Jamie Beck (right) listens as Renuka Zellars talks about being brought to the U.S. from India as a child and forced into domestic work. / Photo by Kelly Davis

A new government watchdog report urges California lawmakers to do more to tackle the problem of labor trafficking.

The report by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, paints a bleak picture of California’s grasp of the issue of labor trafficking and its prevalence in the state, which is one of the top labor trafficking destinations in the world.

“In California and elsewhere, much of the focus of law enforcement has appropriately been on combatting sex trafficking,” the report says, “and the Commission emphasizes that this work must continue. But we also believe the state can and must do more to respond to labor trafficking.”

To gather input for the report, last November the Little Hoover Commission convened a hearing in San Diego. Much of what was brought up in the hearing is reflected in the report. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins provided opening remarks at the hearing, noting that while California “has some of the strongest sex trafficking laws in the country, the problem on labor trafficking is that we know much less about it than we do on sex trafficking.”

This lack of knowledge makes it difficult to develop a coordinated response, the commission found.

“California has not invested in a study to understand the extent of human trafficking in our state,” the report says. “Therefore, we do not know how much trafficking occurs, and we lack data necessary to develop a strategic response or measure its effectiveness.”

One of the few studies on labor trafficking, published in 2012 by San Diego State University Professor Sheldon Zhang, looked at the trafficking of undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrant workers in San Diego County, estimating there were at least 37,000 victims.

Not only is there a lack of comprehensive data on labor trafficking, the report says, it’s often difficult to identify since trafficking can be shielded by a legitimate business.

“Victims could include a restaurant worker who sleeps in a locked storage facility and is unable to leave the store; field laborers whose wages are confiscated to pay back their trafficker for food, clothing, and shelter; or a homeless individual forced to collect recyclables and turn over their profit for fear of violence,” the report says.

Law enforcement receives minimal training in how to identify labor trafficking and prosecuting traffickers is also a challenge, the report notes. At the November hearing, San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan told commissioners that her office has had to get creative with how it prosecutes labor exploitation, expanding investigations to look for violations that might be easier to prove, like wage theft, tax evasion and money laundering.

The report recommends that California create something similar to Colorado’s Human Trafficking Council within the Governor’s Office. The council would include representatives from law enforcement, victim services and public health agencies, as well as lawmakers and survivors of human trafficking.

The council would focus on gathering data and using it to recommend laws that help trafficking victims and make it easier to prosecute traffickers. The council would also work to raise awareness of the issue and develop tools to more easily identify instances of labor trafficking.

“California must build on its successes combatting sex trafficking to develop a cohesive response that addresses all forms of human trafficking,” the report says.

Kelly Davis

AG Releases New Data on Police Shootings, Hate Crimes and More

The attorney general’s office this week released five annual reports detailing criminal justice statistics, amid ongoing calls for police reform. (Disclosure: My husband works for the California Department of Justice.)

I’ve pulled out some of the most notable San Diego findings from those, which address everything from officer-involved shootings to hate crimes.

  • The lion’s share of officer-involved shootings in San Diego County came from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which was involved in 37 of the 50 incidents. SDPD was involved in eight incidents.
  • The police departments for Carlsbad, Coronado, Chula Vista and El Cajon reported no use-of-force incidents.
  • SDPD referred 66 hate crime cases to prosecutors, but prosecutors ultimately filed 30 – fewer than half. The San Diego city attorney’s office filed three cases after eight were referred to that office.
  • San Diego County recorded a homicide rate of 2.6 for 2019 (the number and rate per 100,000 population) – much lower than many other counties, including Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Fresno but higher than Orange County’s very low 1.8.

Sara Libby

Officials, Physicians Lay Out Border Coronavirus Needs

Hospitals near California’s border with Mexico remain at risk of being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, physicians, local officials and public health officials told state senators Tuesday.

San Diego and Imperial Counties share more than 140 miles of border with Mexico, and that dynamic has created unique coronavirus impacts in both regions. San Diego’s South Bay and Imperial County have experienced higher rates of positive cases than surrounding areas, and the Otay Mesa Detention Center has had more than 160 confirmed cases – one of the biggest outbreaks in an ICE detention center in the country.

During a joint hearing headed by Sen. Ben Hueso of the Select Committee on California-Mexico Cooperation and the Special Committee on Pandemic Emergency Response, several public health officials, local leaders and service providers described the scope of the COVID-19 problem at the border and needs of the border region when it comes to COVID-19.

A theme throughout was that while both Imperial and San Diego were experiencing influxes of cases, San Diego has better health infrastructure in place to respond.

Imperial County Public Health Director Janette Angulo said Imperial County has seen a startling uptick in positive coronavirus tests in recent weeks.

Angulo said over the last two weeks, Imperial County’s case rate has jumped to almost three times as high as Los Angeles County.

El Centro Regional Medical Center can no longer handle the influx of cases and has been transferring five to 10 patients daily to hospitals in San Diego County.

Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health System, which operates Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista, said coronavirus positive test results have been doubling since June 19.

He said 60 percent of patients who tested positive for coronavirus who visited the Chula Vista emergency room between May 31 and June 2 said they had recently traveled to Mexico.

Chula Vista hospitals are also accepting transfers from Imperial County — 231 patients as of Tuesday morning.

Chula Vista has also been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Mayor Mary Salas made a point to state officials that the city had lost out on funding despite being hit hard by COVID-19.

Stockton, Salas pointed out, a city of 316,410 that as of June had 1,450 cases is getting CARES Act funding of $85.27 per capita. Chula Vista, with roughly 271,000 people and 1,860 cases in June, only received $12.20 in funding per capita.

The joint committee will prepare a memo based on Tuesday’s hearing testimony for both legislative houses and the governor.

Maya Srikrishnan

Bill to Limit San Diego Vacation Rentals Is Dead

A bill written by Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath that would have dramatically limited short-term vacation rentals in coastal neighborhoods is dead. The bill was gutted this week and replaced with language addressing unemployment insurance.

Here’s how Lisa Halverstadt described the bill last year:

AB 1731, written by Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath, who represents North County cities, bars vacation rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO from listing San Diego County vacation rentals that fall into both residential and state coastal zones on their sites for more than 30 days a year unless a full-time resident is on site. The legislation would dramatically curtail rentals outside commercial areas in neighborhoods such as Pacific Beach and La Jolla.

Boerner Horvath ultimately put the measure on a two-year track to give herself more time to address outstanding questions about how the bill would work. But this week, new language was swapped in, scrubbing all the short-term rental provisions.

It happened the same week that San Diego City Councilwoman Jen Campbell announced a new proposal to regulate short-term rentals in the city, after years of failed attempts to address the issue. Her vision has buy-in from Expedia Group, the parent company for short-term operators HomeAway and Vrbo, and UNITE HERE Local 30, the regional hotel union.

Sara Libby

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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