In 2007, the junior U.S. senator
from Illinois, Barack Obama, sponsored a Senate resolution creating
the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness, which we observed on
Sunday, January 11. Human trafficking is rarely on the pundits’ list
of priorities for President Obama’s administration, but
he knows that early action in this area could have global impact. For
starters, he should reconsider the current approach of raids, raids
and more raids. It’s not working.
The Sex Workers Project at New York’s
Urban Justice Center
recently interviewed law enforcement personnel, service providers who
have helped hundreds of trafficking victims, and a small sample of immigrant
women trafficked into sex work and other forms of labor, including domestic
work. We found that while there have been some successes, raids are generally an ineffective
and in many cases are harmful to people who have been trafficked.
Trafficked women reported that
they were repeatedly arrested, in some cases up to ten times, in police
raids on brothels and other sex work venues, without ever being identified
as trafficked. Yet that is the ostensible purpose of these raids – to
"rescue" the 14,000 to 17,000 women, men and children the US government
estimates are trafficked into the United States annually. These women’s
reports were consistent with those from service providers across the
country: a supervisor at a national organization working with trafficking
victims said very few trafficked people are referred for services after
Recent federal data supports
this conclusion. In the eight years since current anti-trafficking laws
went into effect, only 787 people have received the "T" immigration
visa set up to give residency and job status to trafficking victims,
even though 5,000 such visas are available every year.
Clearly existing law is ineffective.
Raids, for their part, are violent, chaotic events involving kicking
down doors, drawn guns and much yelling and shoving, further traumatizing
trafficking victims and decreasing the likelihood that they will cooperate
with law enforcement in prosecuting their traffickers. Some raids were
in fact accompanied by violations of the rights of the very people the
raids were intended to protect.
One woman interviewed for our
report told of being pistol-whipped and publicly strip-searched by officers
during a raid. Many more spoke of being interrogated following raids
without being given access to an attorney.
The Obama administration has
the opportunity to reassess this failed federal approach to human trafficking.
The recent passage of federal anti-trafficking legislation championed
by Vice President Joe Biden offers a fresh start – and a chance
to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
A good first step would be
to move away from high-profile, resource-intensive and largely ineffective
raids and to address the economic and social circumstances that increase
vulnerability to trafficking. It flourishes in labor sectors with few
protections, such as domestic work, agriculture, the service industry,
and informal economies such as day labor and, yes, sex work. Expansion
and targeted enforcement of labor laws in these sectors would not only
go a long way toward locating, identifying and assisting trafficked
persons, it would also protect the rights of all workers.
For the long term, strategies
led by individuals and communities with knowledge of and access to trafficked
people are far more likely than raids to meet with success. Obama’s
2007 Senate resolution recognized this, noting that the people most
likely to come into contact with trafficking victims are "essential
for effective enforcement" – but at the moment, such people are not
shielded from immigration consequences or arrest if they come forward.
Half the trafficked women we
interviewed for our report did not leave abusive situations as a result
of law enforcement intervention, but rather thanks
to the help of co-workers, clients and members of their communities.
Others said they would have left on their own if they had known of a
safe place to go or if someone had offered to help them. People who
had been trafficked themselves were the most effective in locating,
recognizing and assisting trafficking victims.
Trafficking victims by definition
have sought opportunity in the United States only to find themselves
in coercive and abusive situations. We owe it to them to find better
ways to locate, identify and assist them, and to develop anti-trafficking
initiatives that prioritize their needs, choices, and self-determination
as human beings. A good way to start would be to extend a helping hand
that is not also holding a gun.