QUEENS — Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights is “a mecca of human trafficking” where women from countries including Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are being sexually exploited, elected officials said Thursday.
And Queens is the center of the city's trafficking problem, with nearly 60 percent of the city's victims who come forward looking for help.
Roosevelt Avenue has a number of brothels, state Sen. Jose Peralta, who represents Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, said at a press conference where he discussed an initiative to provide foreign-born victims of sex trafficking with free legal representation on immigration issues.
“Roosevelt Avenue is a mecca of human trafficking in Queens and throughout the five boroughs,” Peralta said.
There are gangs “that are participating in bringing women from all over the world," he later told DNAinfo New York.
“They bring them right to Roosevelt Avenue,” the state senator said. “It’s really a hub and epicenter of human trafficking.”
Kika Cerpa, who was a victim of sex trafficking, said at the conference that she came to New York from Venezuela, following her boyfriend, when she was 17.
Her boyfriend's family was involved in the sex trafficking business and took away her passport, telling her she owed them a lot of money.
“They told me that the only way I could pay it all was by working in a brothel on Roosevelt Avenue,” she said.
Cerpa, who was on the verge of tears as she read a statement, said she was trafficked for the next three years and “moved from one brothel to another." During that time, she said she was arrested several times for prostitution and treated like a criminal, not a victim.
That situation changed for many women who are victims of sex trafficking when the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court was created last year, she said. The initiative assists people arrested on prostitution charges by treating them as survivors who need support.
The city's Family Justice Centers also provide help to victims of sex trafficking and domestic violence with counseling, shelter and legal assistance. The first of four such centers opened in Brooklyn in 2005. The center in Queens opened in Kew Gardens in 2008.
According to statistics provided by the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, more than 120 sex trafficking victims have sought services at the these centers since 2005. Some 56 percent of those victims asked for help at the Queens Family Justice Center.
Several pro bono immigration attorneys will be available at the Queens center through the initiative unveiled Thursday, which is a collaboration between the Mayor's Office to Combat Domestic Violence, Sanctuary for Families and the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court.
The initiative will "connect survivors of trafficking in the borough of Queens to specialized pro bono immigration services provided by some of New York City’s top lawyers," said Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence.
The lawyers can help eligible victims to apply for T visas, which allow some victims of human trafficking to temporarily remain in the U.S. and work, Pierre-Louis said.
Victims can also get guidance on applying to have criminal convictions related to trafficking vacated.