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Policies that push migrants to live and work in the shadows make them perfect prey for abusive employers
The alarming rise of anti-immigrant policies around the world make trafficking possible. We cannot fight trafficking while criminalizing immigration. Policies that push migrants to live and work in the shadows make them perfect prey for abusive employers.
As an anthropologist, I have traveled throughout the United States over the past decade speaking with undocumented people, researching two books. Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States follows the first trafficking survivors to receive trafficking visas and resettle in the U.S. I am currently writing Life without Papers, which examines how undocumented people navigate the constant threat of detection, detention, and deportation. The hundreds of undocumented migrants I have met over the years all experienced some degree of exploitation at some point in their working lives.
Trafficking is an extreme version of exploitation. The legal definition of trafficking is laboring under "force, fraud, or coercion." Whether in fields, factories, or homes, migrant workers regularly encounter labor abuses such as wage theft, fees for equipment and rides, denial of bathroom breaks or water, exposure to pesticides, and sexual assault. Employers and recruiters often threaten deportation if workers complain. This intimidation silences workers and allows employers to get away with violations of U.S. labor law.
Abusive employers don't have to raise a hand, brandish a gun, or lock a door to keep workers from reporting them. Threats of deportation are just as powerful as locking someone behind closed doors.
The story of "Elsa" is typical. For about a year and a half, she lived in an unlocked apartment in a high-rise building in suburban Washington D.C. Her employer-turned-trafficker had taken her passport and continually warned her that if she went out without any form of ID she would get arrested. She was so isolated, she turned to her family in her native Africa to help her escape. Her sister put her in touch with a friend on the West Coast, who then put her in touch with a local radio personality in D.C. Together, the three hatched an escape plan for Elsa.
One day, Elsa packed a small garbage bag of her belongings, and put on her white uniform, as she always did, but, this time, over street clothes. She took out the garbage, as usual. But instead of throwing out the garbage, she took off her uniform and walked out of the building in her street clothes, carrying the trash bag of her only possessions. She soon spotted the car of her sister's friend's friend. He took her to his mother's home and contacted a local domestic worker rights organization. "It was so warm," she recalled. "His mother fed me and made me feel at home. It began to sink in that I was free."
President Trump's promise to create a “deportation force” and to build a “big, beautiful wall” will keep individuals like Elsa in situations of forced labor. She felt safer reaching out for help to Africa than to local law enforcement. She felt safer getting into a car with a stranger than into a police car.
Just weeks ago, Ivanka Trump hosted an anti-trafficking meeting at the White House. "Not a single trafficking survivor was invited," explained a leader in the survivor community at an Easter picnic in a Los Angeles park. Pointing to the dozen members of a survivor caucus hiding plastic Easter eggs for their children, she assured me, "We survivors know why people stay in their situation of trafficking and how to support them after they leave." The Trump Administration should reach out to trafficking survivors, the true experts on trafficking. Working with migrant communities - not criminalizing them – is essential to preventing trafficking, and finding and assisting trafficking survivors.
The Administration's enforcement-first approach silences exploited workers and unravels efforts to fight trafficking. Abusive employers will exploit with impunity and trafficking will skyrocket under President Trump. We cannot fight trafficking when 11 million individuals live and work in the shadows. We need policies that offer protections - not handcuffs.
Denise Brennan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University and author of Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States.
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