Trump’s Strict Immigration Laws Exacerbate Human Trafficking in the US

Several virtual summits in California, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana over the past several weeks and an upcoming summit in New Jersey addressing human trafficking (also referred to as trafficking in persons or modern slavery) suggest a widespread awareness of the crisis in this country.

Yet, a Summit on Human Trafficking hosted at the White House earlier this year, before COVID-19 was a concern, demonstrated what critics called a push that was “undermining” efforts and using the opportunity as a “photo op.” Notably absent from this meeting were several prominent leaders in the anti-trafficking space.

Indeed, trends do suggest an overwhelming aspect of human trafficking that have been worsened by Trump administration policies, particularly for those vulnerable to trafficking due to their immigration status. It is clear that the administration’s dedication to ending human trafficking is lacking in important ways.

Human trafficking most likely ensnares approximately 40 million people worldwide, which translates to about five people trafficked for every 1,000 people. Within the United States, about 403,000 individuals were trafficked in 2016. Over 50,000 of these individuals are foreign-born, with known survivors frequently from Mexico and the Philippines.

Importantly, these estimates are only the best guess of what trafficking in the United States looks like, as enumerating trafficking is difficult due to the hidden nature of the crime. Migration clearly plays an important role in understanding human trafficking. As a result, immigration policies can increase the risk factors that make one susceptible to being trafficked.

Immigrants may be trafficked whether they have work visas or no visas. In some cases, individuals are recruited abroad for the purposes of trafficking, but even migrants within the protection of the U.S. government have found themselves trafficked. For instance, the 2018 documentary, Trafficked in America, showed unaccompanied minors who were placed into state care, and subsequently trafficked on a chicken farm in Ohio.

Additionally, a visa tied to an employer can allow for increased vulnerability of trafficked individuals. Temporary work visas — H2A and H2B visas, which provide visas to workers in agriculture, construction and restaurants (among other industries) — are directly tied to the approval of that employer. Known abuses in the H2A and H2B programs have previously led to trafficking of migrants within the United States. A Polaris report identified 797 cases of foreign nationals who held temporary visas and were subsequently trafficked from 2015-2017.

These programs allow employers to have control on their employee’s migration status which creates potential for abuse. Fraud can play a role in these trafficking cases; for example, if recruiters or employers advertise fair wages yet pay only a portion of the promised legal wages. Coercion that includes threats to family members or threats about immigration status also plays a role in these trafficking scenarios. For workers who may already be isolated due to language barriers and are less likely to be familiar with U.S. labor laws, these abuses can be less visible.

Finally, immigration policies are a key component in access to migrants who are currently trafficked or have been trafficked. The three-fold goals of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), last amended in 2008, are to provide means for prosecution, protection and prevention. The strong anti-immigrant narratives put forth by the Trump administration are counter to these goals. Prosecution necessarily requires trafficked individuals to work with law enforcement, something that migrants concerned over their status may be afraid to do.

More importantly, a key provision of the TVPA was to create a special type of visa, the T-visa, for foreign nationals who have been trafficked. Under President Barack Obama, nearly 73 percent of applicants were given visas from 2009-2016.

In contrast, under President Donald Trump, only 50 percent of applicants have received visas in 2017 and 2018. While the number of applications has increased, the number of pending applications has more than doubled. Wait times and the difficulty in attaining appropriate certifications for visas has increased, making the T-visa provision in the TVPA minimally helpful.

The Trump administration has indeed acted on issues concerning trafficking victims, but not with a full view of what trafficking is. For individuals who are vulnerable to trafficking because of their immigration status, change on a range of policy issues could shift policy in ways that help trafficked individuals.

These changes run counter to the Trump administration’s record, however. Policy needs to shift the temporary visa process to create greater clarity and oversight in the recruitment process and remove control over visa status from employers. Barriers to accessing T-visas need to be minimized, including decreasing fees and wait times and increasing access to certifications. Rhetoric, policy and practice around immigration generally should foster an environment wherein migrants suffering any type of abuse are not afraid to access protection.

Immigration policies that promote unsafe environments for migrants do not help human trafficking. A public that understands human trafficking and its ties to immigration may lead to better policy on both issues, particularly if that knowledge translated into pressure on policy makers. In my research conducted with Cecilia Mo on public opinion of human trafficking, we discovered fully disseminating how traffickers leverage different types of vulnerabilities can actually increase support from the public on anti-trafficking efforts.

We also find that increased knowledge around human trafficking maintains high public support against anti-trafficking measures. Voters should be fully informed on human trafficking and hold their elected officials accountable for immigration and trafficking policy — particularly when officials encourage policy that makes trafficking more likely.

While the current administration inherited a number of these problems, if the goal is truly to combat human trafficking, it is necessary work to revise migration policies that increase vulnerability to human trafficking. Whoever wins in November, an administration that wants to combat human trafficking needs more than occasional summits; it must create a safer environment for migrants.