Earlier this week, the State Department released its annual report on “Trafficking in Persons.” For the first time in its history, the U.S. was listed as a “suspect nation” in a report that experts describe as one that is “candid” and “doesn’t pull any punches.” “Human trafficking is not someone else’s problem,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “Involuntary servitude is not something we think or hope doesn’t exist in our own communities.” Though the U.S. received the highest ranking in terms of its efforts to combat human trafficking, the State Department still highlighted various weaknesses — many which relate directly to the nation’s broken immigration.
The U.S. is described as “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor, debt bondage, and forced prostitution.” According the State Department, NGO reports and prosecutions indicate that private recruiters for temporary worker programs often charge excessive fees, which leave migrant workers “vulnerable to debt bondage; identity documents are confiscated; and victims feel they risk deportation should they report labor violations.” The Kansas City Star has further reported that many times victims are threatened by their traffickers. “If I kill you, I won’t get in any trouble. No one knows you are here. You don’t exist,” one victim was told by her trafficker. To make matters worse, the State Department points out that local police who are authorized to enforce immigration law under the controversial 287(g) program and trained in victim-based immigration relief have not “enhanced the response to or identification of trafficking victims or other immigrant victims of crime.” Advocates have also encountered difficulty “securing law enforcement assistance to request public benefits and immigration relief.”
The biggest challenge is, because the immigration status of the victims is dependent on their employment-based visa, victims are difficult to identify and unlikely to seek help on their own. However, assistance is available. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVSA) allows for foreign human trafficking victims to obtain “immigration relief,” or work authorization that makes them eligible for legal permanent residency and eventually qualify for citizenship. The TVSA additionally mandates that victims not be inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked. However, the State Department reports that there have been several instances in which trafficking victims have gone unidentified in immigration detention. The Kansas City Star has blamed that on the fact that immigration agents simply don’t screen enough for trafficking victims when going about their enforcement efforts. Regulations also allow for the debarment of employers who abuse the temporary worker programs, but during the reporting period no employers were debarred — despite what seems like common knowledge that violations are occurring.
While none of the State Department’s recommendations deal specifically with fixing the immigration system, experts maintain that “whatever progress is made in the United States will be limited until lawmakers — and the American public — finally accept that human trafficking is but one dimension of illegal migration.”