Wanted: Abolitionists to Work for Immigration Reform


by Maryada Vallet

1htJanuary was declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month by President Obama, yet, there is significant trafficking prevention work to do. This is a call to those who work to abolish sex trafficking and slavery in this country and around the world to join hands with immigrant rights advocates. We are natural allies, as passing compassionate and humane immigration reform is very important for the prevention of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing and second largest illicit industry in the world (just behind the drug trade and connected to the illegal arms trade). As well-known abolitionist David Batstone explains in Not for Sale, "Go behind the facade of any major town or city in the world today, and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings. You may even find slavery in your own backyard." Some of the root causes of this proliferation of human trafficking in the US can indeed be found in our own backyard, at the Southern border.

Making the trafficking connections with border and immigration policy

In the US-Mexico borderlands, the convergence of smuggling drugs, guns, and people has led to increased human trafficking. While the US commitment to end trafficking has been expounded by several previous presidencies, thanks to a growing movement led by evangelicals, the US border and immigration enforcement policies of past decades have combined as a toxic formula for enhanced human exploitation, this includes:

Unfair economic systems and forced migration: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed between the US, Canada and Mexico in the mid-nineties, dramatically uprooting Mexican farmers) from their livelihoods and prompting US factories to move just south of the border, which for the most part became sweatshops with no labor or environmental protections. At the very same time NAFTA was enacted, US-Mexico border walls were erected around major ports of entry that intentionally funneled migrants through remote and dangerous areas, primarily the desert of southern Arizona. This caused more reliance on organized crime for passage through the desert. (Note: a similar free trade agreement, the CAFTA-DR, was signed in 2004 between the US, Dominican Republic and Central American countries.)

Rapid growth of border security without accountability: There are approximately 21,500 Border Patrol agents today, the majority on the southern border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) doubled its size in just the past decade to become the largest law enforcement agency in the country, but many within the agency say the training is inadequate.The growth occurred without sufficient accountability structures to prevent the corruption of agents and their collusion with criminal networks, to prevent the violent abuse of power, or to provide adequate training of agents to identify victims of trafficking.

Lack of protection for workers: Enforcement-only immigration strategies have provided no way for immigrant workers (i.e. farm, factory, restaurant and domestic workers) to obtain visas, despite the strong demand, or pull factor, for their work in this country. Without legal documents, this workforce is more easily coerced and exploited. "When the dwindling economic fortunes of Mexican (and Central American) men and women lead to desperate attempts to cross the border at any cost, and when punitive policies make it more difficult for them to cross on their own, migrants become more vulnerable to traffickers posing as smugglers," explains Susan Tiano, Professor at the University of New Mexico, "The unintended consequences of restricted immigration policies can frequently go unnoticed, and it could be argued, can contribute to labour trafficking along the US-Mexico border."

Strengthened organized crime with American arms and appetites: The organized crime networks, cartels and gangs have become more active in recent years, with guns flowing south from the US into their hands and the insatiate American appetite for drugs. CBP Deputy Commissioner Aguilar in 2011 said that drug cartels have made human trafficking from south of the border to the United States "absolutely" more violent. But this is also related to US immigration policy, for as border enforcement intensified, the price-per-head to be smuggled and trafficked across the border increased, providing more profits and power to organized crime networks. This power struggle over territory between cartels has taken tens of thousands of lives in Mexico and Central America. Further, immigrants are increasingly forced to become drug mules, coerced to carry drugs across the border, a reality that has been confirmed by Governor Brewer of Arizona. If caught, they are most often charged as drug smugglers instead of victims of crime, and when deported, many fear for their life. Defense attorneys in multiple border states have reported that they are frustrated that the government maintains its longstanding distrust of these duress claims, despite this new reality of the border.

ICE-police collaboration deters calls for help by trafficking victims: Initiatives to enhance collaboration between local police and immigration enforcement (ICE) have deterred victims of crime from seeking help. This includes trafficked victims who do not know who to trust, particularly authorities, and fear deportation. Secure Communities and the 287(g) programs have served to deteriorate that trust of local law enforcement and have actually made communities more "insecure."

Record interior deportations destabilize US families and communities: The Obama Administration has implemented record-setting deportations in past years, many of immigrants who have lived most of their lives in the US and have no serious criminal history. At the border, where many of these deportations occur, we have seen how this exacerbates the desperation to cross back to their families and lives in the US, no matter the risk. This situation has increased the vulnerability of deported immigrants to trafficking at the border, as they may no longer have support, family or homes in Mexico. Further, as many of the deported immigrants have children left behind in the US, there are thousands of youth without parental support, which evidence has shown could put young people more at-risk of child trafficking.

