Human trafficking, or “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” is unarguably one of the ugliest practices in the modern world. According to statistics released by the International Labour Organization, over 21 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, and human trafficking grosses over $150 billion USD annually, making it also one of the world’s most lucrative and widespread illegal industries. The human suffering endured as a victim of human trafficking is unthinkable; a simple Google search for “human trafficking stories” reveals headlines such as “I carried his name on my body for nine years.”
In February, when President Donald Trump announced his commitment to ending the “epidemic” of human trafficking, many took a sigh of relief, knowing that human trafficking will remain a bipartisan and universal priority in our uncertain political climate. However, it is also critical to analyze how Trump’s policies affect human trafficking. In this article, I will analyze immigration and poverty, two areas that contribute the most to human trafficking in the United States, and what Trump’s actions thus far mean for human trafficking.
Almost all victims of human trafficking become coerced into the system while trying to seek a better life for themselves and their families. While there are plenty of victims of trafficking in the United States who are American, there are obviously many victims of trafficking who are foreign-born. According to a report released by the US State Department, an estimated 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually.
Trump’s immigration legislation, particularly his executive order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” have caused uproar due to their xenophobic and unconstitutional nature. However, they are also incredibly hostile toward human trafficking victims, as reporting abuse could lead to deportation, according to a new report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Institute for Policy Studies. The threat of deportation leaves victims of human trafficking too fearful to seek help. Even if they do seek help, Trump’s legislation now forces victims to either remain in the US in order to prosecute their traffickers without also risking being separated from their families, according to Shani Adess, an attorney at Immigration Law Project of Safe Horizon. In particular, Section 5 of the executive order states that any aliens who have been convicted of a criminal offense, or those who could be convicted of a crime, will be deported. So, if someone who was an immigrant and victim of sex trafficking was arrested for prostitution or possession of drugs, under this law, they can now be deported, even if they were in fact victims of a serious crime. The executive order and the threat of deportation also forces undocumented immigrants to find work underground, which increases the risk of human trafficking and other criminal activity. It also empowers exploitative employers to further mistreat their employees, as if there are any complaints, all the employer needs to do is to threaten deportation.
Also, these immigration laws and the accompanying xenophobic rhetoric will make citizens less likely to be active bystanders in the fight against human trafficking, which halts any kind of serious progress in eliminating trafficking. Xenophobia erases not only compassion, but logic. Take this hypothetical scenario as an example: someone sees someone, who they know is an immigrant, with cuts, bruises, and is severely underweight. This immigrant, unbeknownst to them, is actually a victim of trafficking. Instead of seeing a potential victim of human trafficking, this person assumes the immigrant was involved in a gang, hence the cuts and bruises. Then, they call authorities about how they know an undocumented immigrant is part of a gang. Not only is this factually inaccurate, but the fact that this individual does not consider human trafficking, shows how xenophobia in mainstream political rhetoric changes how we now assume that immigrants are always perpetrators of crime, even when statistics show that this is false. As Professor Annalisa Enrile points out in this Salon article, “If we lose empathy for the humanity of others, that’s how they get sold and bought.” Overall, Trump’s immigration policies have not only failed to help victims of trafficking, but have increased the potential of trafficking increasing.
As stated earlier, the almost all victims of human trafficking become coerced into the system while trying to seek a better life for themselves and their families. The primary motivation for seeking a better life is poverty, as documented in this report. Most Americans understand how those from poorer nations, particularly those from former communist states in Europe, can be trafficked; it works extremely well with our pre-existing perceptions of these countries. However, poverty is also a common reason why Americans can become victims of trafficking, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services.
So, what is Trump doing about poverty? Well, his recent budget proposal includes such massive cuts for poverty programs that many are calling it a “war on the poor.” This does not even include how other funding cuts, such zero funding as the National Endowment for the Arts and extreme budget cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, will impact poverty. The EPA cuts will particularly harm the poor, as the areas that are the most polluted also some of the poorest in the country. Those impoverished communities, under these budget cuts, will then have even fewer resources to pay for costs, and will have to pay for the damages themselves, as this Oxfam article points out. Creating an undesirable community will make people want to leave, and since it is also likely that the polluted community is also poor, they are even more vulnerable to manipulation from traffickers.
The budget also cuts programs to help alleviate poverty for people of color, such as cutting TRIO programs and block community grants. While victims of trafficking come from every ethnic or racial background, people of color are more likely to be victims of trafficking than their Caucasian counterparts. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in both alleged and confirmed cases of human trafficking, victims were more likely to be Hispanic or African-American than Caucasian, since these populations are far more likely to already be living in poverty. So, when social programs aimed at alleviating poverty are cut or receive less funding, it makes these populations have less social mobility, and therefore be at an increased risk for trafficking.
What the budget proposal does give funding to is also worth noting in how it impacts poverty. The budget increases spending on defense, which according to a study done by Errol Anthony Henderson at the University Florida, typically indicates an increase in poverty. There is a small increase in social security in the budget, which is helpful for poor Americans, but it is unlikely that this small increase can offset everything else that is bad for poverty in the budget.
Of course, the failed Republican healthcare plan meant to replace the Affordable Care Act wouldn’t have helped the poor either, as the Congressional Budget Office estimated the healthcare law would leave over fourteen million uninsured by next year. The cuts to Medicaid in the healthcare plan would have hurt the poor the most, as then there wouldn’t be an affordable health care plan than the poor can purchase. These cuts also harm those who are already trafficked as well, as these services can sometimes be the only way that victims can seek the help they need. While this plan was shut down, Republican lawmakers have already been writing new healthcare legislation, which could include similar cuts that hurt current human trafficking victims and the poor.
This kind of life, where food and health care are unaffordable, where the air is too toxic to breathe, where everyone is struggling to survive, and where social mobility is limited, makes it that much easier for traffickers to lure victims, and later, coerce them into slavery. Andrea Bruce describes this phenomenon in an article for Al Jazeera America while interviewing Stefania, a Romanian girl who is staying in her hometown to finish school. While the article addresses trafficking in Romania specifically, the sentiment is still relevant to trafficking in America; Bruce describes Stefania as being “a rarity in this hilly region of Romania, among the poorest in the European Union, simply because she is still there….[Most] teenage girls there — as young as 13 — have long quit school, with many disappearing into the realm of sex trafficking….[Traffickers] have a keen eye for those made vulnerable by their desperation to leave, making the girls ideal victims.”
Overall, Trump’s policies not only hurt efforts to stop human trafficking, but have the potential to increase the number of people to potentially be trafficked, and to create a culture of fear that discourages victims to seek help and to bring justice to their traffickers. Human trafficking is a complex issue, and this is not an exhaustive or complete analysis. Many other factors play into human trafficking, and we have only had a Trump presidency for less than four months, so it is ultimately unclear what Trump’s legacy will be in this area.