#SexWeek: The Secret Sex Trade in Queens

Human trafficking in the largest NYC borough

212 To My City | Daphne Schermer | March 2, 2016

  • Copied

As an NYU student, what does Queens, New York mean to you?

Maybe it’s where you commute home to everyday, where you’ve had a great meal with friends, somewhere with cheaper rents than Manhattan, or that borough you haven’t gotten around to visiting?

How about a “hub and epicenter of human trafficking”?

This was said by State Senator Jose Peralta in reference to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights.

Since 2007, in New York state there have been 1,252 cases of human trafficking. There were 281 cases in 2015, up from 271 in 2014, and 193 in 2013. Around 60% of the victims in NYC who seek help are from Queens and the top venues for sex trafficking are commercial-front brothels.

Jimmy Lee is the executive director of Restore: an organization that sets up undisclosed safe homes for victims who escape and are able to seek assistance. In July of 2015 he spoke at a YWCA of Flushing panel to raise awareness for sex trafficking in Queens, specifically in Flushing.

Lee explained:

“Queens is not only the epicenter for trafficking foreigners in New York, it really is on the entire East Coast. Our partners in other states will often tell us that the victims they take in say they got their start in Flushing or first came to Queens when they immigrated and got involved in the trade.”

In particular, the neighborhoods of Elmhurst and Corona have high rates of sex-trafficking, largely from Mexico. The main street in Corona, Roosevelt Avenue, has pimps who stand outside bars and hand out business cards with benign services, such as “florists,” to potential clients. If a man calls the number on one of the cards, girls are promptly delivered.

Currently, there is a special task force in New York that works to break up the smuggling rings. This is because the majority of law enforcement efforts to curb human trafficking happens in the U.S. rather than Mexico, due to high level of corruption and complicity among Mexican officials. The economic drive for a pimp to break into the human-trafficking business is high; a pimp who manages 3 women could make up to $1 million a year. Thus, human trafficking has become a growing business for drug cartels.

In Queens, the majority of sex slaves are foreign women; although nationally about 83% of victims of human trafficking are American. Many of the women in Queens are promised a job in New York and, when they arrive, are forced into prostitution. These women are vulnerable and often have no English language skills or contacts in America, making it easier for pimps to isolate and control them. Frequently, pimps take away the passports of their workers, leaving them undocumented and even more disenfranchised.

A statewide Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative was launched in September 2013 throughout New York. The initiative is built on pilot programs that were already operating in Queens, midtown Manhattan, and Nassau County. These existing programs offered counseling and social-services to arrested women, as opposed to jail-time.

It also includes the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court. The court’s goal is to match up victims with “specialized pro bono immigration services”, as explained by Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence. Eligible victims will have the opportunity to pay for T Visas and temporarily stay and work in the U.S.

This represents a important shift in how the judicial system views sex slaves: as victims.

In the past, these women have been tried as criminals and often were too afraid to seek assistance because of the stigmatization of prostitution.

A 2014 Gallup Survey in conjunction with Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index (GSI) wanted to estimate how many men, women, and children worldwide are in modern slavery. This includes human trafficking, forced labor and marriage, debt bondage, and the sale and exploitation of children. Although their data showed that poverty is a risk factor behind modern slavery, it is not true for all countries with similar levels of income. In other words, there are other risk factors: attitudes, traditional institutions, social systems or poor governance, including the individual risk factors of unemployment or a lack of education.

There would be no supply of individuals being forced into servitude if there was no demand.

The cases of human trafficking in Queens are much larger than a women’s issue or even a human rights violation. Rather, the high levels of human trafficking are indicative of a need for a cultural shift. The current generation of college students and NYU students should start the conversation about what sexual norms should and shouldn’t be accepted.

Hopefully, when we are middle-aged alumni, there won’t be high rates of human trafficking within 10 miles of Kimmel.


Kern-Jedrychowska, Ewa. “Roosevelt Avenue is ‘Epicenter’ of NYC Sex Trafficking, Officials Say.” DNA Info. N.p., 18 July 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

Lippman, Jonathon. “Announcement of New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Initiative.” Center for Court Innovation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

Matloff, Judith. “Brothel state in Mexico is conduit for human trafficking in New York.” Al Jazeera. N.p., 1 June 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. 

“New York.” National Human Trafficking Resource Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. 

Spagnuolo, Christine. “Human Trafficking Common in Flushing.” Queens Chronicle. N.p., 30 July 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. 

Image: “Roosevelt Ave Jackson Heights Subway Station” by David Shankbone. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons