Challenging Human Trafficking



Challenging Human Trafficking

Human trafficking continues to challenge the criminal justice system on a state and national level. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s Sex Crimes Division is working to combat the devastating situation at the local level by hiring quality team members like Sam Houston State University alumna, Jennifer Miranda.

By: Veronica Gonzalez/vgonzalez@shsu.edu

Human trafficking continues to challenge the criminal justice system on a state and national level. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s Sex Crimes Division is working to combat the devastating situation at the local level by hiring quality team members like Sam Houston State University alumna, Jennifer Miranda.

Miranda graduated with her bachelor’s in Criminal Justice in 2015 and her master’s in Homeland Security Studies in 2017. It was the experienced gained from her coursework and capstone project for the Homeland Security program that opened the door to the opportunity of a lifetime as a criminal analyst.

Her capstone project developed from work she submitted for the Transnational Violent Networks course she took, taught by Nathan Jones, assistant professor for Security Studies. Jones’ expertise focuses on drug violence in Mexico, border security, social network analysis, and trafficking networks.

“We continue to teach social network analysis basics in our Information and Intelligence Management and Research Methods courses as these concepts are increasingly utilized by intelligence agencies, local, state, and federal law enforcement, and Homeland Security agencies,” Jones said. “It is one of the joys of my career to be able to give my students the skills that lead to employment in fields that quite literally save lives and make our community safer.”

The Houston native chose to focus on comparing transnational human trafficking rings prosecuted in Houston and Georgia, show how central victims were in the network, and show how law enforcement should focus on converting those victims into witnesses. Miranda narrowed the focus of her original project down to human trafficking of undocumented women. She was drawn to the topic because “it hit home” for her.

“I wanted to pick a population that I was familiar with. I come from a mother who at one point was undocumented. I have family members who at one point were undocumented as well,” Miranda said. “I grew up knowing the hardships that come with being undocumented in this country. I knew I was going to be driven enough to turn this into a capstone.”

Miranda’s parents immigrated to the United States from El Salvador during their civil war in the 1980s. As a child, she grew up listening to stories about the things her parents saw on their journey here.

“It took them about two to three months to get here. The things they saw were horrific. Thank God, nothing bad happened to them, but not everyone has that same luck they did,” she said.

Miranda’s passion for social justice issues came from watching her parents build their lives here in the U.S. as she grew up in a predominately Hispanic Houston neighborhood.

INTERNING WITH ICE

To complete her graduate program in Homeland Security, Miranda also had to earn internship hours and hoped she could gain experience working in a human trafficking division. Thanks to her capstone project, she became more passionate than ever to dedicate her knowledge and skills to the cause. Miranda worked with the SHSU Criminal Justice Internship Office to complete one of the final parts of her program.

Miranda chose to work at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and hoped to be assigned to their Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which conducts human trafficking investigations. Instead, she was assigned to their Enforcement Removal Operations (ERO) division. Her position required her to look through files of those detained to confirm all data was correct and present before deportation from the country. Miranda admitted that, while it was hard to experience because of her close connection to situations undocumented immigrants face in their journey to this country, it was still a worthwhile opportunity.

“It broke my heart. I got way too emotional and you can’t get too emotional being in that field,” she said. “It was extremely difficult for me, but I had to finish.”

AFTER GRADUATION

Miranda struggled to find a job after graduation but resolved to do the work it took to keep knocking on doors and move forward. With encouragement from her mother, Miranda applied for an internship with the Harris County District Attorney Office. Two weeks later, she received an offer to intern for their Sex Crimes Division.

In those seven months, Miranda dedicated her time to learning every aspect of the agency and fell in love with the work. She decided this was where she wanted to work.

When the agency began planning to expand their Sex Crimes Division, Miranda took the opportunity to submit her resume and her capstone project with it. The hiring committee was impressed and offered her a full-time criminal analyst position.

“Since my capstone was over human trafficking, they could see I have an understanding of the problem. I do believe it gave me the access to go through the door,” Miranda said. “It showed and solidified that not only am I am passionate about helping victims, but my ethics and goals and morals align with the division.”

The agency has had nothing but good things to say about Miranda’s work and integrity. It’s an example of the quality of students, programming, and opportunities the SHSU College of Criminal Justice is developing.

"I did not have the privilege to work with Jennifer when she was an intern but having been her supervisor since she officially became an employee of HCDAO, I can say she is the right person for the job,” said Carla Manuel, Director of Intelligence for the Harris County District Attorney Human Trafficking/Sex Crimes Division. “Jennifer possesses the right mixture of traits that we in the intelligence field seek in an Intelligence Analyst; a natural inclination to uncover the truth, the drive to bring the offenders to justice, critically analyze information to yield actionable intelligence, and of course, a high degree of work ethics. Working as an integral part of a newly devised initiative to bring human traffickers to justice, Jennifer’s inherent traits complement the team superbly."

HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN TEXAS

According to research from the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, there are an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas. Of that number, approximately 79,000 minors and youths are victims of sex trafficking and approximately 234,000 workers are victims of labor trafficking.

The situation has an economic impact as well. Traffickers exploit approximately $600 million per year from victims of labor trafficking in Texas in the most at-risk industries and economic sectors, including migrant farm work, construction, kitchen workers in restaurants, and landscaping services. An estimated $6.5 billion is spent on the lifetime costs of providing care to victims and survivors of minor and youth sex trafficking in Texas, including costs related to law enforcement, prosecution, and social services.

Miranda and the Sex Crimes Division have a challenge on their hands, but they are working on new strategies to continue the fight while helping victims and survivors see justice.

“We are moving in a new, challenging direction in the area of human trafficking through a team of investigators, intelligence analysts, social workers and prosecutors,” said Johna Stallings, Chief of Human Trafficking/Child Exploitation for the Harris County District Attorney Sex Crimes Division. “We are excited to have Ms. Miranda on board with us in this effort.”
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