Professor Susan French

GW Law International Human Rights Clinic Welcomes Trafficking Project Staff Attorney

A conversation with human trafficking prosecutor Susan French causes you to re-think even the most mundane aspects of your life—the cheap produce at the grocery store or the clothes that you bought at a discount seem to become a lot more expensive once you determine how they got to the supermarket or the boutique at the mall.

Professor French has been prosecuting human trafficking cases for the United States Department of Justice for 14 years. When most people think of human trafficking, they imagine cases involving prostitution, and while that is certainly a substantial part of the human trafficking problem in America, much of it involves agriculture, manufacturing, domestic service, and hospitality.

"One common misconception about trafficking victims is that they are all female, or that trafficking victims are only victims of sexual abuse," says Professor French. "Sixty-eight percent of human trafficking victims are laborers."

Professor French saw this for herself in the spring of 1999. Her first human trafficking case for the DOJ turned out to be U.S. v. Cuello, where 30 tomato pickers were confined in trailers in the swampland west of Immokalee, Florida, and were kept under constant watch. "The workers were kept in line due to a debt that was owed to the 'coyote,' which is the person who brought them over the border into America," says Professor French. "Abel Cuello was a labor crew chief who was acting as the middleman between the growers and the 'coyote,' and he made the victims work off what they owed."

Threats of violence were commonplace. "Workers at the labor camp were threatened if they thought about leaving," says Professor French. "An often-used threat was that anyone who tried to leave without paying off their debt would be 'shot in the foot.'"

Cuello was a significant case, not only because it saved 30 people from what was essentially slavery, but also because it made many Americans realize how far some were willing to go for something as seemingly insignificant as inexpensive tomatoes. But prosecuting traffickers has taught Professor French that as long as there is a need for labor, and as long as there is enough money to be made, it doesn’t matter what the product is. "Human trafficking cases almost always involve greed and a need to exercise power over others," she says.

Professor French has brought her many years' worth of experience in fighting human trafficking to GW Law's International Human Rights Clinic, where she serves as Senior Staff Attorney on the Trafficking Project.

"Susan's arrival in the International Human Rights Clinic immediately catapulted us into the vanguard of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States," says Clinic Director and Professor Arturo Carrillo. "As a result, the GW IHR Clinic has become a key reference for trafficking survivors and their legal representatives who seek to pursue civil remedies against the persons responsible for the labor and human rights abuses suffered."

Professor French has spent most of her legal career working on behalf of those who are dismissed, forgotten, or underestimated: children, women, immigrants, the destitute, or any combination of those categories. This makes perfect sense when you consider that when she began her legal career in the early 1970s, she was dismissed and underestimated, although she certainly wasn’t forgotten.

While Susan French was earning her J.D. at William and Mary, her then-husband was already practicing in Virginia. When one of the judges was informed that he could expect to see Ms. French in the courtroom the following year, he was reported to have said, "I hate to sound old-fashioned, but I don’t see any place for women in the Bar."

This quite old-fashioned judicial mindset actually got Professor French a great deal of courtroom experience when she passed the Virginia Bar and went into private practice in Newport News. At the time, students in Virginia who were habitual truants were declared "incorrigible" and were actually incarcerated. Since Ms. French was one of the only women admitted to the Bar in Newport News, and since cases of that sort were seen to be "women's work," she became the court-appointed counsel for several juvenile offenders.

She moved to Washington, DC in 1977, where she served as an attorney on the Carter Administration's Taskforce on Sex Discrimination. It was her job to review government statutes, regulations, and programs for bias. Back in the 1970s, there was often a major difference between how laws were written and how they were interpreted and applied in real life, especially when it came to gender. "There were a lot of regulations that were problematic, particularly when it came to taxes," she says. "For instance, farmers' wives might as well have been classified as mere milkmaids. Within the tax codes, if the husband died, the wife wasn't considered a wage earner, even if she was the co-owner of the farm, so the government would tax 50 percent of its value."

