The story started innocently enough. A Georgia minister’s wife traveled to southern Africa and recruited a young woman to act as a cook for a family wedding in the United States. The woman agreed to join her and she headed to the land of milk and honey in pursuit of a better opportunity. This was a God-loving American woman, after all, and she had helped countless others with her ministry, so what could possibly go wrong?
Once they arrived in Greenwood, Georgia, a bucolic suburb of Atlanta where the American resided with her family, it all started unraveling, according to documents presented to the Department of Justice. It turned out that there was no wedding, and no culinary job available for the young woman in the states. The woman’s offer had all been less-than-genuine, and the young African woman was made to work off her travel debt as a housekeeper for the family.
Just last week, the couple, Juna Gwedolyn Babb and her minister husband, Michael J. Babb, pleaded guilty to felony offenses related to a scheme to compel the unpaid labor of the young woman. They were forced to pay the victim $25,000 in restitution and are now facing time in prison.
State government officials and law enforcement authorities are ramping up their efforts to crackdown on individuals like the Babbs. In July, the state of Georgia enacted House Bill 200, one of the country’s harshest laws against trafficking that calls for increased punishments for those who profit off of these types of criminal offenses, and advocates say that this could serve as a model for other states.
A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 167 of the 527 confirmed trafficking victims and 224 of the 488 trafficking suspects between 2008-2010 were black, and the Babb case is a perfect example of how involuntary servitude is still a major problem that plagues the African-American community.
“This case reminds us that modern day slavery is occurring in our communities,” said U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates.
“This young woman believed that she was only traveling to the United States for a brief visit to help with a wedding. Instead, she was compelled to labor for the defendants for more than two years. It is especially disturbing that the victim was exploited by a minister and his wife.”
How the Babbs went from helping people in Africa to exploiting a native of the country in the course of 20 years remains a mystery, but according to his website, Michael began his evangelical ministry with the best of intentions. In 1985, he set out with his wife Juna to spread the word of the gospel through missionary projects in impoverished neighborhoods in Kenya, Mozambique, Gambia, Nigeria, Swaziland and South Africa. Babb later joined forces with Christ Embassy International Church, one of the largest congregations in Nigeria that boasts 3.5 million followers, and opened his own chapter in Atlanta.
Although many in Babb’s Atlanta congregation came to the defense of the couple, and continue to support them now, that wasn’t enough evidence to disprove their guilt. According to their lawyer, Adam M. Hames, while the Babbs confirm that they were responsible for harboring an undocumented worker, they maintain that they did pay the then-29-year-old African woman for her services.
“Had the case gone to trial we would have produced evidence that the lady was paid some amount of money,” he said. “But that amount of money was below market level for a live-in housekeeper.”
Juna Babb pleaded guilty to the offense of harboring an alien for financial gain, and she faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Michael Babb said that he knew of his wife’s harboring of the victim, as well as the fact that Juna Babb was compelling the victim’s labor. He is charged with failure to notify authorities of the alien harboring, and concealing his wife’s crime by denying that the victim worked as the defendants’ housekeeper to special agents of the FBI. He faces up to three years in prison. They are both set to be sentenced during hearing on Oct. 6, 2011.
“Human trafficking, while taking on many forms, consists primarily of those who prey on the vulnerabilities of others for personal gain,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Brian D. Lamkin. “That was, in fact, the case in this matter as a young woman from Swaziland was being forced into labor and was unsure of who to turn to for help. The FBI continues to aggressively pursue all allegations of human trafficking matters and is proud of the role that it played in bringing this case to a successful conclusion.”
“Schemes like this one target the most vulnerable in our society,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “The department is committed to prosecuting individuals who engage in acts that exploit individuals who wish to work in our country.”
Human trafficking is now the fastest growing crime in the world, and the U.S. State Department estimates that there are 12.3 million adults and children — 56 percent of whom are women and girls — that are the victims of forced labor, bonded labor and sex slavery worldwide. The trade puts about $32 billion into the pockets of traffickers each year.
