Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent release of his department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, aimed at holding countries accountable for ending this barbaric practice, unfolded in the shadows of an entirely contradictory administration policy: “zero tolerance” on illegal immigration.
The annual report provides a comprehensive account of the prevalence of human trafficking worldwide, the risk factors, and possible strategies to address the scourge. Human trafficking, also known as modern-day slavery, is a brutal and nearly unimaginable practice that takes place in every country around the world. Individuals — often women and children — are induced or coerced into forced labor or sexual servitude. It affects every demographic and geographic community: areas with high rates of poverty, social instability, and conflict where people easily can be displaced or exploited, as well as more unlikely places, like United States suburbs, where trafficking victims can be kept in captivity, unbeknownst to neighbors. The result is a trail of physical and psychological trauma.
Trump administration officials, other than the president, often seem to say the right words when it comes to human rights issues.
“Combating human trafficking is not merely a moral issue or one that affects the interests of the American people; it is also an issue that threatens international peace and security,” Pompeo declares in the opening statement of the 2018 report. In the press briefing for the report’s release, he said, “The world should know that we will not stop until human trafficking is a thing of the past.”
But human trafficking is a complex problem that subsists on and is perpetuated by cultures and policies of xenophobia and discrimination like those that form the foundation of Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. It is logically irreconcilable to claim a position opposing the brutality of modern-day slavery while simultaneously pursuing an anti-immigration policy that perpetuates it.
The Trump administration’s draconian “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration imposed in April charged more asylum-seekers with illegal entry, severely reduced the number of migrants who could enter the country, and forced the separation of some 2,300 children from their parents. The administration backed off, though only to a certain extent, after a public outcry over the family separations. But the long-term and more hidden effects of this disastrous policy should cause just as much outrage.
Many of the migrants fleeing to the U.S. border for protection are women who face physical and psychological abuse at home in countries where the authorities are either unable or unwilling to help them. Others are fleeing the physical and sexual violence of gangs like MS-13 in their native countries.
The vulnerability of these migrants embolden traffickers eager to manipulate them with false promises. And the thousands of children who have been torn from their parents and kept in tent cities or detention centers are at risk, too. As the administration’s own Trafficking in Persons Report states, “Children in institutional care, including government-run facilities, can be easy targets for traffickers … Children are more at risk of human trafficking in ill-managed facilities that allow traffickers to operate in or around the facility with impunity.”
These concrete contradictions between the Trump administration’s statements and actions mask an even deeper and more culturally-embedded inconsistency. Human trafficking, like so many other rights abuses, is built on the manipulation of fear and on systemic menaces like poverty, racism, discrimination and bigotry. Traffickers perceive the distress that permeates a community of people who are unwelcome, maligned as something less than human, and denied the basic humanity afforded to others. Traffickers find easy prey when a culture of bias and discrimination prevents people from seeking the safety they deserve because they distrust those who ought to protect them.
Trump propagates this view through his persistent anti-immigration agenda. In carrying out that agenda, his administration violates the very human rights it claims to want to protect.
The United States can maintain its national security, implement meaningful immigration reform, and protect human rights at the same time; in fact, many policymakers on both sides of the aisle have argued for just that. As Congress continues to debate a plan for immigration reform, those who ally themselves with Trump’s xenophobic stance not only contradict themselves but also make themselves ideologically indistinguishable from Trump, perhaps deliberately. Rather than eradicating rights abuses like human trafficking, they may very well perpetuate it.