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By Suzanne B. Seltzer,
Today is Human Rights Day, a day to recognize the basic right to dignity and opportunity all of us share. It’s also a chance to think about the best ways to protect our rights, in a way that respects people as individuals and moves us forward together. I work on one of the most important human rights issues in our times—human trafficking—and on Human Rights Day, I want to encourage everyone to support policies that help those currently in trafficked situations and survivors of trafficking.
There is a lot of interest in human trafficking these days, but unfortunately, the policies being implemented against human trafficking are often misguided. Many of these tend to sensationalize some aspects of trafficking, while ignoring others that are just as egregious. Perhaps most disturbingly, they do so to the detriment of many of those who are trafficked.
One example is California’s recently passed Proposition 35. California’s Official Voter Information Guide touted Proposition 35 as a means to – “STOP HUMAN TRAFFICKING.” (As if the opponents – or anyone, for that matter – would be for promoting human trafficking.) If that’s not eye-catching enough, it continues by discussing the “vulnerable women and children held against their will and forced into prostitution for the financial gain of human traffickers. Many victims are girls as young as 12….right here on California’s streets…young girls are bought and sold.” Who would want to vote against something aimed at stopping that? Clearly no one, as Proposition 35 passed by a whopping 81%. A victory against human trafficking, right? Wrong!
Proposition 35 is yet another example of policies focused on ending sex work; legislation that spends an awful lot of time on prostitution and penalties for patronizing and promoting prostitution, but almost nothing on trafficking and the people who are trafficked. For example, Proposition 35 increases prison terms for traffickers, requires traffickers to register as sex offenders, and increases disclosure requirements on internet activities. The thinking behind this type of legislation seems to be that if we end “demand” for sex work, we will end demand for the services of trafficked people. The problem is that not all sex workers are trafficked and not all trafficked people are sex workers, so somewhere we’ve gotten off track. This is not to get into a debate about the legitimacy of sex work, but to refocus attention on the issue at hand; namely, human trafficking.
Human trafficking includes many types of labor in an extremely broad range of industries. While this does include commercial sex work, it also includes work in restaurants, factories, domestic workers in private homes, hotels, farms, meatpacking, and so on and so forth. I represent survivors of trafficking who have immigration – and criminal justice – related concerns, and have worked with people who were trafficked into a variety of situations. For example, one recent case I worked on involved a line cook at a state fair, another involved a maid for a number of hotels, a third involved nanny, and finally, a sex worker. Each of these individuals performed very different jobs, but it was not the nature of the work that made these situations trafficking. Rather, it was the fact that they each were compelled to work under conditions of duress, and that they lived in a climate of fear where they had little or no access to help.
What ultimately helped these individuals to escape their trafficking situation was not a policy focused on ending ‘demand’ for sex work or increased penalties for prostitution or sex offender registries. In fact, such legislation would not even be relevant to the majority of the clients I noted above. Moreover, it would have actually have hurt the one client it was meant to help – the one who was forced into prostitution – as she escaped with the help of a man who worked at the brothel. It was the sense that something was wrong that also led to the escape of my other clients. For example, the conditions of the state fair worker became known to the Department of Labor, who arrested the trafficker and found shelter and social services for the workers. The maid in the hotel learned about the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline (1-888-3737-888). She was also told by a co-worker that how she was being treated was not lawful in the United States and that she had rights. The nanny met someone at church who told her about an organization that could help her, and pretending to need to buy tampons, she was able to get away with their assistance. So in no case was it the fear of penalties that forestalled trafficking; it was public awareness about human trafficking and what it actually looks like, and programs that assist trafficked persons that ultimately freed people from trafficking.
California’s Proposition 35 refers to ‘human trafficking’, but it describes the problem as one of sexual exploitation and the solution as strengthening the sex offender registry. Sexual exploitation, particularly of children, is monstrous, but it may not always fall within the rubric of trafficking and certainly does not address the full scope of the problem that is human trafficking. It is a gross disservice to both the sexually exploited and trafficked people to pretend otherwise.
There are manifold challenges to addressing the real problems of human trafficking: among them understanding the factors that drive people into trafficking situations; how to identify someone in a trafficked situation; our own interest in cheap goods and services; knowing what to do if you think someone is in a trafficked situation; resources to assist and support survivors of trafficking; and how exactly can we prevent human trafficking? The first and foremost step has to be an accurate definition of what human is – not ‘sex’ trafficking or ‘labor’ trafficking, but human trafficking.
Suzanne B. Seltzer is a partner of Klasko, Rulon, Stock & Seltzer LLP, in charge of the New York office. Suzanne chairs the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s (AILA) Service Center Operations Liaison Committee, and recently completed her tenure as Chair of AILA’s USCIS Benefits & Policy Liaison Committee. Suzanne is a founding member of the NY Anti-Trafficking Network and currently sits on its Steering Committee. She was a primary author and editor of “Immigration Relief for Crime Victims: The U Visa Manual” (March 2010), and all three editions of “Identification and Legal Advocacy for Trafficking Victims” (3rd Ed, January 2009).Suzanne is included in Best Lawyers in America (2007 – 2012), Chambers USA (2011 – 2012), New York Super Lawyers (2007 – 2012), and New York Magazine’s Best Lawyer’s in New York (2008 – 2012). A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Suzanne received her law degree from Georgetown University’s Law Center (cum laude).