Even as President Donald Trump has used racist language to smear four women of color in the House of Representatives – telling them to “go back” to their home countries – he occasionally claims that he is a champion of women. However, Trump is no feminist. When it comes to policy, he views women as mere tools that can be used in clumsy attempts to burnish his credibility and obscure abhorrent policies that are, in fact, built on gendered and racist tropes – to roll back protections for refugees and immigrants.
Take, for instance, Trump’s attempts to establish himself as a crusader against human trafficking– one who is especially determined to address sex trafficking. On multiple occasions, Trump has lamented to reporters that traffickers are viciously exploiting migrant women at the U.S.-Mexico border. His favorite anecdote involves women and duct tape. “Women are tied up, they’re bound, duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths,” he remarked at a January press conference. Though Trump has trotted out multiple versions of this story – in some cases with eerily specific and salacious details – experts caution that it is “divorced from reality.”
But Trump is not seeking to convey facts. Instead, he is selectively tapping into concerns about women’s rights to build support for his wall. In doing so, he has tethered human trafficking, one of the few remaining bipartisan issues, to the administration’s most polarizing policy. This strategy risks fueling misconceptions about human trafficking and hindering efforts to eradicate it.
Human Trafficking and Security
In 2016 alone, the United Nations detected 25,000 victims of trafficking, though this number obscures many hidden cases. In addition to robbing millions of people of their freedom and dignity, trafficking is also a security challenge. It is one of the world’s most lucrative criminal enterprises. Every year, it generates billions of dollars and bankrolls transnational criminal organizations and violent extremist groups.
The Northern Triangle: A Deadly Intersection
Trump often speaks of the violence migrant women face on their journeys north—leveraging their pain to bolster support for a border wall. Paradoxically, Trump’s aim in telling these stories is not to provoke empathy for them, but to drive home the message that these women should have never left home in the first place. Trump rarely addresses the violence that pushes many of these women to flee. In a recent UN report, 85 percent of the 160 Central American women interviewed lived in neighborhoods controlled by armed groups. Many reported barricading themselves and their children in their homes— choosing to stay home from school and work in order to avoid gunfights.
But numerous women face violence in the home as well as on the streets. And sexual assault and domestic violence complaints are handled with indifference by authorities. In 2017, Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office received nearly 57,500 cases of violence against women, of which only 6 percent culminated in a prison sentence for the aggressor. With no safety or protection to be found in their home countries, women flee. Yet, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended domestic violence as grounds for asylum, sending a clear signal that these women were not welcomed at the U.S. border. Fortunately, a federal judge has enjoined this policy, ordering the government to reverse the Sessions-era rule change.
Even the journey to safety is dangerous, and the Trump administration’s restrictive and punitive immigration policies have made it even riskier. The crackdown at the border has forced migrants to turn to smugglers and made smuggling routes more dangerous and costly. This provides traffickers with greater opportunities to extort and coerce migrants. Traffickers use false promises of jobs to lure migrants into taking risky journeys. And migrants who pay exorbitant fees to smugglers risk being forced into prostitution or exploitative labor to pay the fees back. Trump’s policies also provide criminal syndicates with an opportunity to expand their operations. Smugglers occasionally sell victims to criminal groups, who prostitute them, force them to smuggle drugs, or hold them for ransom. This has helped Mexican drug traffickers generate revenue and diversify their criminal activities.
The Way Forward
In reality, a wall, whether physical or bureaucratic, is not the answer to human trafficking. However, if Trump is truly committed to addressing trafficking in persons, he has the position and resources to do so.
First, to build bipartisan momentum for anti-trafficking efforts, Trump should detach them from his administration’s polarizing immigration agenda. Second, Trump should strengthen relationships with key international partners and work with them to combat trafficking. Instead of cutting foreign assistance to Northern Triangle countries, his administration should double-down on efforts to address the corruption, violence, and poverty that fuel migration and increase people’s vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation. Trump should also strengthen U.S.-Mexico relations and encourage cross-border cooperation to dismantle trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable. Finally, to ensure that survivors receive the support they need, Trump should rescind policies that intimidate victims of trafficking with the threat of deportation and restore domestic violence as grounds for asylum.
Eradicating human trafficking requires thoughtful policies, committed international partners, and steadfast resolve. Though the fight to end trafficking will be long and difficult, it will also be worth the effort.