Shirking the Cost of Human Bondage

Two LAPD cops approached in a squad car as I stood in front of the Watts house where 110 men, women and children were held captive by immigrant smugglers.

The officers wanted to know what I was doing there, so I told them I was just getting a look at the dumpy little white house with green trim and bars on the windows. This is nothing new in L.A., but it’s still astounding that this kind of human bondage can go on for days, right under everyone’s nose.

It looked as if 10 people would be a crowd in the Hickory Street bungalow, let alone more than 100. Weapons and chains were found inside, presumably to keep the immigrants locked up like slaves until relatives -- mostly from Mexico and Ecuador -- handed over ransoms ranging up to $9,000.

“We just had another one about a block away,” one of the cops told me. It was about a month ago, he said. “They had 50 guys in one room.”


It’s not easy to pack 50 or 100 people into a small house, throw bars over the windows and board them up from the inside, and not create a stir. But nobody calls police about something like that, one of the cops told me.

“In this neighborhood?” he asked, shaking his head.

Even if they do call, LAPD Cmdr. Jim Tatreau told The Times, all the local cops can do is notify federal authorities, and they don’t always respond. Police have come across numerous local “safe houses,” Tatreau said, and the LAPD just makes sure the occupants are OK before releasing them into the street.

If you think this sounds nuts, Councilwoman Janice Hahn would tend to agree.


She’s upset that neighbors still don’t call police when they see 100 people pile into a house and never come out. She’s upset that immigration enforcement is so inept that coyotes can treat captives like commodities and elude authorities with relative impunity. And she’s upset that the federal government routinely sticks counties and cities with the responsibility, and the bill, for cleaning up the results of its own failures.

“I think this is the tip of the iceberg,” Hahn said of the Watts house that became a temporary gulag. “Wasn’t it just a month ago that young women were being sold into prostitution here, and now we’ve got men being treated like indentured servants?”

The city can’t fix these problems on its own, Hahn said. Whether it’s port security, airport security, or the costs of immigration, local government gets stiffed.

“The federal government ... just never puts out resources to the scale of the problem,” Hahn said.


In the Watts case this week, the conditions were apparently so rancid that one of the released immigrants called in a tip. But all the captors managed to slip away, along with 22 of their hostages.

An additional 88 illegal immigrants were taken in by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which said the captives had come across the border in Arizona and were ferried to L.A. for shipment east.

By commercial airliner.

Are you catching this?


Apparently it’s easier for illegal immigrants to board a plane at LAX than in Phoenix, where there’s been more focus lately by federal authorities.

Reassuring, isn’t it?

By the way, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement disagreed with LAPD’s Tatreau. A spokeswoman told The Times that the bureau rolls when the cops call about a safe house.

So I called Tatreau and asked what he had to say about that. A moment of silence gave way to this:


“They do not always respond.”

Maybe they don’t have the manpower, Tatreau said. But he repeated his charge in a firm, measured tone.

“They do not always respond.”

If Washington wants to give coyotes a running start and keep the borders loose so U.S. employers have a steady supply of cheap labor, that’s fine. But it’s got to help defray the public cost, particularly in the state that roughly 40% of all immigrants flock to.


As the population balloons, virtually every public service in Southern California -- from schools to courthouses; highways to public safety -- is overwhelmed. In fact, California gets back only 77 cents in services for every federal tax dollar it pays.

Hahn, whose politician father made a career of filling potholes and building parks and libraries, said: “I never dreamed I’d become a council member and be fighting for just basic services.”


Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.