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The Intersection of Human Trafficking and Immigration


That is the appalling number of individuals estimated to be involved in human trafficking in the United States, and it is more than likely a relatively conservative estimate.

Even more appalling is that there are approximately 50 million people who are victims of human trafficking worldwide. This is an industry driven by sex, with 80 percent of trafficked individuals engaged in sex trafficking of some form.

Woman account for about 80 percent of individuals involved in sex-trafficking, with some estimates stating that a quarter of these cases involve minor children. The average age for females at the time of entry into sex-trafficking is thought to be between 17–19 years old.

Victims of both sex and labor trafficking include United States citizens, but also many foreign nationals, mostly from Mexico, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Now more than ever, these victims of a horrific crime are at significant risk, not just from their traffickers but from something else that can cause significant harm: the fear of deportation.

Many of trafficking victims are lured into the system with the promise of legitimate jobs, while others are kidnapped or entrapped in a myriad of ways. They are enslaved and faced with violence and torture, including threats of death. Their lives become less their own and they are bought and sold as a commodity.

Victims of trafficking brought to the United States illegally are a particularly vulnerable group. Especially now, when the Trump administration is revamping immigration policy, these are individuals at significant risk. These are people who are often afraid, alone and frequently have had their passports and other identifying papers taken from them by their traffickers. They have no way to contact family or friends, as they are stripped of their identity and have to rely on their traffickers for survival.

Unfortunately, they are also at constant risk for engagement with law enforcement. Whether through prostitution or illicit drugs, these are individuals whose activities are on law enforcement agencies’ radar. In most cases, the aim of law enforcement is to protect the trafficked individual while targeting the traffickers and those who utilize sex trafficking. While not in the crosshairs of prosecutors, these vulnerable people are still at significant risk for deportation if they are undocumented (or even documented, in many cases) immigrants, who are now in the legal system.

While law enforcement can sometimes help to protect trafficked individuals, this is not always assured. The climate of how the current administration views immigrants makes this an even more tenuous promise. While police and prosecutors try to afford protection and build their case, federal officers may take charge and initiate the process of deportation.

The ever-looming threat of deportation has some substantial consequences. It can be a significant deterrent to victims reporting their traffickers, making them even more reliant on them for a perceived protection. Many traffickers use the threat of deportation to control their victims, and the widespread enforcement of immigration policy reinforces that fear. There is also the fear of retaliation, as threats that traffickers will harm victims and their families is an oft used tactic to maintain control.

There have been efforts to afford some protection. The T visa, a special visa to protect victims of trafficking was created in October 2000 with the passing of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. There are 5,000 of these visas available on an annual basis. This would seem promising, but it is a significantly under-utilized process. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration statistics, only around 500 – 600 of these visas are granted each year. In addition, the burden of proof can be on the trafficked victim and there are a number of requirements to qualify. This often includes testifying against their trafficker, something that can be terrifying for these individuals.

T visas are also temporary, only lasting for four years. Although individuals can apply for a green card after the third year, that process is also under-utilized and slow.

We need to look closely at how victims of human trafficking, especially those who are immigrants, receive protection. Human trafficking is by all accounts a human rights violation. It is our duty as humanitarians to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Under the current policy, it is at the discretion of law enforcement and prosecutors to make this information and resources available. The current climate regarding immigration, the burdensome process and limited resources all have lead to underutilization of this important protection.

One policy solution to improve access could be to require prosecutors to inform and facilitate the T visa process. It should be made part of the process of assisting victims of trafficking, not an extra, discretionary step. Similar to other victim advocate programs, there should be support to help the individuals fill out and complete the lengthy and sometimes confusing applications. It should also involve transparency, illuminating the process and ensuring fairness and equity.

It is important for policy makers and stakeholders to consider the T visa process, especially as new immigration policies and practices are formulated at the federal level. This is an important protection for people who have been victimized and forced into slavery and it is an imperative to increase awareness of access to this important safety-net for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Stephen Wood

Stephen P. Wood, MS, ACNP is an acute care nurse practitioner practicing emergency medicine in Boston, Massachusetts, and a fellow in bioethics at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

12 thoughts to “The Intersection of Human Trafficking and Immigration”

  1. “Many traffickers use the threat of deportation to control their victims, and the widespread enforcement of immigration policy reinforces that fear.” Are you saying that a person would choose being a slave over going back to their family and country of origin?