“Few crimes are more shocking than the trafficking of human beings in this country,” said Brock Nicholson, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Office of Investigations in Atlanta. “No one should have to live in a world of isolation and forced servitude.”This isn’t the first time that shocking accusations of forced labor have rocked Georgia. In June, a Georgia woman was found guilty of human trafficking for luring two Nigerian young women to the U.S. with promises of a better life. Instead, she forced them to work as slaves in her lavish Atlanta-area home, and beat them and made them eat spoiled food while she enjoyed the fruits of their labor.
The woman, Bidemi Bello, 41, was convicted of forced labor, trafficking for forced labor, document servitude, and alien harboring, and she faces a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine of up to $250,000. She is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 24, and is likely to be stripped of her American citizenship and sent back to Nigeria after serving her prison time.
“I am deeply saddened that the city of Atlanta has become one of the largest trafficking hubs in the country,” the President of Lutheran Services of Georgia Rev. Dr. Gary L. Danielsen said in a statement released after the passage of HB 200.
“This form of slavery destroys any semblance of community and is at odds with the values of our country. I am pleased that the new trafficking bill would affirm the U.S. commitment to fighting this insidious practice and I urge vigorous support of this legislation.”
Georgia’s new law is intended to discourage human trafficking and it is a virtual overhaul of the way the state deals with traffickers and their victims. After four years of contentious debate, the bill was passed by the Georgia Senate in March. The law calls for a 25-year minimum sentence for those convicted of using coercion to traffic someone under the age of 18, and a minimum of five years in prison for individuals caught having sex with a 16-year-old. Those who are convicted of attempting to solicit sex from someone younger than 16 will be slapped with punishments of at least 10 years in prison.
The measure also allows a prostituted child or adult to avoid criminal charges if they can prove they were coerced into it. Under the new law, coercion can be in the form of physical abuse, financial harm, destruction of immigration documents and drug use.
Other states have passed similar legislation that deal with sex trafficking victims. In August 2010, New York became the first state to pass a law allowing survivors of commercial sex trafficking to clear their records of prostitution-related crimes by expunging their convictions resulting from coerced involvement in sex work. Similar legislation is pending in Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“Human trafficking is a repugnant crime that is growing like a cancer in our society,” Governor Nathan Deal said. “Signing this bill into law, I join my fellow Georgians in declaring moral outrage and vowing to fight human trafficking here in our state. These criminals rob their victims of freedom and human dignity, and they destroy lives. With this bill now a law, we will find these criminals and we will punish them harshly.”
The bill gives the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) authority to help local authorities to investigate trafficking crimes. It also requires law enforcement agencies to establish guidelines and procedures to educate officers on how to better patrol for traffickers and assist individuals who have been victimized. The training materials will also include information on therapeutic facilities available for victims.
And even though the Babbs’ conduct, admitted and alleged, occurred long before the enactment of Georgia’s new law, and HB 200 did not play a role in this case, their lawyer Adam M. Hames, believes that the new legislation will have an effect of the way these laws are prosecuted.
“It will provide challenges to prosecutors and defense attorneys for years to come,” he said. “I am afraid that the act is a license to racially profile all kinds of people, including American citizens. My personal opinion is that the act was bad for Georgia’s business community and especially its agricultural base. These cases can also be difficult to prosecute and defend. There are witnesses all over the world and often there are language and cultural barriers that provide challenges for both prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
As for the Babbs, they are determined to carry on, and Michael plans to continue serving as a minister for his church until the sentencing hearing reveals his fate and how much time his wife have to spend in prison. The victim has since moved back to her native country, and will be the beneficiary of the restitution payment.
“She could have stayed in the U.S. and applied for a special visa as a victim,” said Hames.”It is my understanding that she has returned to the Kingdom of Swaziland.”
Life goes on as usual, and trafficking still threatens neighborhoods and innocent victims. One thing is certain, however. With laws like these becoming more prevalent, the once hidden horror of involuntary servitude and sex trafficking is coming out of the shadows and forcing society, and government agencies alike to come together to protect those who cannot protect themselves.