Opinion Columns & Blogs

Dan Walters: Real slavery still exists in California

Notwithstanding its other aspects, the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president should close the circle on our shameful history of treating human beings as if they were nothing more than livestock.

Anyone who thinks that California, whose admission to the union in 1850 hinged largely on its status as a non-slave state, doesn't share that history is ignorant of its own early tolerance, even advocacy, of human slavery, both of Africans and Native Americans.

But that's all in the past, we might say.

After all, most Californians now embrace our incredible ethnic and cultural diversity, born of the constant waves of immigrants from throughout the world.

Ironically, however, California's status as a destination of choice for rich and poor immigrants has also made it a center for new forms of slavery and human trafficking.

We're not talking about illegal immigrants who are voluntarily working in substandard conditions for substandard wages, but actual slaves who are brought into this state as indentured servants and/or purveyors of illicit sexual acts, are kept under lock and key by their masters, and are severely punished when those owners are displeased.

The Associated Press gave us a peek into the underground world of California slavery recently with an article about one Egyptian girl, Shylma Hall, whose parents sold her into slavery at age 10 and, when her Egyptian owners moved to Orange County, was brought along as an unpaid servant and treated like chattel.

Hall was removed from the family when authorities finally intervened, but she is just one of many California slaves, women mostly, who continue to labor in sweatshops, in brothels, and in the homes of wealthy expatriates, particularly those from the Middle East, where slavery is still a way of life in many countries.

Exactly how many is unknown, which is why a state task force on human trafficking, in a report issued a year ago that got scant media attention, recommends that authorities cooperate on identifying victims and prosecuting their owners.

A University of California study, covering five years, easily discovered at least 500 people from 18 countries working in slave-like circumstances. The UC study said 80 percent were female and half were children.

There is an underground railroad of sorts in Southern California that helps slaves escape from their masters and receive shelter.

Those involved say that thousands of slaves continue to be held, especially in urban centers, either lured to the state by false promises of paid work or physically transported from other countries.

Hall, now 19, was kept in servitude by loans that her masters had made to her parents.

The good news is that human trafficking is now a specific crime in California.

The bad news is that it is almost never prosecuted because the victims are largely invisible.

It remains, therefore, a shameful fact of life in 21st century California.

Dan Walters is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee.