- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
Kavitha Sreeharsha, Executive Director of the Global Freedom Center,
This week we contemplate awareness about human trafficking, which exploits the dignity of people vulnerable because of factors including poverty, gender inequity, and political instability. But often left out of that discourse is the vulnerability of those without lawful immigration status, living in the shadows, and unable to assert their rights. Recently, a National Institute for Justice (NIJ) funded study found that nearly one-third of undocumented immigrants in San Diego County had experienced human trafficking. It comes as no surprise that undocumented people in the U.S. are exposed to a high level of exploitation, facing threats of deportation and knowing that asserting their rights civilly or through the criminal justice system could lead to their deportation. But knowing that one-third of the undocumented people have been trafficked only reinforces a troubling reality – that undocumented trafficked people are overlooked and unable to access the protections available to them under federal laws.
Trafficking, or modern slavery, is the practice of compelling someone’s service. The State Department estimates that nearly 27 million people are enslaved globally. According to the International Labor Organization, 68% of those enslaved are forced labor exploitation, 10% are in state-imposed forced labor, and 22% are forced sexual exploitation. And as this new study confirms, people are enslaved in a range of industries, including janitorial work, agriculture, construction, and domestic work. Using the Public Policy Center of California’s data on undocumented immigrants and resulting from extensive local interviews of undocumented workers, the study estimates that there are 38,458 undocumented victims of human trafficking in San Diego County.
Where the study leaves off, questions begin as we consider if and how undocumented trafficked people are protected. Other sources offer a partial explanation. According to the State Department, last year less than 1% of those enslaved were even identified, freed, and accessed protections. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), originally passed in 2000, created a T-visa available to trafficking victims who meet certain eligibility criteria. Congress created the T-visa to shield trafficking victims from deportation, taking a victim-centered approach to addressing human trafficking. Since the T-visa was implemented, however, Congressional Research Service reports that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has granted just over 3,000 visas to trafficking victims in total over the past ten fiscal years, coming no where close to available 5,000 visas per year authorized by Congress and well under the number of trafficked people in the U.S. who would be eligible for such visas.
To understand why undocumented trafficked people don’t access T-visas, some clues exist. First and foremost, trafficked people do not typically self-identify. They are not familiar with the term human trafficking. They don’t understand that they have rights and protections. How could they? Trafficked people are typically manipulated by traffickers who are recruiters, false document procurers, transporters, employers, and others who facilitate the compelled service. Traffickers commonly employ threats of deportation and calls to law enforcement. They make their victims feel like the victims have done something wrong.
If trafficked persons don’t self-identify, the only way to bridge the gap is for institutions interacting with immigrants to institute screening and referral policies. But in order to screen, these identifiers must better understand what trafficking or slavery looks like, overcoming the misconceptions that dominate the discourse. Many in the U.S. equate human trafficking with sex trafficking, overlooking those who have been enslaved in labor, many of whom are immigrants. Alicia Peters properly notes that labor trafficking victims are “made invisible by the cultural myth that trafficking equals sex trafficking.”
Others working with immigrant communities believe that the T-visa cooperation requirement will expose undocumented victims to law enforcement, subjecting them to immigration detention and removal from the U.S. Another NIJ study reinforces this notion, noting that local law enforcement do not pursue labor trafficking cases and prefer to leave these cases to federal immigration authorities. According to one prosecutor in the study, “[s]ometimes it makes more sense to just deport them and get them on their way.”
Immigrant rights advocates are appropriately weary of the police perspectives on immigration enforcement noted in the study. Nevertheless, local anti-trafficking experts have trained and identified designated law enforcement to anticipate the chilling effect of immigration enforcement on trafficking victims. Together, local experts and law enforcement in many regions have established practices to identify and protect trafficking victims without subjecting them to immigration enforcement measures.
With such high rates of trafficking experienced by undocumented immigrants, screening must also take place inside the immigration enforcement system, in local jails and in immigration detention facilities. Screening for human trafficking will in many cases offer detained immigrants in removal proceedings a critical avenue to remain lawfully in the U.S. Law enforcement, federal detention authorities, defense attorneys, and attorneys conducting know-your-rights presentations and representing detained clients could offer so many more trafficked people the protections Congress intended for them.
Human trafficking lies at one end of a continuum of exploitation. The precarious immigration status of undocumented workers allows employers to take advantage of workers not seeking law enforcement and civil protection of their rights. In fact, the study of San Diego County found that over half of the migrant workers have experienced abusive labor practices. A comprehensive approach to human trafficking must evaluate and mitigate vulnerabilities to human trafficking including lack of lawful immigration status. Increased T-visa screening therefore should operate in concert with immigrant rights efforts, including expanding paths to immigration status, but also increasing individual access to immigration relief already available under the law.
Human trafficking awareness cannot be oversimplified. Overlooking immigrants, men, and labor trafficking victims in the anti-trafficking discourse marginalizes those populations from seeking the protections Congress intended for them. Beyond creating comprehensive awareness ensuring that undocumented people understand their rights, advocates and law enforcement working in and with immigrant communities must take other concrete action. And while accessing T-visa protections will not protect every immigrant vulnerable to exploitation, the T-visa remains available but underutilized.
Kavitha Sreeharsha is the Executive Director of the Global Freedom Center. The Global Freedom Center offers training to a range of professionals including those working with immigrants and in the criminal justice sector. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a training.