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Nola Theiss examines books about social issues

By Staff | Jul 2, 2009

Three books about social justice and injustice. Two are related to human trafficking and immigration and one on the criminal justice system.

“The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today” by Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter, published by the University of California Press gives an excellent overview of this important issue. It begins with a startling statistic. While the annual number of homicides and the number of trafficking victims brought into this country are each estimated at about 17,000, over 70 percent of all homicides are solved and only 1 percent of all trafficking cases are prosecuted. One can immediately come up with dozens of reasons of why these is, but considering the severity of the crime of human trafficking which often involves kidnapping, extortion, assault and the always includes enslavement through force, fraud or coercion, it shows how much work has to be done. The authors’ goal was to examine all aspects of this crime, comparing the old version of slavery which was outlawed by the 13th amendment to the Constitution with the modern version which has actually grown with globalization, the internet, and the burgeoning number of vulnerable people who feed the demand for cheap labor and sex trafficking. One of the most frequent questions I am asked when giving presentations about slavery is why we can’t control demand better and the authors look at that issue very thoroughly. Neither part of the market for slaves is easy to solve, but considering the overwhelming impact of poverty on human life, controlling demand seems like a more feasible, if difficult, choice. They write about how slavery impacts all of our lives: in the clothes we wear, the food and coffee we eat and drink and in everyday contact we don’t ever notice. In my experience, while most people acknowledge that slavery may exist in other countries or among migrant workers, few realize that it is happening to our own citizens, especially our teenagers and the section on this is excellent.

Bales and Soodalter also explore what the U.S. government is doing to fight trafficking and while the book went to press shortly before the reauthorization of the federal law and, thus, doesn’t include the latest information on the federal law, it does give a thorough overview of the law and the politics behind it. There are many references in the book to our part of Florida, including the efforts of the Lee County Human Trafficking Task Force. If you want more information about local efforts, you can also go to the website of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships at www.humantraffickingawareness.org.

Many people think that human trafficking is an immigration issue because many victims are originally smuggled into the country, forgetting about the many American citizens who are enslaved. For a good overview of the complexities of immigration, especially since 9/11, I strongly recommend the book “The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11” by Edward Alden, published by HarperCollins. In this book, Alden reveals the strategy and in-fighting of the many agencies involved in controlling our borders and the measures taken to tighten them after 9/11. He talks about the price we have paid in terms of business lost, tourism money lost, good will lost and the brain drain of thousands of foreign students and researchers who can no longer study or work here. He writes about risk management which went from a loose system to one that is so tight that many innocent people are harassed and political embarrassment has resulted. Once cited case involved airport security agents who harassed the First Lady of Thailand who depends on a wheelchair despite her diplomatic paperwork from the highest levels of the U.S. government, and many more cases were cited including to the deportation of families and professionals who had lived her legally for years and were deported because they were one day late in renewing their visas. He also writes about the personality clashes which resulted in policy changes and what we have to look forward to. This is a thoughtful and well researched study which may cause you to question your own beliefs no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.

“Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” by Jennifer-Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo, published by St. Martin’s Press will strike close to home to anyone who has ever been a victim of crime. The two authors were brought together by a terrible crime when Jennifer, a college student, was raped in her own apartment. Feeling helpless, she made it a point to remember every detail she could about her attacker and she later identified Ronald Cotton as the guilty party. Cotton denied the charge, but mistakenly recalled where he was the night of the crime and through a series of missteps, he was convicted and imprisoned for 11 years. During that time, another prisoner who looked very much like him was also imprisoned and Cotton heard through the grapevine that he had confessed to the crime. Cotton’s lawyers fought to get his case retried where he was again convicted. Eleven years later, a DNA test proved that Cotton didn’t do the crime. Since his release, Cotton and Thompson have gotten to know each other and they now speak about the weakness and fallibility of eyewitness testimony together. The remarkable friendship of these two good-hearted and innocent people is truly amazing and their mission to improve the judicial system is inspiring.

These three books will lead to many good conversations and may even alter your thinking. They all show the complexities of the issues and how much people’s lives can be altered by a simple change in policy.