Rutgers Graduate Presses Fight Against Human Trafficking

Rutgers Graduate Presses Fight Against Human Trafficking

Former prosecutor joins Trenton’s campaign against a growing scourge
Media Contact
Fredda Sacharow

As a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Elie Honig went after high-profile organized crime figures from the Gambino and Genovese families, including John Gotti and other mob bosses.  Later, as deputy director of the New Jersey’s Division of Criminal Justice, the Rutgers graduate trainined his eye on a newly emerging criminal trend:  human trafficking, which Honig says is prevalent, growing and much closer to home than most Garden State residents realize.

“People want to think trafficking happens only in back alleys, but we’ve found cases in the cities, in the suburbs, in row houses, in commercial areas – even two blocks from the White House,” says Honig, who received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Rutgers in 1997 before earning his law degree from Harvard in 2000. The Associated Press recently reported the arrest of six members of an alleged human trafficking ring that brought Mexican women into this country illegally and forced them to work as prostitutes. Officials said the ringleaders often promised the women jobs as housecleaners or babysitters. Rutgers Today spoke with Honig, who is now director of the division, about why the crime has remained largely off the public’s radar screen, and who is most likely to suffer if restrictions are not tightened.

Elie Honig
Rutgers Today: You’ve been involved in efforts to rein in the human-trafficking trade for many years; as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York in 2007, for example, you prosecuted 30 defendants who were part of a sex trafficking ring that preyed on young Korean women.  In your mind, what about this type of crime sets it apart from others?

Elie Honig:  The main thing is that victims are so powerless. Of all the people in this country, they are the least able to defend themselves and stand up for their own rights. They’re predominantly young, at times underage. Many are here illegally, with no access to our courts or the legal system. They don’t have the language to plead their cases. They’re the most vulnerable people among us, and the sex traffickers exploit and abuse them. Whether you’re legal or illegal, you’re not free game to be exploited. That’s just contrary to what we as a country are about.

Rutgers Today: Why is this state considered a prime location? How is Trenton responding?

Elie Honig:  Geography and population. We are right in the middle of Washington, Philadelphia and New York, an easy drive to any of the major cities on East Coast. We are a densely populated state and a diverse one; people here come from all different places and are involved in all different types of business. It’s just easier to blend in here.

Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa has made it one of his top priorities to prosecute human trafficking cases.  He has issued a formal directive that provides for increased personnel, training for law enforcement officers, and reporting requirements. He has revitalized a task force and hosts events calling attention to the problem.  The attorney general recently brought new human trafficking charges against multiple defendants here in New Jersey.  And, I can promise you, more cases are coming.   

Rutgers Today: Is there such a thing as a “typical” victim, and how do individuals fall prey to traffickers?

Elie Honig: Every victim is unique.  But one common trait they share is vulnerability. They are disproportionately young and poor, many from foreign countries and at times here illegally. There are essentially two models: the pimp model, where guys in this business find runaways, young kids with drug problems, homeless kids. Another subtler and more common method involves false promises: A young woman from another country – typically South Korea or Mexico -- is promised she can be smuggled into the United States for, say, $10,000, and given work in a restaurant or salon. When she gets here, the deal changes quickly and the amount of money she owes escalates, which means she’s so deeply in debt she can’t pay it off any other way.

Rutgers Today: Why do these human trafficking networks continue to exist -- and prosper? Why has this crime been so under-reported when its effects are so insidious and devastating?

Elie Honig:  Human trafficking continues to exist for the same reason most crimes exist:  It is highly profitable for the traffickers.  On top of that, the victims are powerless and often don’t have ability to go to police.  Also, we in law enforcement need to do things differently – we need to dig a little deeper if we come across a massage place that has mattresses on floor, or find stash of passports.  Bells should be going off in police officers’ minds.

Rutgers Today: What can New Jersey residents do to educate themselves about the issue and to take steps to advocate for the victims?

Elie Honig:  New Jersey residents can join any of the large and increasing number of advocacy groups – many of them arising at grassroots levels, coming out of churches and synagogues.  Even more encouraging, we now see high schools teaching and actively engaging on the issue. In terms of everyday life, I’ll borrow the slogan from the New York City subways:  if you see something, say something. Don’t just turn a blind eye.

This article was updated from a Q & A originally published Jan. 25, 2013.


Media Contact: Fredda Sacharow
732-932-7084 Ext. 610

Media Contact
Fredda Sacharow