Under these conditions, human trafficking has been able to flourish at the US-Mexico border and across the country. A drastic overhaul of these US border and immigration policies is needed to prevent further death, abuse, and slavery of immigrants.

Human stories of force, fraud and coercion on the border

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, human trafficking is described as subjection to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex, debt bondage or forced labor. The following stories are drawn directly from my work as a humanitarian on the border.

Smugglers became sex-traffickers for young man: Isaac, a teenager, was sitting alone at the bus station in the Mexican border town of Nogales where we were offering basic assistance to immigrants as humanitarian volunteers. A worker at the bus station asked if we would offer him special attention during our visit, as he appeared particularly traumatized; he sat frozen and would not respond. One volunteer gained his trust and he began to whisper a few words. He said that his trafficker was there in the crowd. He was traveling in Mexico with his mother and planning to cross the border when they were separated and raped for the purposes of control and profit. Through a series of careful footsteps, we were able to intervene for Isaac at that time.

This case shows how immigrant women and children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking during their migration to el norte, the north. There is growing trafficking demand for young women and children; the US state department estimates up to 20,000 are trafficked across the US-Mexico border each year.

Profits in human smuggling led to debt bondage: Pedro's story has become all too common in Nogales where we offer humanitarian assistance. He lived in the US for nearly 30 years before his deportation. In order to cross back he promised $1,000 upon arrival to his smuggler. After walking through the desert for days, his group was driven to a drop house in Phoenix where they suddenly became hostages. They were stripped down to their underwear and threatened with physical abuse and rape while ransom calls were made for thousands of dollars more. For Pedro and his group, they were released and deported because the police showed up.

This case shows how human smuggling in the borderlands can quickly turn toward trafficking when ever-increasing profit for a human life is on the table. For smuggled immigrants who cannot pay their debt once they arrive to the US, they may also become trapped in debt bondage, in which they are forced to work in service of the debt.

Forced labor in the US and deported without justice: Oscar came to the US with big dreams of providing for his family in Mexico. He worked low-wage jobs in the mid-west and lived modestly in order to send most of his earnings to his family. One day he was told about the possibility of a much better job at a car wash, but this job turned out to be forced labor. He was beaten, received no payment for his long hours and was trapped in the clutches of a trafficking network. He was transported naked and bound from Kansas to another car wash in Phoenix with other undocumented immigrants. An immigration raid of the business resulted in Oscar's detention and subsequent deportation. I met Oscar after he was dumped in Nogales, Mexico and he told me his story as we sat in a small humanitarian aid tent in view of the border wall. His eyes were glassy, he had bruises on his face and he was fearful of his surroundings. At that point, it would be very difficult for Oscar to obtain a trafficking visa from Mexico or to take legal action against the traffickers.

This is a case that represents the high likelihood for exploitation of a large undocumented workforce and the inadequacy of law enforcement to identify victims of forced labor. Undocumented immigrants in the US comprise about 5% of the total US workforce, and nearly all forced labor cases in the US in past years involved immigrants. According to the 2011 report of the U.S. Department of Justice, two-thirds of confirmed labor-trafficking victims were undocumented immigrants (67%) and 28% immigrants with papers. This case also shows the inadequacy of border and immigration officials to identify and protect trafficking victims because of their main focus on deportation with the same population; this "dual mandate" creates "barriers for undocumented victims of trafficking," according to a recent statement by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Preventing human trafficking begins with you and me…and policy change

Perhaps it is more difficult to address the pervasive presence and growth of human trafficking in our own neighborhoods and cities because it is so closely connected to our everyday lives. The food we eat, the hotel or car wash service we receive, and the local or state policies directed toward immigrants that we endorse all impact the most vulnerable members in our communities. It is an unfortunate reality of the society we live in that the human is made into just another commodity when there is demand for their work or services, yet no protection of their dignity.

The International Justice Mission has recognized the link from forced labor to our forks by advocating for undocumented immigrants in Florida who are exploited for their labor of picking tomatoes. The Not for Sale Campaign has called for Christians to "live differently" from responsible shopping and examining the supply chains in our workplaces to overcoming our misunderstandings of others in order to relate in new ways.

Are you willing to relate in new ways to the undocumented immigrants in your community? Have you also made the connection between the urgent need for immigration reform and the prevention of human trafficking in this country?

This is an exciting moment for abolitionists and immigration advocates to join forces, and we know that when we stand on the side of the most vulnerable we are standing together with Jesus.

Maryada Vallet, originally from Arizona, stays busy as a humanitarian, health professional, catholic worker and activist on the US-Mexico border, and she feels strongly about sharing her experiences in the borderlands. Maryada has recently worked for World Vision International in humanitarian programs and with her alma mater Azusa Pacific University as an adjunct. She is based in Tucson, AZ.

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