SALT LAKE CITY — With thousands of refugees seeking asylum near the United States-Mexico border, there's concern about them being taken and trafficked.
Those at Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit organization with a mission to rescue children from sex trafficking, hope to prevent that from happening.
Last month in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Jessica Mass, Operation Underground Railroad's aftercare director, recently spent two days educating and training about 100 people, including volunteers, first responders, clergy, medical professionals and political figures on how to spot human traffickers.
"The training was well received. ... We wanted to make sure that the first responders and the shelter workers were adequately trained in how to identify human trafficking, what to look for and questions to ask," Mass said of the May 6-7 event. "This was not a political training but one to help protect those coming to the United States so they do not fall prey to traffickers."
Mass said refugees from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have come to the U.S. for asylum due to threats and kidnappings. As the group's aftercare director since 2015, Mass has given similar trainings in more than 20 countries. Assisting "vulnerable populations" like these are a priority for OUR, she said.
"When you can give people knowledge and help them identify trafficking, then change happens, because not only are you educating a community, you're also empowering them to know what to do if they see trafficking," Mass said. "We always encourage people to call the police or to call ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or their local law enforcement."
Three of the main reasons why people are trafficked involve a lack of education, lack of livable income and a breakdown of the family, she said.
"What those create are vulnerabilities," Mass said. "So when we're working with a vulnerable population, one thing to know is who's at risk and then be able to educate those in the community."
Sometimes victims being trafficked don't know they are being trafficked as the betrayal comes at the hands of a "boyfriend" or trusted relative who is actually exploiting them, Mass said.
"Traffickers have told me so often that their first tactic is to make that person fall in love with them," Mass said. "If they can make that person fall in love with them, they say, 'I have their heart and then I have their body.'"
When a child is rescued from trafficking, OUR's aftercare program provides each survivor with a variety of resources, including mental health, education and vocational training, to assist in the healing process. These resources are enhanced through partnerships with other facilities and shelters, such as The Refugee Ranch in Texas and The Phoenix Dream Center and Streetlight.
In her travels and trainings, people often ask Mass how they can get involved. First, she suggests completing an hour-long training on OURRescue.org. Second, get involved in your local community centers, shelters and foster care systems, Mass said.
"That's where you really can have an impact on survivors of trafficking in your community," Mass said.
OUR's president and founder, Tim Ballard, is a Brigham Young University graduate and is the author of several books published through Deseret Book.