In February, President Trump signed the Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Prevent International Trafficking executive order. This order called on the executive branch to focus on trafficking, enforcing laws to thwart trafficking and ensuring that sufficient resources are provided to fight this crime, while maximizing information sharing between federal agencies and foreign counterparts to fight criminal organizations that perpetuate trafficking.
In an interview following the executive order, Trump argued that more stringent immigration policy would help mitigate the problem of human trafficking. While we applaud the administration for trying to tackle the global problem of modern slavery, in reality, these policies would have a negative effect on trafficking victims in the United States.
For example, aggressive immigration enforcement could further hurt victims of trafficking by instilling fear that leaving their traffickers would guarantee deportation. Many traffickers threaten victims with deportation to their home countries if they escape, especially in the case of undocumented victims, who may have been told that they were receiving legal status when they accepted the job. This is also a problem even among those who do have legal status but have had their papers taken by their traffickers.
Aggressive immigration crackdowns signal to victims that a fear of deportation is credible, putting abusers in a position of power as the only safeguard against it. Fearing authorities, these policies could lead victims to believe that they are only safe with their abusers, forcing them to choose abuse over freedom.
Many trafficking victims turn to service providers, who act as liaisons between victims and law enforcement working to bring cases against traffickers. However, fearing possible immigration repercussions for victims could lead service providers to discourage their clients from contacting law enforcement and testifying against traffickers, adding significant new hurdles to our ability to increase trafficking prosecutions.
Across the board, service providers are seeing the fear of immigration repercussions and deportation keeping victims of crimes from contacting law enforcement or seeking safety. Victims look to service providers for guidance in bringing cases against their traffickers, and if service providers see cooperation between law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as detrimental and dangerous for clients, it is likely that these policies could render federal cases as next to impossible to prosecute.
This approach to immigration could push trafficking victims further into the shadows of society. Trafficking cases are often difficult to identify, relying on victim testimony or on law enforcement to encounter these crimes directly. Victims and service providers who are wary of the authorities are less likely to comply with investigations, leaving instances of forced labor and sexual exploitation less likely to be identified, investigated, and prosecuted. For this reason, Trump’s immigration policies could not only make identifying victims and seeking justice more challenging, but could impact our society’s ability to offer them comprehensive rehabilitation.
Instead of pushing victims further underground and allowing traffickers to continue operating with near impunity, we must institute policies that provide trafficking victims with the resources and support they need to escape their abusers. If the U.S. government is serious about increasing prosecutions and eradicating human trafficking, both domestically and across the globe, it should avoid immigration practices that signal to victims that they should be fearful of law enforcement. This decreases the already limited chance that traffickers will be brought to justice and victims gain their freedom.
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