WASHINGTON -- The federal anti-trafficking agent invited to the State of the Union address by President Donald Trump helped take down brutal operations that smuggled women from Mexico into the U.S. and forced them into prostitution.
Elvin Hernandez is a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, a specialized unit within Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He and his colleagues began targeting trafficking in Tenancingo, Mexico, a prostitution pipeline rife with crime and violence, in 2012. The final defendants of one crime family were sentenced last month to decades in prison.
Hernandez, who works in the New York office, was one the guests who sat with first lady Melania Trump. He was given a round of rousing applause when Trump introduced him, as he reddened and smiled.
At a recent briefing for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on one of his major cases, Hernandez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said they targeted 10 organizations and dismantled all of them.
Trump has pushed the idea that human trafficking is a major reason why he needs $5.7 billion for a border wall, a request Democrats have flatly rejected. However, most trafficking victims cross through legal ports of entry, according the Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative, a global hub for trafficking statistics with data contributed by organizations from around the world.
Advocates say Trump distorts how often victims come from the southern border — the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a venture supported by federal money and operated by the anti-trafficking group Polaris, said there was a near-equal distribution between foreigners on one hand and U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents on the other.
But advocates also say Tenancingo is a breeding ground for traffickers, where boys are groomed to be pimps, and women and girls are forced into prostitution, their families threatened with violence.
In total, Hernandez and his colleagues on the case brought down more than 80 defendants; rescued more than 150 victims including 45 minors; and reunified 19 children with their mothers.
One organization, the Rendon-Reyes family, smuggled young, poor and uneducated women into the U.S. from Mexico and forced them into prostitution throughout the U.S. Some of the women crossed the border illegally, and others were smuggled in using false birth certificates.
The traffickers manipulated the girls into fake romantic relationships. According to court documents, the suspects used "beatings, sexual assaults, forced abortions, threats to the victims, their families and psychological coercion."
The women were forced into seeing as many as 45 clients in a day, according to documents.