AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Each year, thousands of Central American migrants hire smugglers to bring them to the United States. As Jasmine Garsd of our PLANET MONEY team reports, it's an extremely expensive and risky proposition, especially for women. And a warning - this story may be disturbing to some listeners.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: I meet Patty (ph) at an office. She asked that I don't use her last name for reasons that will become clear. Outside, it's a gloomy Houston day, and as far as I can see, it's highways and neon signs. Patty's clothes are the same color - electric. Her eyeshadow is metallic green. Her journey to America started about 10 years ago when she was a teenager in Honduras.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) At the corner of the school, there was a store we always went to to drink coffee.
GARSD: She and her friend were approached by two human smugglers. They were offering jobs in the U.S.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) He said at a packing facility for clothing, underwear and T-shirts.
GARSD: In one week in America, they were told they could make what they'd make in five months in Honduras. Honduras is filled with towns with utopian names - Progress, Paradise. Patty is from the Future - departamento del Porvenir. The Future is beautiful, but it wasn't enough, and she was a teenage mom.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) I come from a family that is really poor. If we ate well one day, the next day, we didn't.
GARSD: Getting smuggled to the U.S. from Central America cost thousands of dollars, way more than Patty could scrounge up. People sell everything they own to pay for this journey - the house, the furniture, or they get help from family in the U.S. But there's another common way to pay - debt. A lot of smugglers let you put some money upfront and, once you get to the U.S., pay the rest back in installments. You work it off in America. The smugglers talking to Patty said don't worry about money now; you'll have plenty of it when you get to the U.S.
PATTY: (Speaking Spanish).
GARSD: Patty and her friends said yes. That weekend, they started their journey north through Guatemala and Mexico by foot, bus and hopping trains. But when they got to Mexico City, the whole plan unraveled. One of the smugglers turned to her and said he wanted to get paid now. He said they each owed him $3,000. Patty panicked.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) And I tell him, how am I going to pay you? I mean, how? With what? Well, he says, I think you're not a little girl, are you?
GARSD: Patty and her friend were locked up in a brothel. They were told they had to work off their debt. Patty's friend refused. She's been missing ever since. Patty was told she now had to pay off that debt, too. She says she kept track of her customers.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) I made a mark with a stick on a wooden part of the wall each time, each one. No, I never forgot.
GARSD: About half a year later, Patty was taken to America, to Houston, to another brothel. She cozied up to the madam there, and months after that, she got her break. The madam asked if Patty could go buy some juice and milk.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) Yeah, sure, I said. This is my escape, I said to myself.
GARSD: Patty was nervous. Before she walked out, the madam told her one last thing.
PATTY: (Through interpreter) She told me not to take too long. Here in the U.S., even if you look a little funny, they'll call immigration police, and you know they aren't going to wait for you back in Honduras. They're just going to kill you.
GARSD: Patty left. And there she was outside alone for the first time in about a year in America. At the store, she had a nervous breakdown. One of the managers took her in, flagged down a policeman. I'm in a car with legal representative Dottie Laster. She specializes in sex trafficking and is helping Patty try to stay in the country legally. Laster drives me around Houston, showing me the types of places Patty might have been held at.
DOTTIE LASTER: A story like Patty's, unfortunately, is very common.
GARSD: Laster handles dozens of cases every year where a woman thinks she's going to be smuggled into the U.S. but ends up being sexually assaulted or trafficked.
LASTER: I can almost finish the stories before they do. It's the same process, the same system, the same coercion and all for the same purpose, which is commercial sex.
GARSD: And Patty thinks about this a lot these days. The baby she left behind when she got out of Honduras is now a 14-year-old girl. Things are so violent there, Patty recently spoke to a human smuggler. He says he can bring her daughter to the U.S. for a real low price. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.