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U.S. immigration crackdown undermines fight to end human trafficking - expert

by Ellen Wulfhorst | @EJWulfhorst | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 25 April 2017 04:01 GMT

A U.S. border patrol agent keeps watch along the fence next to the Mexican border in Calexico, California, U.S. February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files

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"We just simply cannot have policies of deportation or a deportation regime and fight trafficking at the same time. One policy undoes the other"

By Ellen Wulfhorst

WASHINGTON, April 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tougher anti-immigration policies in the United States under President Donald Trump make fighting human trafficking impossible, a top expert warned on Tuesday, describing the lack of political will to help victims as a "dirty little secret".

Fear of being deported stops people in the United States from speaking up about their own or other trafficking cases, said Denise Brennan, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University in Washington D.C..

"The biggest deterrent for people blowing the whistle on either their own situation of abuse or maybe co-workers is the fear of people getting deported," Brennan, author of "Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States," told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We just simply cannot have policies of deportation or a deportation regime and fight trafficking at the same time. One policy undoes the other."

During his 2016 presidential campaign Trump vowed to fight illegal immigration and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Since becoming president, he has issued a temporary visa ban against seven Muslim-majority countries that was later blocked by federal courts, suspended a refugee program and initiated tougher deportation procedures.

"The criminalization of immigration makes it impossible to actually fight trafficking," said Brennan, a speaker on Tuesday at Trust Conference/America Forum, a one-day Thomson Reuters Foundation event on the fight against slavery and trafficking.

"You cannot work on the exploitation of migrants while we are criminalizing migrants."


Up to 12 million people are estimated to be living illegally without documents in the United States.

While there are no official law enforement statistics, in the United States nearly 32,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the last decade.

Globally, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor, made to work for free after falling into debt or forced to work due to deception, coercion or threat of violence, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Brennan said there is little genuine political effort made to find and aid labor trafficking victims.

"The dirty little secret about trafficking in this environment of 2.5 million deportations under President Obama and now President Trump's obvious anti-migrant stance is there has not been a political will to really find people," she said.

Under a law passed in 2000, 5,000 visas are available each year to trafficking victims, Brennan said.

But only between 7,000 to 9,000 such visas have been issued in the past 17 years when the number could have been 85,000, she said.

"I just don't think we've been looking for trafficked people," said Brennan, who is currently writing a book, "Life without Papers," about how undocumented people navigate threats of detention and deportation. She said the fear of deportation extended further than those without legal papers.

Last week Trump ordered a review of a U.S. visa program for bringing high-skilled foreign workers into the country with a view to potentially modifying the system.

"Under President Trump, we have so many people who have various forms of temporary protective status," she said. "If we start deporting people with green cards, we're looking at millions of people who don't have full U.S. citizenship."

(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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