 2021 and part of his sentence includes deportation back to Honduras. As for his wife Juarez, she pleaded guilty to use of a false social security number. The other charges were dropped, and her sentence was “time served.”

Clint told Janna his office works hard to protect victims.

“There are people that are victims of human trafficking,” he said. “We want to make sure that we take care of those victims of human trafficking. And we want to make sure that they get the perpetrators prosecuted.”

This was the only recent forced labor prosecution Janna could find in Oklahoma. This is compared to the nearly 100 prosecutions prosecutions for sex trafficking. Janna was informed that sex trafficking is much more common in the area.

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