    1. Pat,

      In some instances, yes. This is especially true if they fled their country because they were victims of gang violence or torture. They aren’t choosing to be a slave, they are caught in a net of slavery. In many cases they may fear for their lives if returned to their own country.

  2. In “some” cases “many” isn’t a good answer to Pat’s question. I had the same question after reading the article.
    I am trying to educate myself on The Wall debate.
    How and what locations are these traffickers transporting their victims? If the U.S. government blocked the traffickers channels of entrance wouldn’t that help to put them out of business?
    If the current population of non documented minors- who are victims of trafficking were apprehended, wouldn’t their circumstance qualify for them for asylum? I think it would.
    Your page is a cautionary description of a despicable activity, human trafficking. Why would it not be in the best interest of all concerned to take the ability away from the start by blocking the traffickers ability to transport these victims into the U.S. in the first place? Shouldn’t each and every avenue of U.S. border be 100% secured so we can focus on the unique strategies the traffickers will surely come up with next? If we don’t improve our methods of security at the border, why would we expect anything to change?
    These are sincere questions on my part. Most opposing arguments to The wall in my opinion are emotional or politically charged.
    I am looking to for results.

    1. Judith,

      I think it is important to understand that human trafficking is not simply isolated to the US/Mexican border. It is a worldwide issue. In the United States, there have been documented cases of trafficking in all 50 States, involving people not just from Mexico but also China, Carribean and African Countries. Many sex trafficked individuals, upwards of 70% by best estimates, are US citizens. Many of these individuals are run-aways, people with housing insecurity or with substance use disorder. Marginalized populations that building a wall would have little to no impact on, if not harm from diverting important funding. Additionally, a fair number of foreign nationals engaged in trafficking are here legally. They are brought in to the country on a variety of visas including work visas. This leaves a small percentage of individuals who are smuggled in as undocumented foreign nationals engaged in both sex and labor trafficking. The wall would likely have only a minor effect on this population. To address the asylum question, yes, many of these individuals would be eligible for asylum. The fact is however that very few T visas are offered, fewer are granted and the whole process can take up to a year if not longer to complete. Building a wall is not the answer to combating human trafficking any more than it is to combating the opioid epidemic. The real data is that only a minority of trafficked victims are undocumented foreign nationals and using them as a tactic to promote the idea of a wall is unethical and irresponsible.

  3. Open immigration is unethical and irresponsible instead of actually dealing with the drug cartels and corruption that plague much of Central America and Mexico. Of course, how do we do that? Well, there’s two camps: enforce the law or disregard the law and hope that if we don’t have to enforce the laws the problem will go away. Who cares about the strain on communities, resources, and instability that open immigration has brought on much of Europe? Ironically, many of Europe’s immigrants would rather be in the United States where they perceive we actually practice incorporating immigrants into American life rather than segregating them to ghetto neighborhoods. It’s clear that you dislike Trump intensely like most people in academia, but saying building a wall to stop sex trafficking is unethical and irresponsible isn’t factual. It’s your opinion. There is much evidence that suggests walls have been incredibly effective in stopping drug and sex trafficking in certain areas of the United States , at least in the places where they have walls. They’ve certainly been effective historically all over the world in reducing illegal traffic. Many of the smugglers are synonymously human traffickers, so of course stopping their ability to cross the border is an effective strategy, which most border patrol officers will tell you firsthand from experience. Many of my friends on the left discount this, because all border patrol officers are evil and not capable of sharing honest firsthand experiences. Of course airplanes can still make drug drops, but walls have significantly reduced overall immigration numbers.

    Many American citizens, especially teenage girls are introduced into sex trafficking through the drug trade like the one that follows the I-5 corridor and are also illegally kidnapped and taken into Mexico. This problem here in the Pacific Northwest and in the larger U.S. is not significantly worse than it was during the Obama administration. In fact in some ways it has improved significantly because illegal immigration numbers as a whole have decreased.
    This is a politicized issue that the left hopes to exploit for election purposes and then will do very little about when/ if they get elected. We know this because they didn’t care about these issues during the Obama administration when the problem was at its height. Most of the pandemonia we’re experiencing now is from fear of what Trump’s Draconian view that the law should be followed might lead to rather than what has actually taken place. I’ve been amazed at how difficult it is to get simple statistics without highly editorialized news pieces that have a clear leftist agenda and by that I mean: Trump is evil. Now, I wouldn’t give the guy a Nobel peace prize or anything, but when Trump only shadows the actions and behaviors of Bill Clinton, it seems difficult to have a credible voice on the issue. The recent group of democratic opportunistic crusaders are taking up the voice of moral superiority and it’s simply laughable. Their dying to impeach Trump, so they can debate him on the senate floor and get a priceless camera moment. Even people on the left, but recognize how phony it all is. Academics live in an echo chamber of like minded people who only recognize each other’s work if it mirrors their own. It has led to the most disgusting refusal to look at evidence and multiple perspectives and to continually publish their own editorial pieces without an interest in even exploring alternate views or evidence. I’ve spent much time in that echo chamber, so I do believe that many of these academics are making their cases in earnest, but it doesn’t make them right. It doesn’t make Trump right either.

