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This suggested description didn’t come from a bitter ex-South Vietnamese soldier while singing sad karaoke songs and downing Heineken. Instead, a stone-cold-sober Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez uttered it on the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Yet Sanchez hadn’t come to a community meeting room at Viet Bao newspaper to whine about a long-ago lost conflict or post-war atrocities. She’d arrived to talk about a current outrage: human trafficking. And she wanted to blame the communists running Vietnam for what she sees as their nefarious, behind-the-scenes participation in the international crime.
“I believe that the government of Vietnam is helping to enslave their own people in other countries,” Sanchez told a crowd of about 25. “That includes in the sex-exploitation trade.”
The seven-term Orange County congresswoman’s critics privately suggest her bold accusation is an election-year stunt to blunt rabidly anti-communist Vietnamese American voters from supporting state Assemblyman Van Tran. To pull an upset, Tran is hoping to rally Little Saigon away from Sanchez and take advantage of mounting anti-incumbent sentiment in the November elections. Other opponents suggest Sanchez’s attack is the petty result of Vietnam refusing to grant her entry when she recently toured Southeast Asian nations. Officials in Hanoi said at the time of the denial that she “lacks objectivity and goodwill” for their nation’s interests.
Sanchez—who represents Garden Grove, Westminster, Anaheim and Santa Ana—dismisses the cynics. She says she “feels passionately” about the impacts of human trafficking and points out, with vocal support from local vice cops, that she’s not new to this issue. Indeed, she has helped to direct increased federal funding to anti-trafficking efforts. Had Vietnamese officials allowed her visit last month, she planned to address three topics with them: draconian Internet censorship, harassment of pro-democracy advocates and human trafficking.
“At least 80 percent of the victims of human trafficking worldwide are women and children, and it is our responsibility to help them,” she said.
Based largely on interviews with trafficking victims, Sanchez gave the crowd the following “typical” story: A “big shot” in a rural Vietnamese village recruits local women for, say, Taiwanese businessmen, who promise to pay these workers lucrative salaries if they move to Taiwan. But prior to the overseas trip, the broker and the businessmen demand the workers obtain from local banks loans to allegedly pay for expenses of about $7,000. Because the workers are promised large incomes for a two-year period, their families agree to put up their homes in Vietnam as collateral to the banks. When the workers arrive in Taiwan, however, they are treated as slaves, charged outrageous amounts for room and board, and find themselves in perpetual, seven-days-per-week servitude.
“The women are never given the money for their work,” said Sanchez. “Some of the money goes back to the bank [in Vietnam]. Their visas are taken. They can’t make phone calls. They can’t leave. Their debt to their employers always grows. These women are forced to be slaves.”
The congresswoman asserted that some of the women working in Taiwan are forced into prostitution, though she didn’t elaborate except to say that she believes Vietnam’s officials are not concerned about this aspect of the problem, either.
Sanchez, who has genuinely made Little Saigon concerns her own since she first won office in 1996, paused and scanned the room. Numerous Vietnamese American women present, the ones who’d given her warm hugs before she even spoke, nodded in agreement. The congresswoman then said in an exasperated tone, “It’s the state, the government of Vietnam, that’s doing this to their own women and children. The government owns all the banks! This is a very vicious thing that is happening!”
Though attendees wore frowning faces, applause ensued.
Attempts to get a response to Sanchez’s claims from officials at Vietnam’s Washington, D.C., embassy were not successful.
Last month, Sanchez—who is the ranking female on the powerful House Armed Services Committee—visited four Asian countries (Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia and Taiwan) in seven days on an anti-terrorism fact-finding mission, but she also used the time to study trafficking issues. In Taiwan, she met with the Reverend Peter Nguyen Van Hung, who recorded a video statement for this Little Saigon gathering. He praised Sanchez for visiting.
“I was most impressed with the congresswoman’s easy rapport with the victims in my shelter,” Hung said.
On the local front, the congresswoman called Orange County “a destination point” for human-trafficking victims from around the world—Russia, Africa, Asia, Central America and Europe—because of OC’s diversity and high incomes here. She also predicted increased exploitation and encouraged residents to report suspicious activity at (888) 373-7828, the line for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“For every victim we find [in OC], there are probably hundreds more we may never find working in sweatshops or being used in sex exploitation,” said Sanchez, who noted that even in a wealthy enclave such as Irvine, authorities found a young Egyptian slave working for a family. “Why should we care? Because it makes each one of us less human when this happens.”
She called for more citizen vigilance, saying, “Unless we get more proactive in our communities, looking for signs of someone who is a victim, most of these trafficking cases will never be caught. People need to look and say to themselves, ‘Geez, that woman doesn’t seem to have any freedom of movement at all. She seems locked up in her house.’ If that’s so, call the hotline, and they will investigate.”
The congresswoman’s attention to the issue won admiration in the crowd.
“Loretta Sanchez has been a great advocate for us,” said Tammy Tran, president of the grassroots Vietnamese Alliance to Combat Human Trafficking.
This column appeared in print as "Putting the Ho In Ho Chi Minh: Representative Loretta Sanchez says Vietnam’s communist rulers are pimps."