In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, President Donald Trump argued that we need his border wall to fight human trafficking, which he described as “probably worse than it ever was in history, if you think about it.” He added it’s “a problem that you should write something about at some point.”
Trump’s reading of history disregards the transatlantic slave trade, but, I agree with him on this last point: More attention can always be brought to the problem, and I applaud any president for raising awareness about it. However, Trump’s focus on it belies the fact that his policies are only exacerbating the situation. Although his executive order on human trafficking, which he signed in February, might suggest that he’s serious about the issue, Trump should be aware that his “America First” agenda–including aggressive immigration enforcement, the refugee ban, and disengagement from international institutions–has the effect of facilitating the enslavement of vulnerable people, in the U.S. and around the world.
The Threat of Deportation Deters Victim Reporting
Before getting into the ways that Trump’s policies empower traffickers, it’s important to recognize that a wall would do nothing to stop the enslavement of undocumented victims who are already living in the U.S., victims who lawfully immigrate to the country in the future, or the U.S. citizens who fall victim to slavery. Unlike smuggling, which requires crossing international borders and is almost always consensual, trafficking occurs when individuals are forcefully exploited, regardless of whether any movement is involved.
But Trump’s agenda is worse than ineffectual, it is positively harmful. One of the primary ways it promotes human trafficking is through aggressive immigration enforcement, which makes victims even more afraid to report abuse to the authorities. The more credible the threat of deportation, the greater control a trafficker has over his victims.
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a coalition of 14 leading anti-trafficking organizations, recognizes that “vulnerability to human trafficking is rooted in the ability of…employers to underpay and mistreat immigrant workers” and has explained how “traffickers…use immigration status as a tool of coercion to exploit immigrant communities, both documented and undocumented.” The presidentially appointed U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking has also suggested that threat of deportation may contribute to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
In that same vein, Saket Soni, executive director of the membership organisation National Guestworkers Alliance, told The Guardian that Trump’s aggressive immigration enforcement is “a gift to human traffickers”:
“Criminalising immigrants makes them more vulnerable to forced labour, human trafficking, and modern-day slavery. Trump’s mass criminalisation will drive immigrants further into the shadows, where increasing numbers of them will face forced labour conditions”
This sentiment was echoed by Sarah Mehta, a human rights researcher for the ACLU, who noted (also in The Guardian):
“Heightened immigration enforcement will push people underground and create a significant chilling effect on reporting labour abuses….There are consequences for all workers, including US citizens, when the ability to organise and report abuses is thwarted by the threat of deportation.”
Crucially, traffickers don’t just benefit from the fear deliberately created by Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric and high-profile raids; they benefit from an increasingly credible threat of deportation ushered in by concrete policy changes.
First, Trump has directed the government “to ensure the faithful execution of the immigration laws…against all removable aliens” and has radically expanded the definition of who is considered a “priority” for deportation. As Cornell Law Professor Steve Yale-Loehr notes in The New York Times, in Trump’s America, “If someone is here illegally they are targets for removal.”
As the widely publicized arrest of an undocumented woman at a courthouse in El Paso shows, victims of exploitation are not safe from deportation, and they are under threat even when engaging with the legal system to report domestic abuse. Recently, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security defended its practice of deporting crime victims:
“Just because they’re a victim in a certain case does not mean there’s not something in their background that could cause them to be a removable alien…. Just because they’re a witness doesn’t mean they might not pose a security threat for other reasons.’’
Relatedly, due to the resurgence of “collateral arrests,” victims of human trafficking may face arrest and deportation, even as a direct result of human trafficking investigations. Under Obama, ICE agents were usually instructed to arrest only the individuals targeted by an investigation–those for whom they already had an arrest warrant. But under Trump, any suspected undocumented people encountered in the field during operations are fair game for removal, including the victims of trafficking.
Finally, Trump’s Executive Order (EO) on Sanctuary Cities, which threatens to cut off federal funds to cities that limit cooperation with federal law enforcement on immigration, is a grave threat to victims who might otherwise seek help from state and local enforcement. ATEST’s statement in response to Trump’s EO makes this clear:
Local enforcement of immigration law, as mandated under the executive order for “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” will irreparably damage law enforcement’s ability to identify, investigate and prosecute traffickers. Both executive orders will result in an imbalanced approach that is likely to exacerbate immigrants’ vulnerabilities and assist traffickers preying on these communities.
“Victim Visas” Don’t Solve the Problem
In theory, special immigration enforcement waivers should protect trafficking victims and other crime victims from the threat of deportation (and the abuse facilitated by that threat). DHS’s campaign to fight human trafficking, which pre-dates Trump, highlights the three forms immigration relief that are technically available to trafficking victims. In reality, this temporary relief depends on the discretion of the law enforcement system, which is extremely hostile to and suspicious of immigrants, and that systematically fails to provide the legal representation and due process that is essential to accessing this relief.
