PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (AP) — Law enforcement agents in American Samoa have raided the U.S. territory’s Office of Immigration seeking evidence of human trafficking in a case that could involve victims from China, the Philippines and South Korea, authorities said.
The agency is suspected of helping to illegally bring Asians into the South Pacific territory through neighboring Samoa, Lt. John Cendrowski of the Office of Territorial and International Criminal Intelligence and Drug Enforcement said in a search warrant that was executed Thursday.
It’s possible that hundreds of victims were brought to American Samoa from May to Dec. 15, Cendrowski said. Many were women apparently being used by a prostitution ring that is plaguing the South Pacific, while the men found work in warehouses, restaurants and stores, he said.
One man from China who is now under protective care as a human trafficking victim told investigators he paid $20,000 to get to American Samoa via Samoa, Cendrowski said.
Upon arrival in Pago Pago, the victim didn’t undergo immigration clearance. Instead, immigration officers waived him through and he was taken to the safe house and given a local immigration card, making him a legal resident of the territory, Cendrowski said in court documents.
The man also told officials he didn’t take any tests or fill out any paperwork to obtain the documents provided to him.
“This is not the first time we had heard this type of story,” Cendrowski said in the affidavit. “In our ongoing investigation into human trafficking, we have heard from different Asian races on how they were ‘recruited’ to come to American Samoa in order to earn a better living.”
After arriving, they were ordered to pay additional fees for their plane trips, identification cards, driver’s licenses and housing, he said.
“These fees would be taken out of their pay, if they were paid at all,” Cendrowski said.
About 20 law enforcement officers, including one FBI agent, were involved in raids at the main immigration office in Utulei village and a smaller office at Pago Pago International Airport. They carted off large plastic bins and a cabinet filled with immigration documents.
No charges have been filed in the case, but any defendant could be prosecuted in territorial court.
The case could also go before federal court in Hawaii or Washington, D.C. if any defendant is alleged to have violated federal law. There is no federal court in American Samoa, which has a population of about 65,000.