    Personally, I’d like to see the world take an interest in rescuing women and children from sexual slavery. Perhaps we could have every nation creatie a safe geographical space for women and children to run to when they’re being abused and hurt and offer then time and resources so they can get back on their feet and become independent. I don’t see anything really working until we address why people are fleeing. Refugees would usually like to stay in their own country, but just can’t because drug Lords and dictators have free reign. Open immigration doesn’t solve this. It just allows the dictators and drug Lords to continue their reign of terror while other countries pay the bill for their citizens. This will not lead to stability and will most likely make more people vulnerable rather than safer.

    1. Deborah Dana, in my opinion you make MUCH more principled and grounded arguments. Me. Woods’ concerns miss the many of the drivers of human trafficking. Following his assertions, we sweep primary drivers of human trafficking under the rug because there may be people fleeing persecution in their numbers. Because Mr. Woods has bought into the exaggerated justifications for flaunting our immigration laws, all of his genuine emotional concern is doing little more than continuing the drivers of human trafficking. The Left has built a house of cards to defend allowing anyone who steps foot in this country to ‘disappear’ into the shadows. Then, they want to attempt to change the nature of ‘shadows’. The cure for shadows is light. As long as the Left venerates darkness, sanctuary, law breaking, the things that exist in those hidden places will prosper. Being an adult and living in abject denial of those realities and trying to paint those who bring light and justice as racist and xenophobic are the frustrations that that drive the dedication to closing the border, deporting the flaunters of our laws and keep the polls from accurately reflecting the ridiculousness that the bleeding heart Left has become.

    2. Deborah,

      First and foremost, my article isn’t an article about open immigration. This is a piece that outlines that victims of human trafficking should be afforded the opportunity to a legal process that is already in place but under-utilized. The current administration wants to limit T visas and also is deporting individuals with credible claims, but whose T visas are rejected nonetheless. You can read more about that here:

      I also would argue that a wall isn’t the answer. It hasn’t been the answer to the worlds woes for eons and it isn’t the answer now. That isn’t just my opinion, its a fact. Here is a great article on what walls have accomplished from China to our own United States.

    1. Dear “Havip”,

      Your’e comment is word-for-word the same as a comment by “Judith Collins”. I guess you can read my comment to her for your answer….

  4. You mentioned an increased risk to illegal immigrants now that Trump is revamping immigration laws but did not follow that statement with any reasons for or evidence of increased risk. I would urge you to remove that sentence or edit to clarify your position on why there is increase risk. Without the clarification, you appear to be another rabid-anti Trump-er that looks for any opportunity to disparage rather than sticking to facts and evidence. It was a real turn off for this moderate reader that struggles to find unbiased sources.

  5. This is not a duplicate. You mentioned an increased risk to illegal immigrants now that Trump is revamping immigration laws but did not follow that statement with any reasons for or evidence of increased risk. I would urge you to remove that sentence or edit to clarify your position on why there is increase risk. Without the clarification, you appear to be another rabid-anti Trump-er that looks for any opportunity to disparage rather than sticking to facts and evidence. It was a real turn off for this moderate reader that struggles to find unbiased sources.

  6. My friend first excuse me for my good English.

    Migration and human trafficking issues are very serious. I worked in the Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and during my work I saw the blackmail of migrants, especially women and minors.

    Unfortunately, a large part of what the refugees are exposed to is caused by the failing international community.

    Women and children die in transit from Turkey to Europe and no one cares little.

    Donald Trump treats all immigrants as criminals.

    My friend I saw horrors during my work, in the end we offer nothing but words and lines written unfortunately.

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