The T-visa program, which is designated specifically for human trafficking victims, has done little to protect the vast majority of trafficking victims. According to a 2013 report by Cronkite News (Arizona PBS), of the 50,000 T-visas that have been technically available over the prior 10 years, the government issued only 6,206. Compare that to the State Department’s 2004 estimate that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every single year— and that doesn’t even include the countless others who are victimized after they arrive.
To qualify for a T-visa, applicants must provide proof of the crime as well as certification from a law enforcement agency that they are cooperating in the investigation and prosecution of the case, and as ICE itself recognizes, cooperation can be terrifying. Here is part of a victim’s testimony, included in an ICE news release:
“It was really terrifying. I never thought I’d see him again,” G said. “It was the worst thing someone could have to go through. To have to live that pain again was a struggle.”
Nevertheless, unless the victim is under the age of 18 or is deemed “unable to cooperate due to physical or psychological trauma,” DHS requires them to cooperate in trafficking prosecutions as a condition of receiving the visa. Furthermore, victims are required show that they would suffer “extreme hardship” involving “unusual and severe harm” by being deported. With requirements like these, it’s no wonder that so many victims decline to turn to law enforcement.
The other forms of relief, “continuing presence” relief and U-visas, suffer from similar issues. “Continuing presence” relief (provided by DHS) is temporary, granted only for the length of the investigation/prosecution, and can be revoked at any time. U-visas, which are technically available for victims of a wide array of crimes (including trafficking) also require cooperation from the victim, and proof of “substantial physical or mental abuse.” In practice, victims have to deal with the presumption by law enforcement officials that they are simply seeking a “free pass” to stay in the U.S.
Once again, the numbers suggest a massive disparity between the number of people that may deserve relief and the number of people who actually get it. For example, the NYPD said its Domestic Violence Unit certified only 152 U visas in 2015 out of 580 applications. At the federal level, there is also a huge backlog. The federal government limits U visas to 10,000 a year, and in September 2015, there were nearly 64,000 applications pending.
In sum, the temporary and uncertain nature of immigration relief–and the risky and sometimes degrading process that is required to get it–leaves trafficking victims feeling extremely reluctant to report abuses to law enforcement.
The Refugee Ban Exposes Vulnerable People to Trafficking Overseas
Trump’s aggressive immigration policy doesn’t just expose people to trafficking in the U.S., it facilitates the trafficking of the world’s most vulnerable people: refugees. In her testimony before the Senate, Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of the nonprofit Human Rights First explained how Trump’s refugee ban hurts the very people who are “most vulnerable to slavery”
“Traffickers are opportunistic and ruthless. They are drawn like sharks to those in distress, and it’s hard to imagine people in more distress today than the refugees,” she said. “In fact … nobody benefits more from the refugee crisis than those in the business of modern slavery.”
Other attempts to curb legal immigration, including Trump’s travel ban, may have dire consequences for those unable to emigrate from places (see this map showing the prevalence of trafficking around the world) where the risk of falling victim to trafficking is extremely high, like Somalia and Sudan, both of which are on the administration’s list of temporarily banned countries.
Threats to USAID, State Department, and International Institutions Hurt Anti-Trafficking Efforts
The Trump administration’s hostility to international human rights –including the potential defunding of and disengagement from international human rights institutions, and the funding and staffing threats to the State Department– pose major threats to the global anti-trafficking movement.
The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children –ratified by the United States– recognizes that we cannot fight human trafficking without international cooperation. And as recently as 2013, there a was broad consensus in the UN General Assembly that greater international cooperation was needed to combat the threat.
The Trump administration’s draft plans to defund international organizations could create a major impediment to that coordination. Anti-trafficking efforts are deeply integrated into the work of dozens of UN agencies and other international organizations that depend on the U.S. for funding and political support.
Additionally, the Trump administration’s disuse of the State Department–through budget cuts and lack of senior appointments– may create significant barriers to international and domestic anti-trafficking efforts. In addition to leading our international diplomacy on trafficking, the State Department “supports the coordination of anti-trafficking efforts across the U.S. government.” The Secretary of State actually chairs The President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF), which coordinates the anti-trafficking efforts of 15 departments and agencies across the federal government.
While it is possible that similar to counterterrorism programs, anti-trafficking initiatives-will get special treatment under Trump, it’s hard to see how drastic budget cuts and staffing deficiencies won’t have ramifications for policy initiatives across the board–including human trafficking efforts. The same goes for cuts to USAID, which has spent over $200 million to counter human trafficking globally since 2001.
The upshot: unless Trump reverses course on immigration enforcement, the refugee ban, and disengagement from international institutions–the Trump administration will be remembered more for facilitating human trafficking than fighting it.