To End Human Trafficking in the US, Simplify Immigration




As the House and Senate argue over a pathway to legalization or a pathway to citizenship, one easy-to-overlook aspect of the debate is the impact ease of immigration has on human trafficking. US News and World Report reports that many trafficking victim advocates worry that “stronger enforcement of immigration laws is keeping foreign victims silent.”

It makes sense that fear of deportation may keep some trafficking victims from coming forward. But I also think that a policy where people can more easily legally cross borders will help prevent trafficking by reducing the need for coyotes and other helpers that may coerce or defraud travelers and by offering more options for employment after rescue, in addition to helping victims feel safe coming forward.

One such victim is Ima Matul:

“Tell them that you fell in the backyard and bumped your head on a rock,” Ima Matul  recalls being told as a condition of being taken to the hospital to get stitches. Now, the doctor was saying something she didn’t understand in English, and her employer was answering for her. Ima, an Indonesian national, knew the employer probably wasn’t telling the truth, that it was his wife who had split Ima’s head open that morning during another rage-filled tirade about her cleaning skills. By then, Ima had endured two years of emotional and physical abuse, while working in the family’s home without pay.

While for myriad reasons many people would like to see stronger enforcement of immigration laws, I believe that an easy-to-navigate, open immigration system would prevent more victims like Matul, and encourage the ones here to come forward.

Admit One

If you’re here illegally, you’re in danger of deportation. During Bush’s tenure, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is supposed to protect victims of trafficking from deportation. However, the Obama administration has deported more people since 2009 than the Bush administration did in all eight years. The whole situation is remarkably schizophrenic. Technically, anyone who is aided in their move across borders illegally is a victim of human trafficking.

In this environment, victims are understandably afraid to come forward. Making sure people who are true victims of force or fraud are not treated as criminals is essential to their rescue.

Coyote Ugly

Immigrating into the US legally is an extremely complicated, expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Many people feel it imperative that they emigrate now, or don’t feel confident they could successfully navigate the labyrinth. Those people usually must rely on helpers and guides to make it to the US. But because the guides operate in a black market, there’s little way for the immigrants to know who they can trust, and little recourse against bad actors.

Immigration force or fraud can manifest itself in many ways. Some victims are brought to the US and then held against their will. Some people are enslaved in brothels, others on farms or in factories. Many people, in order to come to the US, enter into varying levels of indentured servitude, sometimes without realizing it. But regardless of the method, it all requires someone to do the defrauding or forcing.

Streamlining our immigration process would decrease the need for guides and bring the market for them into the light.

It’s Good to Have Options

Very little limits your employment options like being legally disallowed from working in the country you’re living in. It would seem to follow that promising not to deport victims and making it legal for them to work a job they obtained voluntarily will motivate people who are being held captive to try to escape.

If we’re serious about ending human trafficking in the US, rescuing a little over 1,000 people as the US government has under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act isn’t going to cut it. Opening up our immigration system to ensure victims aren’t deported, to make entry easier, and the help victims get jobs will do a ton to help victims come forward and help prevent future victims.

Photo by Kenn Wilson

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