The National Catholic Review
Exploitation and immigration policy

Undocumented immigrants victimized by human traffickers are among the most vulnerable of the people affected by U.S. immigration policy. Many of them embark on their journey as hopeful migrants but run up against limits on legal migration and jobs. For the promise of honest work and earnings to share with their families back home, they are willing to risk the unknown to enter this country and stay here. More desperate than dream-ridden, many such migrants have ended up as victims of human trafficking.

By definition, a victim of human trafficking is one who has been forced, through fraud or other coercive means, into labor or sexual exploitation for commercial purposes. Their labor can take the form of debt bondage, peonage or any work under slave-like conditions. Victims have been forced to work in brothels, factories, farms or even private homes without freedom of movement or adequate wages. Most of them typically work under harsh conditions as well. Seduced or misled by false promises, the victims are often held in place by psychological or physical force or both. Some are coerced by threats to their loved ones in their home country. Such migrants are also captives, unable to move on without great risk.

Once victims of human trafficking are identified as such by U.S. authorities, they become eligible for such government benefits as legal aid, medical care and education, the same benefits available to refugees. But the one benefit they want most, the right to work, is not given them.

Over the course of 20 months, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has facilitated services in the United States for 569 foreign nationals from 69 countries as victims of human trafficking. Of these, 57 percent were victims of exploitation in the workplace, 32 percent were victims of sexual exploitation and 11 percent were victims of both kinds of human trafficking. Although some of the foreign nationals were in the U.S. legally, most were undocumented and integrally implicated in immigration issues. The U.S.C.C.B. has also served an additional 121 people who are entitled to aid, mostly as spouses or children of victims. Of the total 690 people served, 72 percent are female.

Human trafficking is lucrative for the brokers, who, like traffickers of drugs and weapons, protect their “products” because people are reusable: they can be sold and resold, over and over again.

In the Name of Security

Despite the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law passed to protect victims, implementation can become blurred when a person’s status as an “undocumented person” trumps the status of “victim.” Societal mantras (like “they broke the law” and “they could be terrorists”) and increasing hostility toward undocumented persons also play a negative role.

Since law enforcement officers are trained primarily to be vigilant about national security, they may treat the human rights of trafficking victims as secondary. In the name of national security, they may detain and deport people who lack legal documents, often without investigating for evidence of human trafficking. At that point the cycle of trafficking may simply begin again. While some well-informed officials do the right thing by victims of trafficking, they are in a minority.

At the state level, the distinctions between undocumented persons and victims of human trafficking may become even less relevant. People defined as victims by federal law may be treated at the state level as criminals. In the absence of comprehensive federal immigration reform, states have started enacting their own immigration laws. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 1,404 measures were introduced in states around the country between January and July 2007.

The Greater Threat

What becomes obscured in all this is that human trafficking itself is a far greater threat to the United States than are the undocumented foreign nationals the traffickers have victimized. And deporting victims simply feeds traffickers, who often operate as part of criminal networks that destabilize an area. Failure to identify the crime of human trafficking is a failure to identify the criminal whose trade in human persons for commercial sex or forced labor demoralizes society as a whole. As the number of victims escalates, so does the crime rate and the real threat to security. Criminalizing the victim is shortsighted at best.

Hidden trades like human trafficking also create an underground economy with its own complex systems of exchange, and this contributes to economic inequity and moral disorder. As Moisés Naím, author of the recent book Illicit , says, “Supply and demand, risk and return, are trafficking’s primary motivators.” What drives traffickers are “profits and a set of values that is often impervious to moral denunciations.” He adds that what we need are not “moral exhortations” but “honest analysis of the problem.”

This is precisely what has been missing from our national debate on immigration. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn noted the lack of progress in his 2007 Labor Day statement:

The debate was truly a case of “more heat than light,” more passion than progress. In my view, sometimes anger trumped wisdom, myths overwhelmed facts, and slogans replaced solutions. After this debate we are a society more divided, a people more confused, and a nation unable to move forward.

Meanwhile, victims of human trafficking, who ought to be protected under U.S. law, are becoming more and more vulnerable as state laws conflict with one another. Without comprehensive immigration reform, state-generated initiatives could lead to continued double jeopardy for immigrants.

The intersection between immigration reform and the human rights of people is a risky one. As a society, we need a civil conversation that will both unite and change us for the better.

Mary Ellen Dougherty, S.S.N.D., is coordinator of education and outreach for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops program against human trafficking. Jane Burke, S.S.N.D., former national manager of the Justice for Immigrants program, is a


MARILYN READ | 4/15/2008 - 3:41pm
Thank you for the timely article on human trafficking and its impact on the U.S. Congratulations to article co-author Mary Ellen Dougherty, S.S.N.D., who has been elected to the second provincial council of the Atlantic Midwest Province, School Sisters of Notre Dame.