In Hostess Club Raid, Did Police Arrest the Victims?

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) raided Club 907, a “hostess club” where patrons pay for women’s companionship: dancing, talking and delivering non-alcoholic drinks. According to the Los Angeles Times, police suspected illegal alcohol service, counterfeit documentation, labor code violations, gambling, lewd acts and human trafficking concerns.

But 81 of the 88 people arrested were women working as dancers–charged with using false IDs to gain employment. Since most of the dancers were arrested for documentation issues and turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) is calling this a de facto immigration raid.

And that would undermine Special Order 40, under which LAPD officers are prohibited from initiating contact with a person solely to determine whether they are legal residents. The order was designed to reassure undocumented immigrants that they can safely contact police in emergencies or as informants without fear of deportation.

LAPD Deputy Chief Jose Perez insists that immigration did not motivate the raid, saying, “People were involved in criminal activity. If this were an immigration raid, we would not have let the other 300 people [in attendance at the club] go.” But were these women criminals–or human trafficking victims?

How this raid went down illustrates the thickets of overlapping jurisdictions around cases of foreign nationals tracked into the U.S., estimated between 14,500-17,500  each year, the majority women [PDF]. Local police, immigration agencies and the federal government all have a stake in such cases, and each may prioritize the enforcement of different laws. In this tangle, the rights of trafficking victims under federal law can easily get lost.

CHIRLA criticizes how the law enforcement agencies handled the potential human trafficking violations in the Club 907 case. Says Angelica Salas, executive director of the coalition,

The LAPD and ICE knew or at least suspected that women working at the club were being exploited and yet no contingency plan was established to ensure all potential victims received appropriate guidance and recourse. Instead, [most] of the women were turned over to ICE and [a handful] now face deportation while the Club remains open for business.

By their own account, the women working at Club 907 were financially and sexually exploited. CHIRLA interviewed nearly 30 “dancers” who were required to earn at least $600 a week for the club, which meant “socializing” for 20 hours. Once that quota was met, “dancers” were paid  19 cents a minute, or $228 a week. Women who did not make the quota were required to pay the club out-of-pocket for the under-quota amount, and were responsible for the tab if a customer left without paying.  According to Xiomara Corpeno, director of organizing for CHIRLA,

Many of the women worked 10+ hours a day and were not making minimum wage. … It was coercion through deception.  These folks were caught up in a system where they could never get ahead. … These allegations, if true, are violations of California labor law and smack of indentured servitude.

Moreover, dancers report that club managers did not provide protection from fondling patrons, and “although tolerating sexual advances by patrons was not encouraged by management, hostesses who did [tolerate sexual advances] received preferential treatment, including better shifts.”

The FBI defines trafficking as any use of force or fraud to coerce work. Their “Help for Victims” brochure informs potential victims that no employer can:

  1. Force you to work against your will
  2. Collect a debt by using threats or forcing you to work to pay the deb;
  3. Force you to work using threats to harm you or your family
  4. Force or pressure you into prostitution or to do other sexual acts
  5. Use you for any kind of sex work if you are under 18
  6. Take away your passport, birth certificate or identification card to control you or your movements.

Under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act [PDF] and the two subsequent reauthorizations in 2003 [PDF], 2005 [PDF], and 2008 [PDF], victims of such actions are entitled to special federal protections: The FBI has started initiatives to guarantee “legal and repatriation services, immigration relief, housing, employment, education, job training and child care.” They’re also eligible for three special U-, T- and S-visas.

LAPD spokesperson Lt. Paul Vernon agrees that some of the women arrested may have been illegal immigrants who were forced to work at the club after being trafficked into the U.S., noting that false identification charges are often accompanied by human trafficking. Jessica Dominguez, an attorney for many of the women, believes that these women should be eligible for a U-visa, granting temporary legal status to victims of crimes who cooperate with authorities in prosecuting a crime.

But the LAPD is not actively investigating issues of trafficking or indentured servitude. According to Deputy Chief Perez,

Nobody made allegations of human trafficking or sexual trafficking. These women were not women who were kidnapped at gunpoint and brought to this country against their will. These women were engaged in criminal activity [use of false documents] of their own accord.

But this narrow version of trafficking does not take into account allegations that Club 907 required “dancers” to work to pay off under-quota “debt” (#2 above) and may have pressured some into sexual acts (#4 above).  When asked about possible indentured servitude, Perez responded, “I have no idea what their hiring practices were. That’s a labor violation and CHIRLA is taking it up with labor.”

Corpeno reports that many of the women arrested were young, single mothers doing what they had to do to provide for their children, and a sizable number have experienced domestic violence:

These women are survivors. They have been shunned by their families and by society because of their work. I don’t’ think the police understand that when they made comments about legal status — even side comments– they made [the “dancers”] fearful about reporting domestic violence or trafficking.

Four days after the raid, Club 907 was open again and the owner posted an ad on Craigslist for more “dance hostesses.”

Concerned about the women in custody and the possible trafficking violations? Urge the LAPD to investigate:

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Dr. Caroline Heldman is the Executive Director of The Representation Project, Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a Senior Research Advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media. She also co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus, Faculty Against Rape and End Rape Statute of Limitations. Her books include Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?, Protest Politics in the Marketplace: Consumer Activism in the Corporate Age), Women, Power, and Politics: The Fight for Gender Equality in the United States, The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement and Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election. Her research has been featured in top academic journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, Political Psychology and Political Communications; and her work has also been featured in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.