Professor French stayed with the DOJ for 10 years, eventually moving into a supervisory role where she oversaw attorneys who in turn oversaw the enforcement of non-discriminatory programs. She also reviewed the individual cases of immigrants who were part of the Mariel Boatlift, a purge of "undesirables" from Cuba implemented by Fidel Castro in 1980.

After leaving the DOJ, she spent eight and half years as an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney in Winchester, Virginia, where she prosecuted more than 3,500 cases, including child sex cases, domestic violence, and juvenile adjudications. She returned to the DOJ in 1998, where, in addition to prosecuting hate crimes, she began to work on cases that at the time were simply referred to as "labor exploitation."

"Labor exploitation" seems like a watered-down way to describe human trafficking, especially when Professor French explains the details of some of these cases. There is Ronald Robert Evans, whose main agricultural labor force was not immigrants, illegal or otherwise, but rather the homeless population of south Florida. For 20 years, Evans promised the destitute a steady paycheck and a roof over their heads.  These workers would be brought to camps in north Florida and North Carolina, where they would cut cabbage and harvest tobacco. After laboring in the fields, they would be paid not in cash, but in cigarettes, alcohol, and crack cocaine. These would be sold on credit at what was essentially a "company store." This system left the workers perpetually in debt to Evans.

"Debt bondage is one of the more common methods of keeping human trafficking victims under control," says Professor French.

There is also the case of Jefferson and Elnora Calimlim, who kept a Filipina maid in virtual slavery for 19 years. The victim was expected to handle all the domestic needs of the Calimlim home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, including cooking, cleaning, and gardening. The Calimlim's wouldn't let her leave the house, and told her that she would be arrested, incarcerated, and deported if she tried to leave.   

Threats of arrest or other misinformation is another common tactic with human traffickers, and is often a quite successful one. "Think about what it would be like to find yourself in another country, without any form of identification, money, resources, or contact from the outside." says Professor French. "What you know is what they tell you."

Although Professor French's success rate at prosecuting human trafficking cases would suggest otherwise, bringing human traffickers to justice remains a very difficult thing to accomplish, whether the traffickers are running large-scale operations or not. "Single-victim cases involving domestic servitude are not easy to prosecute," she says. "In those cases you are talking about a crime that occurred in the confines of a house. Typically, the people who encounter the victim are going to be friends or relatives of the defendants, and they are not going to be inclined to help either the victim or the government."

Since Professor French joined the GW Law International Human Rights Clinic in June, students that have been assigned to the Trafficking Project are not just learning about the legal methods of combating trafficking, but are actually putting them into practice.

"Susan's successful career as one of DOJ's top anti-trafficking prosecutors has translated into a wealth of experience and professional know-how that is now placed at the disposal of the fortunate GW Law students and colleagues who work with her," says Professor Carrillo.

"We've had an excellent semester," says Professor French. "There are currently five students assigned to the trafficking project of the clinic. We are working on two possible trafficking cases, which we plan to litigate civilly. We are also partnering with outside organizations, the Southern Poverty Law Center among them. Many of these organizations don't have attorneys on their payroll that specialize in trafficking, so we’re assisting in that regard. Our students have traveled and have had the opportunity to interview victims, and there isn't any better way to understand what is required in putting together a trafficking case than talking to them. As on-the-ground experience, it's incredibly valuable."

In the era of super stores and inexpensive products, it is easy to put blinders on when it comes to the products that we decide to buy, particularly when many Americans are experiencing financial troubles of their own.

"Do we want to pay more for a product in order to have the knowledge that everyone in the supply chain was treated fairly?" asks Professor French. "That may be an unfair question for the unemployed or the underemployed, but at the end of the day, the question is 'Will our society take responsibility for what we buy?' I think we're getting a little better informed. I think that good PR pays its own dividends, and corporations that choose fair labor practices up and down the supply chain will be rewarded by their customers."


-- Adam Dawson